What Your Therapist Might Not Mention: How Assumptions about Happiness Cause Your Unhappiness

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I’m about to suggest you challenge your beliefs. Why? Because I’ll bet many of them aren’t working. Yes, you — the guy with the comb over!

Unless you are unlucky, you possess a level of convenience far greater than the kings and queens of history. I’m referring to indoor plumbing, TV, and computers. You have the possibility of air travel, superior medical care, and a better chance of a long life. Are you happier than they were?

Probably not.

Perhaps the route we plot to emotional well-being isn’t the best one.

  • Material wealth (aka, “The American Dream”) is not the road to happiness. Beyond income of $70,000 per year, money doesn’t generate much moment-to-moment improvement in your emotional state.
  • Most people don’t spend money wisely once their necessities are obtained. Research suggests you will achieve more well-being by purchasing experiences over things. Moreover, if you buy coffee for the guy behind you in line you’ll get more bliss than if you order a more expensive drink for yourself.
  • Comparisons to people alive today (in terms of wealth, status, and the things they own) probably matter more to you than comparisons to your ancestors. We are reminded far more than our forebears of our relative disadvantage next to the highly placed folks around us. People tend to compare “up” — to those better off  — more often than “down.” Thank radio, TV, and the Internet for highlighting your disadvantage. No such information sources existed 100 years ago.
  • Once you get something you want (an object, an accomplishment or a baby), the achievement will shortly lose its fascination. Like the kid at Christmas, your new toy soon moves to the shelf. (Warning: Don’t put your kid on a shelf!) The data demonstrate that growing children make parents less happy than they were before the stork delivered them. As to trophies, they become part of the background, not the foreground of your life. The thrill disappears and your level of happiness drops. This is called hedonic adaptation. We live on a hedonic treadmill and find it impossible to permanently race ahead and keep our joy elevated.
  • Rest — many of us want more — is a recipe for disaster. Too much time on our hands permits troubled thoughts to unsettle us.

Put those items together and you will recognize we aren’t very good at knowing what will make us happy. Worse yet, we believe we are entitled to happiness. I doubt that our grandparents believed this. Notions of “fairness” and “deserving” weren’t as common. The idea of being singled out for punishment by man or fate was unseemly to talk about. Being a “man” meant not complaining. Bad things happened. Mistakes were made. Rub some dirt on the wound and get back into the game.

I am not talking here about frank physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but rather the common ups and downs of life including betrayal by friends, cheating of all kinds, the loss of jobs, non-devastating accidents and injuries, and even illness.

Today we challenge authority for inadequacies routinely accepted as a part of life 50 years ago. We complain about doctors and school teachers. Perfection, or close to it, is expected. Things are supposed to work, not break down. We blame someone else when they don’t perform as advertised. Since everything does eventually wear out — human and machine — we feel cheated. Somehow we’ve lost an understanding of the temporary nature of our creations, the imperfect nature of everything. We are unhappier for believing in permanence and near perfection as the natural state of things — assumptions about what life is supposed to be and won’t ever be.

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Technology has spoiled us. We don’t typically observe our loved ones suffer and die in our homes any more. They are elsewhere, caught in the miracle of medicine. In a world where 60 is the new 40, no one is expected to die at 50, the average life expectancy in the first decade of the last century. We’ve become aggrieved and petulant, demanding someone else make our lives better. We wait for perfect cures and perfect washing machines never requiring repair or replacement, with a guarantee of happiness because of them.

Humanity makes a crucial mistake. We misunderstand a common phrase: “the cost of living.” Ask 100 well-educated people for a definition and 99 will say, “the money a family needs to survive —  enough food and a decent place to live.”

Wrong.

The real cost of living consists of the bruises, injuries, and heartbreaks endured in any life; the disappointments and the wearing away. The need to replace things, change ideas, and say goodbye far too often. The betrayals and violations. The personal mistakes and poor choices. The Humpty Dumptyness of life. The regret, guilt, and anxiety. The tears. The fear of the future and the wish to “do over” the past. The decline and fall of things more personal than the Roman Empire.

I don’t think this is a dystopian view of life, but a realistic one. Much else makes life worth its toll: friendship, love, sports, and books. Or food, art, architecture, and the beauty of nature. How about kindness, music, and sex? Add victory, accomplishment, and learning — all of these are wonderful. Worth, to me, the cost of living and more.

Consider a suggestion: erase all your assumptions about how life is supposed to work, whatever advice your mom gave you, and take a second look. Decide for yourself whether your beliefs are working. Be an iconoclast. Break the graven images in your home and in your head. Start with a blank sheet of paper and challenge all you know. You might need to look for happiness in new attitudes, activities, goals, and people.

One other thing. Give life everything you have. Don’t play it safe in the hope of avoiding a knockout punch.

Life will impose its cost of living whether you take your best shot or not. You might as well get your money’s worth.

The second image comes from page 9 of Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. It is sourced from Thornamentalist via Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

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If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.