Happiness Exercise #2: Mindfulness Without Meditation

Mindfulness has become part of everyday conversation. In case you’ve missed overhearing it, Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” Mindfulness meditation research points to health benefits from living in the moment, neither imagining what is ahead nor preoccupied with the phantoms of yesterday. Yet most people can’t, don’t, or are too busy to meditate. We live as if distracted by flies at a barbecue. The insects are replaced by the latest text message, our supervisor’s criticism, or a baby who just pooped. With all this happening, mindfulness meditation seems indulgent.

Americans, in particular, believe they must be going somewhere, anywhere but where they are. Our country condemns stasis in the name of progress, however ill-defined. Even our anger is directed at action, though it keeps us stuck. Someone who is mindful, by contrast, chooses a destination worth reaching and tends to find the ride interesting if not joyful; tolerable at worst.

Today I’ll suggest three simple exercises to buy you some mindfulness. I’ll be like the grocery employee who offers free samples, hoping you’ll enjoy the product and purchase more for yourself. Best of all, you won’t have to meditate, a procedure you might have tried and given up because of little time or frustration.

First, a word about the meditation I won’t be illustrating. The technique is a means to an end. The goal is to help you flourish and become enlivened, not to get divorced, quit work, or spend your days with eyes closed in a trance. Meditation makes your marriage, job, and everything else less troublesome if it succeeds in producing mindfulness that transfers from a quiet, private exercise to the rest of your life. I will offer examples of a more direct way to arrive at the same state. You aren’t required to choose one path to mindfulness, but life satisfaction can be enhanced by any and all methods that get you focused:

  • Eat a meal alone. Try your home, a park bench, or a restaurant, although the first alternative probably will be easiest. It should be quiet to the extent possible. Turn off the TV and smartphone. Give dinner enough time after preparation. Look at the food. Examine it as if you had a microscope handy. Think about its arrangement on the plate. Appreciate the colors and shapes, the aromas and the temperature. Close your eyes and take a bite. Feel the texture with tongue and teeth. Chew slowly. Sense the taste. Be still. If you do this for even a few seconds, you will have eaten mindfully. Nothing but the meal and its qualities should be in your thoughts. Try not to compare this repast to anything in your history of dining.

Most of us tend to eat at speed. We simultaneously converse, anticipate the end of our lunch break, drift toward the events of yesterday or tomorrow, and pass through multiple disconnected emotions and ideas that start in Cleveland and end in Istanbul in 15 seconds time. The common way of eating is mindless, a term associated with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Fueling the body becomes another job done daydreaming, like shoveling coal into a furnace while our brain is somewhere else. We move to the next task as distracted as when we ate. Our brain buzzes with car horns and flashing neon. Sleep alone stops the light show.

  • Wad up some paper or find a small rubber ball and use a waste basket as a target. You are going to shoot baskets in a home-made version of basketball. The goal is not to become a champion or even to test yourself. Concentrate on the task. Focus on your grip of the ball or its substitute. Let the texture of the projectile inform your touch. Notice how the arm and hand are positioned. Sight the target. Watch the ball fly into the basket or rebound away. Sense your body as you bend to retrieve your throw. You might even hear a joint pop. Repeat. Think of nothing else, not even the previous shot. Care not whether you succeed in scoring. This is about the process and not the product. Slow down so the act fully absorbs you.
  • Find a place free from the press of events. Think of someone you dislike. Consider all the negative adjectives you apply to them. Be as specific as possible. For example, words like hard-headed, foolish, demanding, etc. Now search for a different way to describe the same person, considering terms that are less pejorative but no less accurate. Can you recognize hard-headedness as another way of saying strong-willed? How about substituting optimistic for foolish, or acknowledging that a demanding human sets a high standard of performance?

The idea here is get out of the mindlessness groove and think afresh. Evolution led us to make quick judgements about who is on our side and who isn’t, who might be fun to share a lunch with and who might want us to be their lunch. When sticking to our preconceived notions we are living mindlessly, says Ellen Langer. The habit leaves us encumbered, unable to learn new things or correct errors with facility. Our world becomes a set of automatic answers and inflexible reactions, bypassing thought and reconsideration. Instead, try to look at anyone you know well and find something new about him or her. You might be surprised by what you discover.

I don’t want to overwhelm you. Any of these exercises is informative if done mindfully. No multitasking allowed. Mindfulness should enliven you. Observing the world in a new way is interesting. A fresh perspective is good for your brain and your relationships. Therapists sometimes role play with their patients, in part to give them practice in handling troublesome people, but also to take another perspective. In a difficult bond between parent and child — a bond like bondage — it can be enlightening to take your own role and then switch to the other’s role.

A psychiatrist I used to know often told his patients, “Learn or burn.” He didn’t mean it, of course. He wanted to emphasize their need to save themselves from the self-inflicted errors contributory to unhappiness. Abe Lincoln said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…

I’d take Lincoln’s writing out of its Civil War context by writing the last sentence this way: “We must disenthrall ourselves” every minute, every day.

If your life is not what you wish, I’d say mindfulness, not wealth, is the more attainable, more satisfying alternative to the self-imposed slavery of pre-conceived notions and routine thought-spinning. An interesting life is in the mind of the beholder.

The top image is a symbol created by Mmm Daffodils to signify the “wise mind” concept used in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

A Step Toward Happiness: Learning How to Lose Without Being a “Loser”

Imagine a beautiful, wealthy young woman. She falls in love with a man named Compeyson, who cares only to make off with some of her money. On her wedding day she discovers the fraud and is left at the altar. From that day forward, she lives in a state of mourning, continuing to wear her wedding dress as a badge of her perpetual sense of victimization. The cake is left on her dining room table uneaten.

Perhaps you recognize that I’ve just described Miss Havisham, an important character in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. A wasted life, I expect you would say. A mistake never to get over the lost love and the humiliation. Surely people aren’t like that, are they?

Yes, I’m afraid, some are. Their dysfunction is less obvious without the yellowed wedding dress and the uneaten cake, but it is still there.

Another example: imagine a man who wants a career in high finance, a tough and competitive road to travel successfully. He’d trained for it and worked hard to get to the top. For a time he was making his way up the administrative ladder within an important bank in a big city. Then an economic downturn and a change in management caused a corporate reshuffling. His career never recovered and he never again worked in his chosen field. While he made an acceptable living, his mind always returned to “what might have been.” It remained hard to feel satisfied with the remainder of his work or his life.

The unfortunate path I’ve just described is real enough, but it rests on some shaky assumptions:

  1. That life would have been great if only the man could have achieved success in his chosen profession.
  2. That life cannot be satisfying for him in any other field of endeavor or by any other means.

Psychologists who do research on what makes for happiness might disagree. And, in fact, that research tends to support the idea that the flush of excitement and happiness that comes with winning the race, new romance, or a major achievement doesn’t last nearly as long as people expect it to.

We humans tend to be pretty poor at estimating the accuracy and durability of what will make us happy. For example, Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade took a look at what effect living in a nice climate might have on life satisfaction. Students living in California and the Midwest were recruited for this experiment. In general, regardless of where they were going to school, the college students tended to think people would be happier living in California. But, in fact, there was no difference in the life satisfaction of those who lived in the harder climate conditions of the Midwest than in the milder ones associated with the West Coast.

In part, it would appear, we are prone to focus on items like climate that we will become accustomed to as time passes. Similarly, you might be delighted over the terrific new car or new house you just bought, but it is likely to recede into the background of your life as you get some distance from the moment you acquired it. Put differently, going out with Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe might be terrific for a while, but in a few years the dazzle and novelty tend to wear off.

It turns out that life satisfaction and the happiness we experience along the way are strongly influenced by our inherited temperament. You can be fantastically wealthy and unhappy — or relatively modest in your level of success and affluence and be happy. Of course, this issue is much more complex than I am suggesting. But, if I were to prescribe a brief recipe for happiness, it would have to do with making a decent enough living at labor you deem worthwhile to live modestly but well (research says that a household income of $75,000 is usually enough) and having people in your life who you love and who love you back, both friends and relatives.

One other thing: to some extent, happiness depends on what you are paying attention to. Kahneman suggests that misery can often be traced to having goals that are especially hard to achieve. A laser focus on obtaining great success in a performing art like music or dance or theater is almost a guarantee of continuing disappointment (since so few make it to the top). The danger is that those who aim for triumph in fields such as these tend to unconsciously make their entire happiness dependent on their level of achievement, to the exclusion of other factors that might contribute to a satisfying life.

Of course, it needn’t be just an attempted career in the arts that frustrates a person. Athletic accomplishment at the highest level is only attained by the few. Nor are Nobel Prizes given out at the bingo parlor. If you pin your happiness on writing the “Great American Novel,” becoming the next Steve Jobs, or being a scientist whose name will still be in bold relief in the next century’s text books, you have almost certainly guaranteed a significant level of displeasure.

What then does this say about all the rest of us? Especially in our attempt to get over the failures and rejections by employers and lovers that are the commonplace experiences of life?

The disappointed banker I mentioned earlier would have to reorient his thinking, get over his defeat, and “invest” himself in some new line of work or another facet of his life — like family, community, friends or hobbies. The same might be said of the baseball player who never becomes a Major League star or a physics professor who never produces the scientific breakthrough he was hoping for and continues to work at it into his old age, never giving up or accepting that he didn’t become the man he hoped to be; never satisfied by the work itself as opposed to the glory he hopes will come from it.

Chemutai Rionotukei Running in the 2007 St. Silvestre Road Race in Sao Paulo, Brazil

What is preventing these men from feeling happier about their lives? Perhaps it is their belief that a satisfactory life amounts to winning a figurative pot of gold at the rainbow’s end of their career, as in the top image; not necessarily money, but a kind of vocational or social jackpot. In part, this self-imposed requirement makes it harder to grieve their losses. They continue to focus on what might have been or what might still be. The failed banker is looking back on the career he wished he had and re-running the same old movie of his life with the same old unhappy ending, even before that life is over. The physics professor is still trying to produce the next major scientific discovery, not willing to accept that his colleagues have already rendered their verdict on his work.

The former individual replays the lost ballgame of his life 10 years or more after it ended, while the scientist continues to play the game into extra innings without progress, even after the fans have left the stadium and the lights have been turned off. The tyranny of “what might have been” can be the equal of “what might yet be” in its capacity to diminish those lives that might be good in every other way. The mistake of giving up too late or not at all on a fruitless pursuit is just as costly as “giving up too soon” on one that would have been profitable with more persistence.

You needn’t be a great man or woman in order to have a satisfying life. If you must become a financial wizard or a Nobel Prize winning scientist, then you have probably overestimated the importance of these endeavors and undervalued the other possibilities in your life, including the things you might already have:  interesting work, health, love, and some amount of admiration by others, even if the latter quality isn’t as much as you wanted.

Miss Havisham, the failed banker, and the perpetually striving scientist have all made the mistake of believing that their happiness depended upon a particular thing; and by failing to grieve when that thing wasn’t achieved. They have idealized what a life with that thing would be like (be it a particular spouse, money and status, or scientific achievement and glory). Each one remains stuck in a state of bitterness (Miss Havisham), disappointment (the banker), or longing and frustration (the scientist). Others, with less fixed goals and more intellectual and emotional flexibility, would  be unhappy only temporarily, eventually withdrawing their emotional investment in what they never had; moving on to find some other focus of their attention and effort.

As the title of this essay suggests, it is important in life to learn how to lose; how to give things up and set them aside. In fact, I’d argue that this is more important to life satisfaction than victory in the game of romance or your chosen profession, which, unless you are Einstein, will probably be pretty modest. I suppose that my suggestions here would result in fewer scientific breakthroughs and fewer great violinists. On the other hand, there would be more happy people.

Even on the day after you take home the Nobel Prize, should you be a genuinely great man and a lucky winner, you must deal with the fact that there is still the laundry to do. Even after winning the fair maiden, there are still bills to pay, children to raise, and differences over which movie to attend (and worse). Most of us frequently misunderstand that the object we are chasing usually doesn’t make that much difference to the rest of your life, even if it seems desperately important at the moment. Unless of course, you think it really does make all the difference; which means that the problem resides in how you think about it.

If you must be a big-deal banker or a Nobel Prize winner, then I guess you will keep gnawing on the meatless bone of your failure or pursuing the miniscule possibility of a late success. No, you shouldn’t be a bum and automatically give up some admirable goal, especially if you are young. But, I am here to tell you that the goal you have believed all your life to be essential to achieve, just might take you off course and your chance of satisfaction with it.

Sometimes only by accepting your losses can you make your life into a winning proposition.

The End of the Norfolk Relay 2006 at the Athletics Track, Lynnsport.

The top image is called Pot of Gold in Arkengarthdale by Andy Waddington. Next comes a photo of Men Running in a Chariot Race at the Piha Surf Club Carnival in New Zealand, ca. 1938 sourced from the National Library, NZ. The picture of Chemutai Rionotukei is the work of Ricard from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Finally, the relay race photo was taken by Katy Walters. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f3/Inveja_covarrubias.jpg/256px-Inveja_covarrubias.jpg

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.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.