How To Be Happy: Information You Can Use

smiling baby

Psychologists have historically been trained with an emphasis on all that can go wrong in life. We studied the diagnostic categories of mental illness and the treatments that might put Humpty Dumpty back together after his great fall. But we missed out on something very important: how to help people be happy.

Part of the reason is that clinical psychology grew out of a medical model, one that emphasized sickness. Although it wasn’t much discussed, it seemed as though there was a basic assumption that if you weren’t “mentally ill,” then you must be well, as in “well-being.” Not so fast.

More recently, clinicians have had the benefit of a growing body of research on “Positive Psychology;” a field of study intended “to make normal life more fulfilling,” according to William Compton. And they have been aided in this by people who do research in “Behavioral Economics,” such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

A number of interesting questions have been addressed. Here are a few, after which I will give you a link to a place where you can learn more:

  • Can smiling help you be happier and live longer?
  • Are we better off with more (or fewer) choices of what to do with our time and money?
  • A year after the event, will you be happier if you win the lottery or become wheel-chair bound?
  • Do most of us have a good idea of what will make us happy?
  • Is there a difference between happiness as defined by our moment-to-moment experience and happiness as defined by a retrospective evaluation of our life satisfaction?
  • How important are material things in producing a happy life?
  • Are you happier if you buy something for yourself or buy something for someone else?
  • Do we make ourselves unhappy by having expectations that are too high?
  • Can we be happy even if things aren’t going our way?

Matthieu Ricard

As you might know, “Ted Talks” offers brief lectures on a variety of very interesting subjects, including happiness. You can find nine of those talks, addressing some of the questions I just listed, here: What Makes Us Happy? Links to the individual talks are also found below. They are given by leading experts in the field, all of whom are entertaining speakers. The longest of the talks is about 20 minutes, the shortest less than six. You will hear a number of psychologists and one Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who is pictured above.

It might be useful, after watching each one, to ask yourself how the information presented could be applied to the way you live. There is no proper order in which to watch them and, of course, no requirement that you watch them all. But they might just change your life:

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness

Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

Michael Norton: How to buy happiness

Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice

Graham Hill: Less stuff, more happiness

Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory

Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling

Thanks to Phil Zawa for recommending these talks.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Fifty Positive Steps to Change Your Life

Australian State Route Shield

You might think it an odd place to begin changing your life, but consider this: write your own obituary. What is it that you’d like someone to say about you after you are gone?

One of the tricks to changing your life is to widen your imagination, break your routine, and see and think about things differently. Here are 49 more small steps that you might consider in the process of reconfiguring yourself:

If you are a city dweller, drive far enough away from the city to see the stars on a clear night. There are lots more than you think.

Think of someone you dislike and make a list of all of their positive qualities.

Volunteer to do something that might be described as “community service.”

Start to write your autobiography.

Write a short story.

Eat a raisin slowly, as if you’d never tasted one before.

Go to a fancy restaurant and eat a meal alone; or go to a concert, play, or movie alone.

Make a list of all the things you are grateful for.

Apologize to someone who deserves your apology, including a “no excuses” statement of regret and some method of attempting to make-it-up to them.

Re-contact an old elementary school friend.

If your physician allows it, begin a weight-lifting program.

Wake up early to see the sun rise.

Make two lists, one of your strengths and another of your faults.

Create a “bucket list:” all the things you’d like to do before you “kick the bucket.” Make plans to do one of them within the next year.

Tell someone how much you appreciate him and why.

Write a letter. Hand write it.

Do some routine task (eating for example) with your non-dominant hand.

Build something, even if it is only a model airplane.

Grow something.

With adequate supervision so that you don’t get hurt, spend some time blindfolded.

Take an academic course.

Meditate.

Take a yoga class.

If you aren’t a dancer, learn to dance.

Remember all of the difficult life challenges that you’ve overcome and identify the qualities in you (strengths) that allowed you to overcome them.

Imagine a different and more rewarding life than the one you currently lead. What do you need to do to create it?

Create a five-minute comedy monologue and deliver it to a group of friends.

Learn to sing or play a musical instrument.

Play chess.

Give up something for a month (for example, TV, a favorite food, alcohol, caffeine, or listening to music).

If you have no children, consider becoming a “Big Brother” or a “Big Sister.”

Learn a foreign language.

Participate in a team sport.

Start a philanthropic project with some friends, no matter how small it might have to be.

Visit a public high school in the inner-city and think about the future of this country and what you can do to make it better.

Clean out your closet.

Imagine that you are to be stranded on a desert island and can only take five non-essential items with you. What would they be?

If your memory was going to be erased, what would be the single memory that you would ask to be spared? Why that one?

Go on a retreat.

Teach someone something. Show them “how it is done.”

Give some money (even if its only a dollar) to some needy person you know; and do it anonymously!

Buy a hard copy of one of the few remaining great newspapers in the USA (for example, the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal) and read every word. Then think about the fact that a Bell Labs study reportedly estimated that the average sixteenth century man had less information to process in a lifetime than can be found in a single daily edition of the New York Times.

If you wear a tie, tie the knot in a new way (most men tie a Four-in-Hand knot, but there are some others that actually look better).

Paint, draw, sketch, or sculpt something.

If you haven’t done so already, read Becker’s The Denial of Death.

Walk to some destination that you usually reach by car or pubic transportation.

Make a list of all that you have learned about life since finishing your formal education.

If you don’t have a tatoo, get a temporary tatoo (if there are no health risks to you) and observe how people look at you differently; if you have a prominent tatoo and can cover it up, walk around and notice the way that people look at you now.

Send me a suggestion on one more step to change your life.

The image of the Australian State Route Shield is sourced from Wikimedia Common.