Happiness

I bet, if you read or know me, you probably expect me to advocate for happiness.

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I don’t.

Here is why.

If you came to me and said, Jean, I want more than anything to be happy. This is what I would do:

Give me everything you have. I am going to flog you.

“But, Jean!” I hear you say.

Happiness is a relative state. If you want to be happy tomorrow, then making you really miserable today can lead to that. So if tomorrow I then don’t flog you and return some of your things to you, it is likely that you will be happy! (Timelines may vary.) Do you see how incredibly messed up that can make us?

I have been bothered by the idea of happiness for a long time, but it wasn’t until I started reading Satisfaction by Gregory Berns MD PhD that I understood why. He explains how people who win the lottery don’t usually have enduring happiness. And how people who suffer traumatic loss find happiness. Happiness does not come about at some permanent threshold of having or knowing. It is by judging where we are now against where we recently have been. It is something we choose. Something we get by deciding what we want to notice about our present and what we want to compare it to in our past (or imagined future for that matter).

This resonates too with what I learned through NLP Coach training. I can shift to a state of happiness through several means – creating a different context for what I am focused on, a different perspective to view it from, or bringing to the present a state I have experienced in the past or can imagine experiencing in the future. It is all about setting the terms for the comparison.

Fulfillment, satisfaction, flow, these are terms that have more depth and meaning in them. These are more accurate descriptions, I think, for the desired state we want to achieve at a personal level.

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I am not interested in living in a happy world. And I think in many ways the problems we face today are created by efforts to live in a happy world. Giving our kids candy makes them happy. Maybe playing video games all day makes some of us happy. Is that a good measure of the world we want? Does that lead the system to create a harmonious flow for individuals and our collective? I want to live in a fulfilling world of flow. Don’t you?

8 thoughts on “Happiness

  • Below is part of a comment I left on at Triplepundit today that applies to your post. We have to be careful about what goals we select individually and collectively, and having just one goal may be a mistake as well. In any case, I do not think it’s wise to pick happiness as a goal. Here’s my take on that:

    I also think that making happiness a goal is a mistake. Happiness is a byproduct of living a good life, not a goal. Making it a goal will be self-defeating because you can not work directly at happiness.

    There are many great thinkers on what makes a good life. My take is that meaningful work, good relationships, connection with spirit, continual learning, helping others, becoming skillful at something rewarding, civic life, and expressing your creativity are central to the good life. Happiness proceeds from such things.

  • Fulfilling world of flow, yes.
    Nothing about that antithetical to happiness, though, IMO.

    I’m going to follow Dalai Lama on this one, dear heart, rather than you.

  • Neal, thank you. I agree. Have you read Aging Well by George E. Vaillant? Here is my synopsis of it: http://thrivable.wagn.org/wagn/Aging_Well I think you will find that longitudinal study corroborates most of your list of a meaningful life.

    Gil, thank you. Usually when I have had this conversation with spiritual folks, we discover that we actually mean the same thing or believe the same thing. It is the words we use to describe it that are different.

    Certain pieces of our language have extra layers of meaning within smaller tribes, and I think happiness might be one of those words; consciousness certainly is. It can make it rather tricky to communicate effectively.

    (If that isn’t the case, then I don’t mind disagreeing with the Dalai Lama on it.)

  • I was at a meeting one day with the living Nobel peace laureates. In the midst of the conversation, I was struck by how amazingly joyful they all are – even giggling in the middle of making truly important points. And I went back in my mind to the many times I was told as I was growing up that I’d have to let go of my idealistic perspectives as soon as I was old enough and hit the real world. But these peace laureates have known a tremendous amount of The Real World. Depths of despair, families murdered, communities destroyed, imprisonment and torture. And yet here they are, the most resilient and joyful people I know. And still idealistic and hopeful for the future. Clearly happiness is not tied to ease of life. Rather it seems to have a lot to do with obstacles overcome, moving from darkness to light, and finding one’s voice to trumpet hope and love and joy to the world.

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