Happiness 101

Posted: May 15, 2010 in Philosophy, Science
Tags: , , ,

I learned the secret to life from my cat.  Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy. I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be.  Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff.  They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World has recently generated some interest.  The theme of Karate Kid, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

Without getting into all the reasons why working harder does not get you more,  let me point out one reason: Economic reality.

According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant.  Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings.  Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest.  The result is we are working harder for less, which begs the question:   Why bother?

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”.  In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not.  A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you.  Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

Another random posting that brought all this to mind was an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you cant always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert.  This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy.  Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great.  Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.  Here’s a brief summary.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it.  Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”.  It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head.  One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose.  Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret.  Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?”  The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing.  Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy.  Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

Comments
  1. Mark says:

    Excellent post – you’ve moved far away from your usual topics with this post and I like it.

    I’ve come to see that the various choices we make (leading to behavior and mood) are a feedforward/feedback system. We do those things that we think will make us feel a certain way (the outcome we are really looking for). The feedback part is from applying prior experience to understand how performing the action should make us feel (we don’t do random things to get an outcome) and the feedforward part is the faith required to extrapolate what the outcome is (we don’t think the outcome is a random event). Both these things are wrong to some extent and for some are wrong to a great extent. Happiness occurs when we’re less wrong than usual.

  2. Norse Graphics says:

    Choice and freedom should never be defined by the likes of thsi “doctor Schwartz”. Invariably there are such people who thinks its great to restrict choice, mainly because somebody else are better off making your choice. And invariably such people become tyrants and dictators, because there’ll always be the odd one who won’t follow the herd mentality. They make the assumption (ass-u-me) there are always limited choices. Which doesn’t reflect reality. As one of the American forfathers said (paraphrazed), “Those seeking security on loss of freedom shall gain neither.” Excuse my English (second language), but freedom of choice is the prerequisite (sp?) for happiness. Loose your freedom, and loose the ability to gain happiness for all time.

  3. Mark says:

    Norse – I respectfully have to disagree. Studies have confirmed that a multitude of choices not only does not promote happiness but just the opposite. People who are classified as “optimizers”, those who are relentless in their pursuit of the “best” alternative are particularly unhappy when presented with multiple choices. Their anxiety level grows when confronted with the situation (to which they are drawn, like moths to a flame) and when they do choose they often-times try to fix their choice.

  4. Fedja Joseph Lüpnitz says:

    I’am sorry, but my english is rather bad… sorry -my “american… also.
    i’am not really sure what you are meaning about “HAPPINESS”. You know the modern style of psychologismen say’S: Positivism makes ill!!!?
    I’am a little antiquarian and bouquiniste in Berlin my specials are Science, BIOLOGY etc (Homo “sapiens” or better in english: human being) usw. usf.
    I’can’t believe that anyone, who was in any university believes to the therapY (correct mot ?) of positivism…
    The reason to see a cat living and thinking about the own problems and way of life is interesting…
    F.L.m

  5. [...] promoter.  I believe it is a consequence of the Paradox of Choice, which I first mentioned in my first Happiness [...]

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