Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure. Who would ever think that?
Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable. It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it. Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package. Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.
About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Happiness 101, which you might want to read and watch the video links if you haven’t already. I thought I’d follow up on that essay, delving deeper.
In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy. Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance. Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work. Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.
Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time. There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“. My own attitude on this crap pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video. All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work. The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.
So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.
My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy. I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work. There are three reasons why people enjoy their work: 1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape. OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?
“Meaningful” hard work
Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:
The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.
Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”
Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.
In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say. The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run. (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).
Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting. Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.
Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)
Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something. Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say? Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.
But does it necessarily have to be service to others? In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it. And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery. Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not. So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards. We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.
Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people. Humans are social creatures, doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others. It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.
Finding a Purpose
We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli: money, praise, status, material goods, etc. The reality is that it does not. We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting. In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.
What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:
- We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
- We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
- We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
- We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.
The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.
Motivating Hard Work
Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment. Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work. There are many misgivings about motivation. The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy. In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all. Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:
The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.
Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay. In the last essay the idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative affect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction. Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing? Not if you understand how they relate to happiness. Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process. Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.
Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.
We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point. The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a purpose, and pursuing this purpose our own way.
Are these two ideas contradictory? From an abstract point of view, yes they are. How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue? And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.
Any questions? Yeah, you in the front row…
“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff? What does it have to do with gaming?”
Actually, it has everything to do with gaming, but you will just have to wait for my next lecture to find out why.
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.