It is an admirable thing that people assume responsibility for their own well-being. Heaven knows there are so many who want to take on the mantle of victims or expect the state to provide the largesse or the escape mechanism to extract them from their misery. But even those with the praiseworthy ambition to deal with the determinants of well-being themselves can often be misled. There is a danger that they might be inveigled by the self-help gurus to sign onto the latest five easy steps to happiness or whatever.
There is a phenomenon reported by those playing in this space of the “eighteen month let-down”. After some reasonable attempt to follow the strictures of your latest guru you realise that somehow it is not working and therefore you need to rush off to find another recipe from another guru to deliver you Nirvana!
For a civilisation so fixated on the achievement of happiness we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. Despite our prodigious improvements in material welfare there is little indication that we are happier as a result.
In fact if I was to give you any advice at all, it would be to just forget about happiness and get on with your lives in as constructive a fashion as you can. Hopefully, largely unbid and unnoticed, it will creep up on you all by itself!
I have also come across those commenting on happiness who maintain that they can’t be happy whilst there are injustices in the world. One leftist writer in a recent essay maintained that she could never be happy whilst Australia had a policy of “turning back the boats” or failed to take what she believed were reasonable steps to respond to global warming This seems a futile exercise to me because there will always be such perceived injustices. The world is far from perfect and if we will have to wait for perfect outcomes before we can experience well-being then we are surely destined to live miserable lives!
Am I insensitive because when my grandchildren come to visit I feel happy? I know there are still people starving in the third world. I know that somewhere children are dying from leukaemia. I know that women are being subjugated by radical Islam. I know that species are becoming extinct and rainforests are being decimated. Will any of these causes be helped if I eschew my happiness? I doubt it.
And, as we shall shortly see, those most content with their lots are those who have come to understand what they can realistically change and what they cannot. As a rabid idealist there is much that I can see in the world that could do with some improvement, but if I am to allow my well-being to be dependent on solving the problems of world poverty, eliminating cancer or ensuring Australia’s young tennis champions were well-mannered, then I have put myself in a parlous position.
Reading the literature on happiness I have uncovered a few uncomfortable truths. I am a naturally optimistic person. Many of the self-help gurus exhort us to be positive. And I guess most of us would believe that being optimistic about the future, if you can manage it, is surely for the best.
Yet neuroscientist, Tali Sharot, has compiled a body of evidence outlined in her book The Optimism Bias which suggests that a well-functioning mind may be built so as to perceive the odds of things going well as greater than they really are. You might suggest that this is something of little moment. Surely it is better to err on the side of optimism and enjoy the benefits of the well-being that it brings us.
But there can be a bigger downside to our unbridled optimism than we believe. Gabriele Oettingen is a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on how people think about the future, and how this impacts cognition, emotion, and behaviour. The results of her research are striking. Spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go, actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them. In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking she explains how research over the past 15 years finds that dreaming about a desired future leads to low investment and little success, in all major areas of life including health, work, and interpersonal relationships. In order to benefit from positive thinking about the future people need to incorporate in that positive thinking a clear sense of reality. She promotes a technique that helps people to gain insight into their wishes and to clearly identify the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing these wishes.
Oettingen believes that understanding the obstacles that we think prevent us from realizing our deepest wishes can actually lead to their fulfillment. Starry- eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as it turns out, dreamers are not often doers. While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.
The charade of the efficacy of positive thinking is very ubiquitous. It has been very prevalent in the self-help literature since Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. I can remember my good friend Phil Harker telling me of a book he had read where the author believed that the power of positive thinking allowed her to ensure that the traffic lights turned green when she approached intersections! He mused about the possible results if drivers of similar beliefs approached the same intersection from different sides!
A careful study of the works of philosophers and others trying to understand happiness draws us to a startling conclusion – the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable! As I explained in a previous essay, our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure and sadness – is what actually causes us to be insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy.
There are many strands to this confusing story of happiness. One important theme relates to our definition. Many of the self-help gurus emphasise wealth, career success and fame as indicators of our progress towards happiness. But for the Greek philosophers the goal was “eudaimonia” which is more accurately translated as tranquillity or inner well-being. The Buddhist sages had a similar end in mind.
The Greek stoics pointed out that most of us go through life under the delusion that it is certain people, situations or events that make us sad, angry or anxious. But if you look closely at your experience, you come to the conclusion that none of these external influences is ‘negative’ in itself. Indeed as I have explained in other essays, nothing outside your own mind can be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes your negative response is the beliefs that you hold about these things. How perceptive was Shakespeare when he had Hamlet say, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Oliver Burkeman in his book The Antidote quotes the Stoic scholar A. A. Long. Long points out that these stoic beliefs are very much in line with cognitive behavioural therapy. He told Burkeman, it was helpful to understand “…this idea that judgments are in our power, that our emotions are determined by our judgments, and that we can always step back and ask, ‘is it other people that bother me? Or the judgment I make about other people?’”
He advocated this approach to deal with everyday stressors. He used road rage as an example. He asked were other drivers really behaving badly. Or was it more accurate to say that the cause of his anger was his belief that they ought to behave differently?
Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, frequently observed that we habitually act as if our control over the world was much greater than it really is. Unfortunately many of us rely on such things as our state of health, our reputation and status or our wealth to underpin our sense of personal well-being. Or we are dependent on others to behave in particular ways to make us feel good. But realistically we have little control over such things. The wisest among us have come to know that whilst we can’t control the world around us, our happiness is largely determined by how we interpret and respond to the world around us.
Seneca wrote, “Never have I trusted Fortune even when she seemed to be at peace. All her generous bounties – money, office, influence – I deposited where she could ask for them back without disturbing me”.
For the Stoics then, our judgments about the world are all that we can control. But also all that we need to control in order to be happy.
Of course, as I have outlined in other essays, this mirrors in many ways Buddhist beliefs. As the Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard explains:
By “happiness” Buddhism means not just a temporary state of well-being or a pleasant sensation but rather a way of being based on an array of qualities that include altruism, inner freedom and inner strength, as well as an accurate view of reality. By “causes of happiness”, Buddhism is referring not merely to the immediate triggers of happiness, but to its profound roots, namely the pursuit of wisdom and a more accurate understanding of reality.
I recently read an essay by an oncologist, Ranjana Srivastava. She described her relationship with patients with cancer. It was a very moving account from someone who is not only a medical specialist but a caring human being.
I would like to conclude this essay with an abridged version of her thoughts about happiness.
“One should always be judicious with dispensing advice, but if I were to give my children a piece of advice on being happy, this is what I think I would say.
Work hard at finding a job that feels like a vocation.
Look beyond narrow self-interest and tend to the needs of others.
Cultivate a still reflective mind.
Regard life as a gift and death as inevitable.
While it is impossible to do good and be good every single day, live each day mindfully so that you may learn from your mistakes.”
She then finished with this comment which underpins my own writings on happiness.
“I’d like to think that in living some simple rules, you don’t constantly have to beckon happiness. Happiness will come to you.”
And she is indeed correct. Forget the self-help gurus, the ten easy steps and the endless varieties of the power of positive thinking. Give up the pursuit of happiness. Understand that there is little in this world that you can control except the way you view it. If in the end this results in a better understanding of how the universe functions and if it helps you to put aside self-obsession, more than likely happiness, ordinary (commonplace) but extraordinary (wonderful) happiness, will come to you unbidden.