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The Pursuit of Happiness

MY MOM
I came to realize that one becomes old or at least a grown-up when one decides to write about one’s parents. In this case my mother. This urge sprang on one of my browsing moments through the internet. I came across the words of the American President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) on happiness: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This made me think about my childhood. My mom is the happiest person I know and when I was growing up it use to infuriate me to no end. How could she be that happy? She certainly didn’t get any solace from her family: orphan since she was a child, she married a man with no romantic flare, her four children (me included) weren’t special in any manner, she wasn’t rich, and she didn’t live in a big shinny house full of sparkly fancy things… Nevertheless, she was always smiling, always finding solutions for everything, quick to forget and to forgive. As a teenager I just wanted her to stop being, as I thought then, so god damn stupid and open her eyes and SEE…
Couldn’t she see how ugly things can be? How ungrateful people are? How hopeless the future is? How wrong I was. Today, I wished I never had such thoughts or even, on occasion, said them aloud. I’m the stupid one. Like the man said “about as happy as they make their minds to be.” I didn’t allow myself to be happy – always commiserating in my own dark points of view – until after my teenage years. Since then I’ve met more people like my mom, but the vast majority are the complete opposite. There’s always something not quite right, which stops people from rejoicing. When they reach their goal, they realize that ‘it’ didn’t make them as happy as they thought it would …
As the years went by, I find myself more and more like my mom. She was right, you know. There is something there that needs to be celebrated, no matter what surrounds you. And when you’re feeling down, when you least expect it that thing hits you like the fresh breeze from the sea and you feel invigorated once again. ‘It’ makes you get back on your feet, put your act together, and try once again or simply just smile and walk away. In the words of the comedian Bob Newhart: “All I can say about life is, Oh God, enjoy it!”

HAPPINESS AND THE OTHERS
“A happy life consists in tranquility of mind.” Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)
I always wondered what is that elusive thing called happiness. You ask 10 different people and you get 10 different answers. Writer and life coach Srikumar Rao believes that we have spent our entire lifes learning to be unhappy and the way “we learn to be unhappy is by buying into a particular mental model. (…) The problem isn’t that we have mental models, the problem is we don’t know we have them, we think that’s the way the world works.” So we buy in to this thing that we need to go through these steps and at the end of that journey we are going to be happy, but – surprise! – you got there and you don’t feel anymore happy than when you started. After all (and by means of a cliché), is not the amount of things you amass that will bring you happiness, but how much fulfillment you retrieve from them.
Just think back 10 years ago (older people can add another decade!, #grin#). You manage to achieve most (or even all) of the things you thought back then it would make you happy. Are you? The problem with mental models is that they are flawed. For a start, your actions are within your control, but the outcome never is. Secondly, being happy is not a destination: you don’t get there, you just are. And how do you get to gather a bit of bliss? In my experience (for what is worth it) you should first accept the universe as it is, don’t focus your might in material things (since those same things that make you momentarily happy can quickly make you unhappy when lost) and, if you have to have a goal, don’t merely invest everything on the outcome, but also enjoy the process to get there.

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Didn’t you always hate people that would tell you “Think positive”? Like you have some kind of on/off switch… Well, do we? Happiness has always been a murky ground for science, always so difficult to define, describe, and quantify. But now, there’s this new thing called Positive Psychology, whose founder Dr. Martin Seligman describes it as the study of positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. The former APA’s President (American Psychological Association) in partnership with a group of other ‘positive’ psychologists reach some interesting conclusions in the studies conducted. Some of the theories were highlighted in the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The observations gathered there rely on six overarching virtues, sanctioned by almost every culture across the planet: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. According to this newest branch of psychology, under each virtue were also identified particular strengths that met the following criteria:
● Ubiquity—is widely recognized across cultures.
● Fulfilling— contributes to individual fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness broadly construed.
● Morally valued—is valued in its own right and not as a means to an end.
● Does not diminish others—elevates others who witness it, producing admiration, not jealousy.
● Non-felicitous opposite—has obvious antonyms that are “negative”.
● Trait like—is an individual difference with demonstrable generality and stability.
● Measurable—has been successfully measured by researchers as an individual difference.
● Distinctiveness—is not redundant (conceptually or empirically) with other character strengths.
● Paragons—is strikingly embodied in some individuals.
● Prodigies—is precociously shown by some children or youths.
● Selective absence—is missing altogether in some individuals.
● Institutions—is the deliberate target of societal practices and rituals that try to cultivate it.

The researchers concluded that the most commonly endorsed strengths in 40 different countries are: kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude and open-mindedness. The less common: prudence, modesty and self-regulation.

Classification of 6 Virtues and 24 Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004)
1- Wisdom and knowledge – Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge.
• Creativity (thinking of novel and productive ways to do things)
• Curiosity (taking an interest in all of ongoing experience)
• Open-mindedness (thinking things through and examining them from all sides)
• Love of Learning (mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge)
• Perspective (being able to provide wise counsel to others)
2- Courage – emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal.
• Authenticity (speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way)
• Bravery (not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain)
• Persistence (finishing what one starts)
• Zest (approaching life with excitement and energy)
3- Humanity – Interpersonal strengths that involve ‘tending and befriending’ others.
• Kindness (doing favors and good deeds for others)
• Love (valuing close relations with others)
• Social intelligence (being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others)
4- Justice – Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life.
• Fairness (treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice)
• Leadership (organizing group activities and seeing that they happen)
• Teamwork (working well as member of a group or team)
5- Temperance – Strengths that protect against excess.
• Forgiveness (forgiving those who have done wrong)
• Modesty (letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves)
• Prudence (being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted)
• Self-regulation (regulating what one feels and does)
6- Transcendence – Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.
• Appreciation of beauty and excellence (noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life)
• Gratitude (being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen)
• Hope (expecting the best and working to achieve it
• Humor (liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
• Religiousness (having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life)

Apparently, psychologists have been using this and other data to make people happy or at least increase people’s levels of happiness. They work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unmanageable term that must be divided into three different avenues (Seligman, 2002): (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (meaningful life). According to the studies there’s more to happiness than just the feel good factor: happy people are healthier, more successful and more socially engaged. There you are: science straying into the field of feelings.

If we want to be philosophical about the whole theme of happiness, none other than Carl Jung encapsulated what is for me the meaning of a happy life. He said “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” And that is all we can aspire.

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Posted by on January 18, 2011 in Life, psychology

 

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