Making Yourself Happy is a Team Effort

The lie of self-sufficiency is that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times

Work & the Project of Living

Americans have forgotten an old-fashioned goal of working: It’s about buying free time. The vast majority of workers are happier when they spend more hours with family, friends, and partners, according to research conducted by Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In one study, she concluded that the happiest young workers were those who said around the time of their college graduation that they preferred careers that gave them time away from the office to focus on their relationships and their hobbies.

How quaint that sounds. But it’s the same perspective that inspired the economist John Maynard Keynes to predict in 1930 that Americans would eventually have five-day weekends, rather than five-day weeks. It is the belief—the faith, even—that work is not life’s product, but its currency. What we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living.

Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic 

Intensive Parenting

Some social scientists have theorized, the tilt toward intensive parenting originated at least in part from parents’ anxieties about their children competing for education and jobs.     Many children surely benefit from being raised like this—concerted cultivation can serve them well later in life, teaching them how to manage their time and assert their individuality. But heavily involved parenting can at the same time stunt kids’ sense of self-reliance, and overcommitted after-school schedules can leave them exhausted. Also, there is some evidence that parents who overdo it increase the risk that their children will grow up to be depressed and less satisfied with life. And on the parents’ side, the intensive ideal can lead parents—particularly mothers—to fear that they aren’t doing enough to give their child the best future possible.     

Joe Pinsker writing in The Atlantic   

Study: after 75 years the most fulfilling lives had one thing in common

For over 75 years, Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study has tracked the physical and emotional well-being of two populations: 456 poor men growing up in Boston from 1939 to 2014 (the Grant Study), and 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944 (the Glueck study).

Due to the length of the research period, this has required multiple generations of researchers. Since before WWII, they’ve diligently analyzed blood samples, conducted brain scans (once they became available), and pored over self-reported surveys, as well as actual interactions with these men, to compile the findings.

The conclusion? According to Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. ”Not how much is in your 401(k). Not how many conferences you spoke at–or keynoted. Not how many blog posts you wrote or how many followers you had or how many tech companies you worked for or how much power you wielded there or how much you vested at each.

No, the biggest predictor of your happiness and fulfillment overall in life is, basically, love.

“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Waldinger. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

Melanie Curtin writing in Fast Company 

We Seek Familiarity

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating.

As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.

We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.

The Philosophers’ Mail

And how are you mad?

When first looking out for a partner, the requirements we come up with are coloured by a beautiful non-specific sentimental vagueness: we’ll say we really want to find someone who is ‘kind’ or ‘fun to be with’, ‘attractive’ or ‘up for adventure…’

It isn’t that such desires are wrong, they are just not remotely precise enough in their understanding of what we in particular are going to require in order to stand a chance of being happy – or, more accurately, not consistently miserable.

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

The very idea that we might not be too difficult as people should set off alarm bells in any prospective partner. The question is just where the problems will lie: perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us, or we can only relax when we are working, or we’re a bit tricky around intimacy after sex, or we’ve never been so good at explaining what’s going on when we’re worried. It’s these sort of issues that – over decades – create catastrophes and that we therefore need to know about way ahead of time, in order to look out for people who are optimally designed to withstand them. A standard question on any early dinner date should be quite simply: ‘And how are you mad?’

The Philosophers’ Mail

 

The decision that most affects your happiness

There are two premises that lead Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, to believe personal company is the most important factor for long-term satisfaction.

The first is that decision-making is tiring. A great deal of research has found that humans have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Picking our clothes, where to eat, what to eat when we get there, what music to listen to, whether it should actually be a podcast, and what to do in our free time all demand our brains to exert that energy on a daily basis.

The second premise is that humans falsely believe they are in full control of their happiness by making those choices. So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we'll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.

Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good, and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they'd otherwise avoid.

But as Cerf tells his students, that last factor can be harnessed for good.

His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other's company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical. 

"This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike."

From those two premises, Cerf's conclusion is that if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they'll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.

Chris Weller writing in Business Insider

The decision that most affects your happiness

There are two premises that lead Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, to believe personal company is the most important factor for long-term satisfaction. 

The first is that decision-making is tiring. A great deal of research has found that humans have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Picking our clothes, where to eat, what to eat when we get there, what music to listen to, whether it should actually be a podcast, and what to do in our free time all demand our brains to exert that energy on a daily basis.

The second premise is that humans falsely believe they are in full control of their happiness by making those choices. So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we'll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.

Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good, and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they'd otherwise avoid.

But as Cerf tells his students, that last factor can be harnessed for good.

His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other's company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical.  

"This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike."

From those two premises, Cerf's conclusion is that if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they'll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.

Chris Weller writing in Business Insider

Finding Happiness

Remember that thin, watery barley or the oatmeal porridge without a single drop of fat? Can you say that you eat it? No. you commune with it, you take it like a sacrament. Like the prana of the yogis. you eat it slowly; you eat it from the tip of the wooden spoon; you eat it absorbed entirely in the process of eating, in thinking about eating - and it spreads through your body like nectar. You tremble at the sweetness released from those overcooked little grains and the murky liquid they float in. And then - with hardly any nourishment - you go on living six months, twelve months. Can you really compare the crude devouring of a steak with this?

Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It's the same way with happiness, the very same. Happiness doesn't depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

Memories are Overrated

A comment I heard from a member of the audience after a lecture illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing memories from experiences. He told of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending “ruined the whole experience.” But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experience itself was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. My questioner had assigned the entire episode a failing grade because it had ended very badly, but that grade effectively ignored 40 minutes of musical bliss. Does the actual experience count for nothing?

Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keep score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.

We have strong preferences about the duration of our experiences of pain and pleasure. We want pain to be brief and pleasure to last. But our memory (represents) the most intense moments of an episode of pain or pleasure and the feelings when the episode was at its end. A memory that neglects duration will not serve our preferences for long pleasure and short pains.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Buying Happiness

Not long ago an enterprising professor at the Harvard Business School named Mike Norton persuaded a big investment bank to let him survey the bank’s rich clients. (The poor people in the survey were millionaires.) In a forthcoming paper, Norton and his colleagues track the effects of getting money on the happiness of people who already have a lot of it: a rich person getting even richer experiences zero gain in happiness. That’s not all that surprising; it’s what Norton asked next that led to an interesting insight. He asked these rich people how happy they were at any given moment. Then he asked them how much money they would need to be even happier. “All of them said they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier,” says Norton.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that money, above a certain modest sum, does not have the power to buy happiness, and yet even very rich people continue to believe that it does: the happiness will come from the money they don’t yet have. To the general rule that money, above a certain low level, cannot buy happiness there is one exception. “While spending money upon oneself does nothing for one’s happiness,” says Norton, “spending it on others increases happiness.”

Michael Lewis writing in The New Republic

the Best Moments

Contrary to what we usually believe.. the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable — the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Struggling to overcome challenges, and then overcoming them, are what people find to be the most enjoyable times in their lives. People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Find rewards in the events of each moment . . . to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Happiness vs Growth

You stop to visit a friend to find her five year old is running around in diapers. Your friend explains, “That’s the way he likes it and as long as he’s happy, then it's all right with me.” You’d probably say to yourself, if not out loud, “That’s not love. Love works to see children grow up and take on responsibility as they are able.”

If I love you, I can’t just be looking out for what makes you happy. When happiness and growth collide, real love chooses growth. If there's someone in your life and you are wondering if he or she really loves you, ask yourself this question: Is this person seeking what’s in your best interest? Even when you don’t fully understand why they are doing what they are doing? Is this person willing to sacrifice your favor in order to see you grow?

Stephen Goforth

the Past vs. Possibilities

When I encounter a $2.89 cup of coffee, it’s all too easy for me to recall what I paid for coffee the day before and not so easy for me to imagine all the other things I might buy with my money.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only questions I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction. If an international bean embargo suddenly caused the price of coffee to skyrocket to $10,000 per cup, then the only question I would need to ask myself is:

“What else can I do with ten thousand dollars, and will it bring me more or less satisfaction than a cup of coffee?”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Resilient in the face of trauma

For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events—such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime—must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience them. This assumption has been so deeply embedded in our conventional wisdom that people who don’t have dire reactions to events such as those are sometimes diagnosed as having a pathological condition known as “absent grief.” But recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong that the absence of grief is quite normal, and that rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma. The loss of a parent or spouse is usually sad and often tragic, and it would be perverse to suggest otherwise.

But as one group of researchers noted, “Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event.” Instead, studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience

Why do most of us shake our heads in disbelief when an athlete who has been through several grueling years of chemotherapy tells us that “I wouldn’t change anything,” or when a musician who has become permanently disabled says, “If I had it to do all over again, I would want it to happen the same way,” or when quadriplegics and paraplegics tell us that they are pretty much as happy as everyone else? The claim made by people who have experienced events such as these seem frankly outlandish to those of us who are merely imagining those events—and yet, who are we to argue with the folks who’ve actually been there?

The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling into Happiness

Vacationing on Extremia

Imagine that you are preparing to go on a vacation to one of two islands: Moderacia (which has average weather, average beaches, average hotels, and average nightlife) or Extremia (which has beautiful weather and fantastic beaches but crummy hotels and no nightlife). The time has come to make your reservations, so which one would you choose? Most people pick Extremia.

But now imagine that you are already holding tentative reservations for both destinations and the time has come to cancel one of them before they charge your credit card. Which would you cancel? Most people choose to cancel their reservation on Extremia.

Why would people both select and reject Extremia? Because when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Extremia has the most positive attributes and the most negative attributes, hence people tend to select it when they are looking for something to select and they reject it when they are looking for something to reject.

Of course, the logical way to select a vacation is to consider both the presence and the absence of positive and negative attributes, but that's not what most of us do.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Turning happiness into a management tool

A large American health-care provider, Ochsner Health System, introduced a rule that workers must make eye contact and smile whenever they walk within ten feet of another person in the hospital. Pret A Manger sends in mystery shoppers to visit every outlet regularly to see if they are greeted with the requisite degree of joy. Pass the test and the entire staff gets a bonus—a powerful incentive for workers to turn themselves into happiness police. Companies have a right to ask their employees to be polite when they deal with members of the public. They do not have a right to try to regulate their workers’ psychological states and turn happiness into an instrument of corporate control.

Companies would be much better off forgetting wishy-washy goals like encouraging contentment. They should concentrate on eliminating specific annoyances, such as time-wasting meetings and pointless memos. Instead, they are likely to develop ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the emotional state of their employees. Academics are already busy creating smartphone apps that help people keep track of their moods, such as Track Your Happiness and Moodscope. It may not be long before human-resource departments start measuring workplace euphoria via apps, cameras and voice recorders.

Schumpeter in The Economist

Clothed with Happiness

In Bermuda, Johnny Barnes decided to put on a prodigal display in 1986. He would stand at the Crow Lane roundabout in Hamilton, where most of the rush-hour traffic came past, and tell each passing motorist how sweet life was and how much he loved them. His days had long overflowed with happiness, in his garden and in his jobs as a railway electrician and a bus-driver, where he had taken up the habit of waving and smiling to anyone who passed as he ate his lunchtime sandwiches. He had lavished joy on his wife Belvina, “covering her with honey”, as he put it. But there was plenty left over.

For 30 years he went to the roundabout every weekday morning. He would rise at around 3am, walk two miles to his post, stay for six hours shouting “I love you!”, smiling and blowing kisses, and then walk home again. He was there in the heat, his wide-brimmed straw hat keeping off the sun, and there in the rain with his umbrella. Only storms deterred him and eventually, the creakings of old age… Over the years, he transmitted his radiant happiness to drivers hundreds of thousands of times.

Johnny Barnes, Bermuda’s “greeter” died on July 9th at the age of aged 93. Read more in The Economist.

Recovery

Outcomes by themselves don't really have an unambiguously positive or negative effect on your happiness. Yes, there are some outcomes—you get a terminal disease, or your child dies—that are pretty extreme, but let's leave those out. But if you think about it, the breakup that you had with your childhood girlfriend, or you broke an arm and were in a hospital bed for two months, when they occurred, you might have felt, “Oh my goodness, this is the end of the world! I'm never going to recover from it.” But it turns out we're very good at recovering from those, and not just that, but those very events that we thought were really extremely negative were in fact pivotal in making us grow and learn.

Raj Raghunathan quoted in the Atlantic

living in the past

Every day I am discovering that people are depressed and defeated because of their past failures and mistakes. They allow their past failures to dominate their present thinking. Because of some past failure, they have convinced themselves that they are no good and they are incapable of doing anything worthwhile. Not only do they doubt their abilities to accomplish anything, but they also down their worth as human beings. Anyone who lives in the past, brooding over past mistakes, will have a difficult time living in the present. If you want to be unhappy, then constantly rethink your past failures. If you want to live victoriously, leave your past failures and disappointments in the past where they belong; instead, seek God's face as you live by faith in the present.

Larry Kennedy, Down with Anxiety!