August 17, 2014

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
Learn the secrets to daily joy and lasting fulfillment.

We all know that change is hard. Much research suggests that learning new tricks, adopting new behaviors or breaking old habits may be harder than we even realize and that most attempts at change, whether by individuals or organizations fail. In their book ‘The power of Full engagement’ Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz provide a different way of thinking about change: they suggest that instead of focusing on cultivating self-discipline as a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals. According to Loehr and Schwarts, ‘building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times - motivated by deeply held values”. (According to William James, it takes 21 days to form a new habit)

In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal - writing down at least five things for which they were grateful - enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

The gravity of this error is revealed in an old episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ in which a ruthless criminal, killed while running from the police, is greeted by an angel sent to grant his every wish. The man, fully aware of his life of crime, cannot believe that he is in heaven. He is initially baffled but then accepts his good fortune and begins to list his desires: he asks for his favorite food and it is served to him; he asks for beautiful women and they appear. life (after death), it seems could not be better.

However, as time goes by, the pleasure he derives from continuous indulgence begins to diminish; the effortless of his existence becomes tiresome. He asks the angel for some work that will challenge him and is told that in his place he can get whatever he wants - except the change to work for the things he receives. Without any challenge, the criminal becomes increasingly frustrated. Finally, in utter desperation, he says to the angel that he wants to get out, to go to ‘the other place’. The criminal, assuming that he is in heaven, wants to go to hell. The camera zooms in on the angel as his delicate face turns devious and threatening,. With the ominous laughter of the devil, he says, ‘This 1s the other place’.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work focus on the state of peak performance and peak experience, claims that ‘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. As John Gardner, former US secretary of health, education and welfare, points out, “We are designed for the climb, not for taking our ease, either in the valley or at the summit”.

Students who truly love learning for instance, derive present benefit from the pleasure they take in discovering new ideas and future benefit from the ways in which those ideas will prepare them for their careers. Those who work at something they love - be it in business, medicine or art - can progress in their career while enjoying the journey.

Research by the likes of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson reveals the profound effects of regular mediation.

In a review of the research on well-being, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky , Laura King and Ed Diener note, “Numerous studies show that happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance and health’. The research illustrates that the relationship between happiness and success is reciprocal: not only can success contribute to happiness, but happiness also leads to more success.

Emotion cause motion, they provide a motive that drives our action. The very language we use suggests an essential truth - that emotion, motion and motivation are intimately linked.

According to French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose”.  Having a purpose, a goal that provides a sense of direction, imbues our individual actions with meaning - and from experiencing life as a collection of disjointed pieces, we begin to experience it as a masterpiece. An overarching purpose can unify individual activities, just like overarching theme of a symphony unifies the individual notes. In and of itself, a note does not amount to much, but it becomes significant, and beautiful - when part of a common theme, a common purpose.

When thinking about the most meaningful life for ourselves, we must also consider our potential and how to make full use of our capacities. While a cow might seem content with a life spent grazing in the pasture, we cannot be happy living simply to gratify our physical desires. Our inborn potential as humans dictates that we do more, that we utilize our full capacities. “The happiness that is genuinely satisfying” writes the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties and the fullest realization of the world in which we live”.

The question is ‘what pursuit would challenge you and fulfill your potential?

My theory of happiness on the works of Freud as well as Frankl. Freud’s pleasure principle says that we are fundamentally driven by the instinctual need for pleasure. Frankl argues that we are motivated by a will to meaning rather than by a will to pleasure - he says that ‘striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. In the context of finding happiness, there is some truth in both Freud’s and Frankl’s theories. We need to gratify both the will for pleasure and the will for meaning if we are to lead a fulfilling, happy life. Happiness presupposes our having to overcome obstacles. In the words of Frankl, ‘what man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him’.

We should also remember that going through difficult times augments our capacity for pleasure: it keeps us from taking pleasure for granted, reminds us to be grateful for all the large and small pleasures in our lives. Being grateful in this way can itself be a source of real meaning and pleasure.

Most of us do not take the time to ask ourselves the question of questions - because we are too busy. As Thoreau says, however, ‘Life is too short to be in a hurry’. If we are always on the go, we are reacting to the exigencies of day-to-day life rather than allowing ourselves the space to create a happy life. Abraham Maslow maintains that a person ‘cannot choose wisely for a life he dares to listen to himself, his own self, at each moment in life’.

In making decisions and judgments, we also tend to focus on the material rather than paying heed to the emotional because those things that are quantifiable lend themselves more easily to assessment and evaluation. We value the measurable (material wealth and prestige) over the unmeasurable (emotions and meaning). In our material world, we worship material girls and boys, Wealthy people are revered by virtue of their material possession, as if net-worth in an apt measure for how worthy a person is. As Laurence G. Boldt says in ‘Zen and the art of making living’, ‘society tells us the only thing that matters is matter - the only things that count are the things that can be counted’. The monetary worth of a house is questionable, the feelings we attach to our home are not. Shakespeare’s Hamlet may cost $10 in the bookstore; what it means to us cannot be measured.

People who set goals are more likely to succeed than people who do not. Setting a goal is about making a commitment in words, and words have the power to create a better future. William H Hurry, a Scottish mountaineer, wrote in ‘The Scottish Himalayan Expedition about the benefits of throwing one’s knapsack over a brick wall:

‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back; always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sort of things occur to help one that could not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic and power in it’.

The emphasis in my approach is not so much on attaining goals as it is on having them. In his article, “Positive Affectivity’, psychologist David Watson underscores the value of the journey” ‘Contemporary researches emphasis that it is not the process of striving after goals - rather than goal attainment per se - that is crucial for happiness and positive affectivity’. The primary purpose of having a goal - a future purpose - is to enhance enjoyment of the present. Goals are means, not just ends. For sustained happiness we need to change the expectations we have of our goals: rather than perceiving them as ends(expecting that their attainment will make us happy), we need to see them as means(recognizing that they can enhance the pleasure we take in the journey).

Summarizing the research on goals and happiness, Kennan Sheldon and his colleagues write, “People seeking greater well being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of (a) goals involving growth, connection and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity and (b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue”.

The process of knowing and being know is potentially never-ending as there is always more that can be revealed , always more that can be discovered. The relationship, therefore, is far more likely to remain interesting, exciting, stimulating. Being together - whether talking over a coffee, caring for children or making love - becomes so much more meaningful and pleasurable when our focus shifts from validation to knowing and being known. Many people believe that the key to a successful relationship is finding the right partner. In fact, however, the most important and challenging component of a happy relationship is not finding the one right person - I don’t believe that there is just one right person for each of us - but rather cultivating the one chosen relationship.

In many romantic movies, toward the end of the movie, the lovers get together, kiss passionately and then live happily ever after - or so we assume. The problem is that movies end where love begins. It is the living happily ever after that poses the greatest challenge; it is after the sun sets that difficulties often rise. We cultivate intimacy by knowing and being known. We can then deepen our intimacy by acting on our knowledge of one another - engaging in activities that are meaningful and pleasurable to ourselves as well as to our partner. Over time, as we get to know one another and spend time together engaged in activities that we care about most, we build a foundation that we can weather inevitable storms as well as provide fertile ground for love and happiness to blossom.

Other books mentioned in the book:

Leading change by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee

The six pillars of self-esteem by Branden Nathaniel

Self-Efficacy: The excercise of control by W.H. Freeman and Company

Finding Flows: The psychology of engagement with everyday life by Csikszentmihalyi.

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