Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

On Happiness

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The internet is brimming with new-agey blogs providing endless lists with how-to-become-happy-instructions, such as this one from the blog of an Australian counselling service called Reach For The Sky.
It’s a neat list, common wisdom, but some of it rings true. In the end, most people reading it will already agree to some extent, but a list like this is not likely to convince anybody who has not gained these insights for himself already; to a great many people this will sound like a bunch of simple platitudes and empty phrases. Anyhow, it makes a neat read for the new-age hippie clientél it is directed at, and that’s all that really matters on a blog that is essentially an advertisement for a small service-provider. I could have picked any such list, but this one is fairly representative of them all, so I’ll just have a go at this.

1. Happiness is accepting “what is” and getting on with life. Recriminations or regrets have no place in happiness.

I perfectly agree with this part. Accepting a mistake for what it is and learning from it is better than regretting not having made a different choice and dwelling on how things could have been.

2. Happiness is a natural state of being, just choose it and make it happen. You will never be happier than you expect to be, so raise your expectations.

Happiness a natural state of being? Some claim, but I won’t dwell on its complete lack of support. What I want to have a go at is the “expectations” part: I will never be happier than I expected? In fact I already have been, a number of times. It’s just outright wrong. Do not raise your expectations. To the contrary: Lower them! It is with low expectations that we avoid feelings of disappointment and invite the chance of being positively surprised. Ever watched a movie that was hyped and left feeling it was shallow, boring and cheesy? That’s what you get from high expectations: An underwhelming experience. On the contrary, remember the last time you watched a movie or read a book out of pure boredom that ended up being surprisingly good or had a surprise ending that lifted the whole story to another level? Or think of romantic relationships. How many of them turned out to be horrible when you were trying so hard to find the perfect partner? And how often did a beautiful relationship arise from a series of casual dates that were intended to be “just for fun” but grew into something immensely more profound?
What you get from high expectations is a feeling of great disappointment when they aren’t fulfilled, and when they are, they too often just leave you with the feeling of nothing but a met quota. Happiness arises from expectations being exceptionally and spectacularly exceeded – something that happens far more often if you keep them low or, better still, try not to expect anything at all. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but becoming a true cynic is one of the most promising paths to happiness.

3. Happiness is savoring every moment in the present. Spending too much time in the past or the future is robbing you of your NOW.
Time NOW is your life NOW. Treasure it.

4. Happiness is developing the wisdom to know what is in your control and what isn’t and accepting it. Knowing that you can only control yourself.

A prime example for failing at #4 are people complaining about the weather. Hell, if you cannot change it, you might aswell enjoy it. Next time when it rains go out, behave like a four-year-old, jump into puddles and get wet. Additionally, get a lung infection and thus a week off from work. There’s some refined, first-class happiness right there.

5. Happiness is making time for yourself every day in any way you choose and allowing others the same right.

If this was my list, I’d take that one out. I’ve found that making one’s own happiness a priority is the single most detrimental thing to actually finding happiness. We humans are social beings. Cross out the me-time, make it we-time. Spend time with people you genuinely like. Better still than spending time with people is spending time helping people – Turns out that there is hardly anything more rewarding than becoming part of an effort to improve the here and now, and not just for ourselves. Just try volunteering somewhere, maybe helping struggling immigrant-kids with their schoolwork and language skills. It won’t hurt, and you might well get addicted.

6. Happiness is appreciating what you ALREADY have and not dreaming your life away.

7. Happiness is letting all of the people in your life know how much you love and appreciate them now. Live each moment as if it is your last.

The last two are basically the same, and not really worth commenting on. 7 points seem a bit much to me, anyhow. If I’d make my own list of how to find happiness, it would consist only of a single point:

Read Epicurus.

I am not aware of anyone in world history who has ever written anything on the topic of happiness as wise and as clever as Epicurus did. He even made a list of his own, the famous Tetrapharmakos. It reads as follows:

Don’t fear god
Don’t worry about death
What is good is easy to get
What is terrible is easy to endure

To that, I have nothing to add.


Written by Phil

July 20, 2010 at 12:44

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