Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The virtue of happiness

How do we become happy?

Happiness for Aristotle was something he called eudaimonia which has been translated into different English words such as happiness and contentment. For Aristotle, it was a state of feeling that was not subject to the vagaries of every day life (which certainly sent him its trials and tribulations) but the effect of long term achievements, gradually gaining a sense of what we would now call self-worth from childhood up. Indeed, childhood is a crucial time for creating the foundation of a person's joy; but, fortunately, we've discovered that an unhappy or discontented child can become happy.

Today, positive psychology examines how we become happy and what sustains it. Several principles emerge from the literature including:

A happy person is one who has a plan - purposefulness and a sense of direction helps us understand where we should be going when times are tough or other people are pulling us in different directions. For my pupils I draw a line and say - right, this is where you want to go. Then I create diversions around the path but always come back to the true direction. It's like a pilot who needs to get to Paris from Edinburgh - he may have to divert to avoid a storm but he'll still get the passengers to Paris.

A happy person is content with him or herself at all times. Sure there are times when we pull ourselves up for failing or being too distracted from our daily chores or life time plans (but don't feel guilty for planning downtime/me-time/solitude/goofing around). A key point here is how we feel when we wake up in the middle of the night and everybody else is sleeping - do we feel at home with ourselves or do we need to call someone immediately because we feel lonely?

Success does not breed happiness, the psychologists are saying - but happiness breeds success. This has always been apparent but now the psychologists are catching up what the great philosophers have known for over two millennia. In our society, we often assume that to be happy we must achieve, we must get things or have things around us... if we do x or if we have y then we'll be happy formula.

But look at the people striving for something: if they are not internally content, will they suddenly become so for reaching their goal? Or will they need a new goal to struggle for? The research suggests that former - contented people succeed or fail and remain contented. When they fail, they pick themselves up, remind themselves of their plan and try again. From the struggle then regain their sense of self worth and direction.

For instance, on the volatile stock market, if a trade goes against a contented person, his or her reaction is  - ah, what did I do wrong, did I misread something? Or, ah well, that didn't work - good job I use stop losses. Similarly in business when she fails to get a client. Failure, as Zig Ziglar reminds us, is an event - not a person. The less contented person is going to read the situation as the markets hate me - they lose me money - they're after me. Or that client was an idiot anyway. 

Our culture doesn't do much to help us seek happiness. The mantra is always:
go to school
get the grades
work hard
get a job
pay the bills
produce more kids for the system
don't ask too many question
keep your nose down

Sounds more like the philosophy of an ant colony. Religion often connives too - when you're dead, you'll be happy.


That's a philosophy that serves the great manipulators of life but not a person's happiness.

No wonder that many people throw themselves into a hedonistic life style to try and fill the huge gaping hole at the centre of their lives. Despite the known effects, binge drinking has increased in the UK in the past few years...happy people may enjoy a tipple but not get blotto to erase the meaningless of life from their souls.

But life has meaning. This is something else happy people know - they have a plan or a path or a purpose, whatever they wish to call it. They know they're going somewhere.

Yesterday, I wrote about how our culture doesn't help our youngsters gain a sense of purpose: from a young age their choices and desires are ignored so when they become adults they have no real sense of their dreams.

Politically, in the past century, the land of dreams, the USA, has lost its sense of purpose by becoming more fascistic and interventionist in domestic and foreign affairs. The hopes of the 60s generation for true freedom and peace have been hijacked by political fear mongering and the advance of the TSA and federal institutions invading people's lives from folk who produce organic goods to those who want to know why the USAAF is spraying the sky with chemicals. Hmmm. Political tangent, I admit, but I enjoy joining the dots.

Politicians don't want happy people. They want miserable people they can "sell dreams" to. Well, forget that - that's the master-slave philosophy. And in the words of one my teachers, "I'm nobody's bitch any more." (He's financially free from trading, and no, he didn't start off rich - his business failed and had to pick himself up: he's a happy guy).

It's also a mistake to think that resources produce happiness. The great wise people have know this for millennia. Having or doing does not create happiness. It's the other way around - that's the secret. Be happy first and foremost. Then if things come (or not), you'll still be happy: and happy people tend to be more flexible and understand what they can change about themselves and their actions and what they can't change - the ubiquitous they who are out to short change them in life.

Of course, life's trials are easier with wealth than without it. But wealth does not come from grinding hard work. It comes from serving increasingly more people around us. When we help people get what they want or need, we feel better.

Funnily enough, that's what the free market is all about. The free market is all about the serving others: and the more people we serve, the more we gain - contrary to what the Marxists and socialists want us to believe (because they are selling a slave philosophy in which all are equally enslaved to the grind stone - not sure? Read Animal Farm for fiction, Mises's Socialism for academic study, or any work on history to note the effects of socialist societies on their people).

The philosophy of the free market is about freedom - however, that creates the troublesome culture of being free to fail. And that tends not to excite people - failure is fearful, failure is pain ... our schools penalise failure by keeping us down a set, marking us down a grade. We are meant to feel bad about our mistakes. (I see this in many pupils).

Yet avoiding failure and seeking riches/pleasure is not what happiness about. We are set up to avoid failure not be happy; but if we are given the great foundation is a sense of self-worth, a sense of personal identity - that we know, as children especially, that we are loved for who we are, and that we act towards helping others, our sense of happiness gains a stronger foothold. Over time, as Aristotle philosophised, it becomes stronger. Happiness is an armour that keeps us intact despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Hamlet saith.

The miserable are often looking for happiness outside of themselves. It has to come from success or from having. Instead, it must come from being. By being happy, the rest will follow - or at least you'll go to the grave with a smile on your face.

When we learn to love ourselves for who we are, we can become happy. If we look back on who we were, we're not going to get anywhere. The Christian religion has a lot to say about forgiveness and it's a powerful message: if you look back on your life at the poor choices made, the failings and mistakes, you're bound to feel miserable and want to soak in the dark with a bottle of wine. But what good would that do. The next moment is yours and it's free of the past. Sure, you may have some things to tidy up such as pay off some debt - well, automate it so you can concentrate on moving forward; you may have kids from a previous relationship - find the system that works for all involved and stick to it; you may currently be working for a 'bad company' ... or is that your old self working for the bad company.

Today and the next moment are yours - you are free to choose your responses to people and events.

A tool I've come across in Michael Losier's The Law of Attraction can be really helpful here: write down all the things you don't like down one column of a notepad, keeping the right hand side free. Keep adding negatives such as I don't like my job, I don't like the people I work with, I don't like not having money, I don't like the mess at home....Take a couple of days to do this. It's amazing what pours out! Then, when you've exhausted your negatives for now, go back to the beginning and change  each negative into a positive statement. From I don't like my job you write I like getting paid or I enjoy looking for new jobs or I like the fact it only takes me ten minutes to get to work or that I can listen to some motivational tapes on the way to work.

Using this technique, I found myself happily tidying up the chaotic aftermath of my boys' play rather than get confrontational and making them feel guilty for having fun. And funnily enough, as my wife and I have helped them to tidy, they have also joined in.

There'll be more on this in other posts. Comments always handy - the blog will become a book!

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