By Flora M Brown, Ph.D.
Humans have been seeking happiness since the beginning of time. Here we are in the most enlightened and technologically advanced period of history. Why are we still looking for happiness?
There are four problems with happiness:
1. We don’t know what it is.
All major Greek theories saw happiness not a matter of luck, but something we can control and increase. Aristotle’s term eudaimonia is often used interchangeably with happiness. But they are not synonymous.
For Aristotle, eudaimonia was an activity of flourishing, living an ethical life. Happiness was how you lived your life. The modern view of happiness is a state of mind, a feeling of how pleased we are with our lives. Much of what we read about happiness assumes that we have our basic needs met and are ready to master our reactions and attitudes.
Can we live a happy life even if our idea of happiness is brutalizing people for fun? Can happiness be applied only to those of us who are leading good and ethical lives? If so, who gets to decide what’s good, and what’s ethical?
Some modern psychologists have solved this dilemma, at least for themselves, by insisting that we shouldn’t mix ethics with our self-reported feelings about quality of life.
2. We don’t know what makes us happy.
Have you ever been the unlucky person standing in the fast food line behind the indecisive person who is studying the menu as if there’s going to be a test? Eventually the cashier has them step aside so she can serve you.
Happiness is like that. You have to know what you want, what makes you happy before you can have it.
Wayne Dyer, popular author and speaker, says in his book Power of Intention, that we focus on what we don’t want, and then wonder why we get it.
Immanuel Kant believed that duty and moral law are more important than happiness. He said that if happiness were the ultimate aim of life, we should have just had instincts, not reason. We constantly seek something good that we think will make us happy but that feeling only lasts for a time. Eventually we are looking for something else.
Scientists believe this stems from a primitive part of our brain that dooms us to the “hedonic treadmill”–longing for what we think will make us happy but getting used to it or tiring of it and going after something new, only to be back at the same place habituating to the new, with happiness always just out of reach.
3. We are not sure we even want it.
Unhappiness is more comfortable and socially acceptable.
In spite of all the books, shows and promoters telling us how to become happy, we still hold happiness in low regard. Google revealed, for example, that when the phrase, “fat, dumb, and ___” is used on the Web, 97% of the time it’s as “fat, dumb, and happy.” Ernest Hemingway expressed the way many feel when he said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” We don’t want to be seen as Pollyanas who shut our eyes to the “real” world or clueless dullards not sharp enough see harsh reality.
4. Happiness requires effort.
People all over the world loved watching the Olympic medalists as they won top honors in their sports, but few of us would be willing to put in the years of training and make the sacrifices that they made.
We enjoy paying lip service to happiness, but when it comes to putting in the effort to make the changes or take the steps that are suggested by self-help books, therapists, researchers and religious leaders, many of us settle for staying where we are.
As Clint Eastwood’s character, Dirty Harry, said in the movie Sudden Impact, “Everybody wants results, but nobody wants to do what it takes to get them.”
When Dr. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, decided to turn from the emphasis on unhappy states of mental illness to study the happy states of people who are content with their lives,there was very little research devoted to happiness. So Seligman raised one million dollars and gathered a thousand therapists to create a way to go about conducting scientific research. Out of their meetings a new field, Positive Psychology, was born with the intent of building objective evidence of the components of happiness.
Based on a growing body of research of identical and fraternal twins, happiness is derived from
About 40%–our genes
About 10%–our circumstances such as education, upbringing, economic level
About 40%–within our power
Happy people seem to share three common core traits: a positive attitude, gratitude and close relations. They also seem to be actively engaged in work they enjoy and spend some of their time and energy working for something bigger than themselves.
When asked what accounted for the tremendous performance of Michael Phelps, American swimmer who holds the record for earning 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his coach didn’t say superior physical condition as reporters expected. He said, “It’s Michael’s ability to handle anything that comes up and turn it into something good.” (Michael confessed that for 5 years he trained 7 days a week, not just 5 like his competitors.That matters too.)
So must we, using the power that we have to create our joy, overcome the problems we have with happiness, be willing to do what it takes, and turn what we encounter into something good.
Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. is an author, coach, speaker, consultant and entrepreneur. She has impacted the lives of students, educators, business owners, leaders and many audiences during her career. Her passion for encouraging people to make choices that lead to their happiness began when she was a junior high inner city English teacher and continued to grow deeper as she worked with university students, her own private tutoring program, and with retailers and business owners.
She has written language arts texts, academic articles, curriculum, grant proposals, and motivational guides. Her passion for writing and inspiring others has lead her to create and maintain twelve websites, three blogs and two newsletters.
Her book, Color Your Life Happy, scheduled for Spring 2009 release, promotes making choices that give you the life you want. Get pre-release information at her website http://www.coloryourlifehappy.com
The philosophy she lives by is “Nobody becomes somebody without the help of somebody else.”
From her blog, http://www.ColorYourLifeHappy.com/blog she encourages uncovering your inner joy and making choices that lead to the life you want.
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