Saturday, July 21, 2007

“Happiness” – A Pervasive Human Goal

As most of us know, happiness is an emotional or affective state that is characterized by feelings of enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction, and my thesis is that being happy is a pervasive human goal. Interestingly, some of the great minds of the world have offered some serious and humorous comments about the construct of happiness. For example:

Albert Schweitzer said, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.

Aristotle concluded, “Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.”

Edith Wharton said, “If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time.”

George Burns suggested, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

HH the Dalai Lama postulated, “Consider the following. We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.” And,

Robert Heinlein connected happiness with love: “Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”

In view of Heinlein’s quote, it is no surprise that at some point in my contemporary romance novels, the heroines (Sheila in My Sweetpea: Seven Years and Seven Days, Marcia in Fear of Feeling Loved, and Diane in If Ever Again… It’ll be for Love) tell someone in their lives “All I want is to be happy.”

In my pop-psych book, Living Life, Anyway, toward the end of Chapter Twenty-Two, “Living Life, Happily” I say the following (Pages 156-157):

I conclude this chapter with a reminder that if you actively chase happiness, you will never find it. Simplistically said, you can’t get up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today I’m going to find happiness.” Actively pursuing happiness is like chasing a butterfly – the more you chase it, the more it just eludes you. But if you sit down quietly, turn your thoughts to other things, and become mentally and emotionally involved in what you are doing, the butterfly may come and sit upon your shoulder. (And anyway, my grip would probably kill it if I were to catch it.) Furthermore, remember that there is no guarantee that getting or finding what you want or what you are looking for will make you happy. Thus, try to be happy with yourself in the process of looking. Endeavor to have some idea of what you are looking for, what you need and want, and what you minimally have to have, to amplify and maximize your chances of being happy. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you know when you find it? There is a befitting cliché I tend to recollect every time I go fishing: “Ninety percent of the fish are caught by ten percent of the fishermen.” Thus, when I take someone fishing with me, I sometimes say, “If you have to catch fish in order to be happy, then don’t go fishing with me. But if you are happy just for the opportunity of fishing, then grab your pole and let’s go!”

Question: How central is “happiness” in your life?



Mostly Happy Thoughts said...

Great topic Bill!

I strongly believe that being happy is a choice. I think being happy comes when you accept "what is" instead of wanting things to be different than they are. Live in the moment, cherish small victories, and find reasons to smile daily. It took me 30 years to figure this out, and now it has become easy. I now know that whatever happens in life I can CHOOSE how I react. It is very empowering. and life gives you so many opportunities to practice :)

I went through a very dark time about 5 years ago. My youngest cat died suddenly. The grief was unbearable. I very sudenly decided to leave Toronto and move back to Ottawa. I was broke, essentially homeless as I moved back from Toronto and had nowhere to live, called off my wedding, and I had no job. All of a sudden I was very alone, with very little support. I did ALOT of soul searching. I become very strong, and very resilient. I allowed myself to feel sad, but woke up everyday with clear, firm goals. (I had to leave my other cat in Toronto so getting her back was the only thing I had to keep me going) -- Get a job, get a place to live, get my cat back, start over. Tabitha, my guardian angel, is my cat that was just euthanized.

It turned out to be the BEST experience of my life. I found strength and self love. I have been happy ever since. I now have peace because I know that whatever happens I will be OK. I learned to find humour in the darkness. I know what it is like to experience real grief, the kind that rips your life apart. I can be empathetic and compassionate towards others who experience the same thing. I know know that whatever happens, it is only temporary.

Wow, that was a long and deeply personal post.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello MHT,
Thanks for the compliment regarding my Post. Indeed an intriguing topic, as validated by the essence of your Comment. You indeed seem to have the handle on self-responsibility and the importance of self-efficacy. And as the Gestalt philosophers suggest, strength and growth comes from adversity. While I am sorry to hear about your cats and your other travails, I am equally excited for you – you certainly came out the other end a stronger and happier person.
Thanks again, MHT, for sharing your experiences… they ended up wonderful for you and validate so much of what I had said in my Post.
Ciao for now…

DH said...

I thought happiness was something that everyone could find. I looked for it desperately. Everywhere I went. In everyone I saw. In everything I did. I thought it was something that could be duplicated. I think back to my earliest years. I had such sadness in my heart. My being here and in this world did not feel right to me. Like it's just one big mistake (my being here). I didn't know where I had come from, but I wanted to go back. This whole "life thing" was not for me. I remember the first time that I saw Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on TV (I was about 6 or 7). He had landed on the Island of Misfit Toys. I wanted to go live with them on their island. How could I be a misfit if I was with a bunch of other misfits? :) Gratefully, I am recovering from myself; and recovery should be for everyone.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello again DH,
Self concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy are so critical to not only happiness, but recovery from the speed bumps of life. As you indicate, sometimes we can be our own worse enemy… but once you know who the enemy is you can wage a winning war (as you know).
Hang in there DH… smell the roses and appreciate where you are,

Cole Reising said...

LOL -0 I got a chuckle out of the close knit another city...

THAT would be me! :-) Well in that area of happy anyhow.

And I agree with the thought that if your not looking for it, but rather concentrating on the moment and your task, happiness can find you. But I also think its a choice. You can be happy cleaning out pig pens or winning the lottery... both come with prices to pay, how you chose to handle that time is what is important in whether or not you are happy. Just my thoughts anyhow. :-)


Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Cole,
Thanks for stopping by… glad you enjoyed the “close knot family” (I couldn’t leave it out).
I couldn’t agree with you more… so many people just sit on their pity-pot and complain. “Would you like some cheese with that wine?” I often feel compelled to ask them.
Thanks again,

Misa said...

I'm of the opinion that you choose to be happy...or not. Of course there are often circumstances that force you to evaluate what happiness is and what part it plays in your life, but ultimately, every person must make the decision to be happy with the journey and not the end result. Sometimes that thing (whether physical or emotional) we want so badly will never be realized, so to tie up our sense of happiness in the potentially unattainable is only setting ourselves up for failure. My son has two diseases. Do I wish there were cures for them? Absolutely. Does he? I know he does. But for us to be unhappy now, in the face of living with these diseases and all that they entail, holding onto the idea that if and when there are cures we can be happy, means we're choosing to ignore the blessings of the life we have and are living. And that would be a waste. So, I choose to be happy and thankful for what I have.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Misa,
While I feel saddened to hear of your son’s illnesses; he nonetheless is fortunate to have you as his role model – you are demonstrating to him that life and happiness can be experienced in the face of adversity. I remember Shakespeare saying, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous… yet, we can find tongues in trees, books in running brooks and sermons in stones. I would not change anything.” (or something like that.)
My Dad once told me that success is having what you want – happiness is wanting what you have.
Thanks for sharing… I am touched by what you said,

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Bill,

I like to think I am good at finding my happiness in what most people consider the small things. My daughter's giggle when I do something silly, my son's wry humor, my husband's antics when he is in a good mood, coming home to a cooked supper even though I know I will have to clean up. And lately in one day I had 3 of my coworkers compliment me on my children's outstanding behavior. Although some days it is harder than others, tears of joy often come to my eyes as I look back at these times. Like Mostly Happy thoughts says I know whatever happens I too will be ok. Even if that hill seems to steep to climb today, tomorrow it will seem smaller and so on.

Having had a marriage I thought was happy dissolve to my total shock, I did find love again, no matter that it isn't my dream love, I feel loved by things that aren't necessarily done on purpose, like when my husband remembers to cook things without wheat so I can eat them. Or when my son buys me flowers because he thinks that is what a "lady" would like. I like others have lapses in time when I am not so happy, but mostly I try to remember what I learned in day at a time, take care of myself first and the rest will fall into place. Whew,that was a long rambling post, but I so enjoy your blog that I feel inspired to write more.
Thank you...truly I do.

Nienke Hinton said...

"...good health and a bad memory." Love it!
I have to say I think more about contentment and joy and these, in turn, bring me happiness. By this I mean I try to experience as often as possible the little things that make me happy - playing with my cats, sometimes doing the dishes. The more of these I can experience, the happier I am.
Great post, as usual, Bill.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello again Andie… nice to see you again,
I am touched by your kind and gracious comments about my blog – your Comments certainly validate your comments.
Most certainly, you have traversed the tougher roads of life and know what speed bumps, pot holes and detours are like. Nonetheless, you continue to move down the road, smelling the roses and enjoying the scenery (instead of just complaining about the road).
It sounds like you truly are loved by your family; you are blessed: (1) by the way they love you, and (2) by your appreciating them and what they do.
I’m glad you stopped by and shared part of your journey with us,

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Nienke… good to see you again,
Thanks for your gracious comments about the Post… I had fun putting it together.
I sense that what you are discussing is what I call the “Big Little Things” in life. It’s not the new car on your birthday, the expensive earrings at Christmas or the new boat for Father’s Day – it’s the little things you listed (e.g., for me it was the unexpected cup of coffee sitting on the counter waiting for me when I was running late for work, and later saw that while I was hurrying in the shower “someone” scrapped the car windows and started the engine).
As you depict… enjoying the little things in life is big!
Wow, you got me thinking… thanks!

Anonymous said...

I think that a person's past sets a precedence for his ability to identify "happiness". People tend to duplicate memories from their past - holiday traditions, family meals, tucking in the kids at night with bedtime prayers - whatever... But when the past has so many bad memories, or maybe is so traumatic that there is literally no memory of happiness, I can imagine that it would hard to know what happy is. It's like a broken thermostat... You have no gauge.

Secondly, I think happiness is different for each person... I would think that couples that are successful in feeling happy share the same happy "definers." If one's sense of happy is "financially stable" and another's is having a large family "at any cost", you can see where there might be conflict. Not that one is wrong or right, just different priorities. Be honest and communicate your definition of happy, to yourself and your partner. If you find that you are always chasing happiness, or not able to achieve happiness - there may be a bigger problem. You might benefit by learning from other's lessons to "enjoy the little things".

Can I tie in a previous blog about a happy marriage being a collection of small happy moments? Focus on the snapshots of happy times, rather than what can be overwhelming challenges of life... Another analogy - when I used to run long distance, I would find that it was much easier to complete the race without stopping by running from drive to drive, mailbox to mailbox, tree to tree, rather than on focusing on the overwhelming task of running 10 miles. I found inspired, happy, by the frequent successes by reaching each driveway.

Just some thoughts. As always, thank for giving me a venue to think.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Jordana,
Great seeing you again… with insightful comments as usual.
Apropos of your first observation, yes indeed. As I have said many times, “Happiness is not a station you arrive at… it’s a manner of traveling” (as you say -- a lifestyle).
Regarding your second point… spot on. If you and I are in a relationship and I want to help make you happy, I have to know what to do to make that happen (knowing your “happiness definers”).
Those “small happy moments” as you call them, are the logs in the fire in the winter times of a relationship that keep it warm. Also… a famous author once said, “Writing a novel is like driving from Tampa to Miami at night… you only can see as far as the headlights. And as long as you stay focused on what you can see and keep heading in the right direction, you’ll eventually get there.”
Love your thoughts (as always).
‘til next time, be well (and as the song says, “Be happy!”),