How do I get happy?

4 februari 2010 | In Emotion theory Happiness research Psychology Self-indulgence | 1 Comment

If you want to sell a book about happiness research/positive psychology, or anything even remotely related to that area, you better be prepared to answer this question. Or at least claim that you are, and then subtly change the subject and hope that no-one notices.

Basically, the answer is this: find out what happiness is, and then, you know, go get that. .

Sometimes when you want something, the best strategy is to find out how people who got it behave, and copy that behavior. This works reasonably well for things like getting in shape, making a bargain, learning how to ride a bike, etc. It does not work as well if what you want is to be tall. It doesn’t help to copy the behavior of tall people, or to wear their clothes or go on the rides only they may ride at the amusement park. If you want to be as good a writer as Oscar Wilde was, to copy every word Oscar Wilde wrote won’t exactly do it (That is not to say that it wouldn’t do anything, I’m sure there are worse ways of learning the style).

Just copying behavior statistically demonstrated to be exhibited by happy people is probably not the best idea (that would be Cargo Cult Science): If we are to learn from the habits of others, we better learn how to generalize correctly, and in order to do that, we need to understand how happiness works. In order to be happy, it’s probably not sufficient to get the things/habits/relations that happy people got. An educated guess is that the relevant factor is that they got things/habits/relations that they like, and so should you. Or you should like the things you’ve already got. Whichever is most convenient.

Parachuters may be the happiest people alive, but the excitement of jumping might upset, bore or kill you. You should do the things that does for you, what parachute-jumping does for them. And note that even ”excitement” might be a wrongly generalized category: maybe excitement is not for you. Maybe you’re a sofa kind of person. It might still be possible for you to be a person for whom excitement or even parachute-jumping is rewarding, but that requires a completely different kind of neural rewiring.

Possibly, what happy people got is the disposition to like what they get, or to find something to like in everything they get and that disposition, rather than the things that they, or you, like, is what you should get. Of course, if you are disposed to like everything, you might stop and appreciate the glorious spectacle of a runaway train moving towards you at speed, and that, you know, would be bad. You shouldn’t have that disposition. Further qualifications are needed, for strategic and individual reasons. This is why we should be very careful when we try to translate science into advice.

As to the neural rewiring: reading about happiness-research might bring about some of the required changes. Learning does occasionally occur as a consequence of reading, after all. But it is likely to do as much good for your happiness as a class on Newtonian mechanics would do for your billiard-playing skills.

1 kommentar »

  1. I find this monologue so interesting that I would prefer to glue it onto my retina.

    Comment by elias — 10 februari 2010 #

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