Happiness: Head in the Clouds or Feet on the Ground?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 15th, 2010

A reply (which I deleted because it contained a coded profanity) to yesterday’s post on receiving uplift from the final finishers in a triathlon suggested that recent posts on happiness amount to airy-fairy philosophizing. I can’t deny the potential for questions about the practical applications of a topic like happiness. So this is a good place to note that happiness, besides attracting the interest of spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama, has recently been the subject of much scholarly study, within the field known as Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology, the study of optimal human functioning, became a recognized field only 10 years ago in reaction to the fact that 60 years of research had focused almost exclusively on mental illness while ignoring mental wellness. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the fathers of the movement, hoped that study of individuals and groups that were thriving could “find and nurture genius and talent” and “make normal life more fulfilling.”

You can choose happiness  . . .

Two recent books (my Kindle contains copies of both) reveal helpful insights from the research. In The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky says that each of us has an inherited potential for happiness coded in our genes, but also considerable ability to choose happiness. She says that our inherited “happiness set point” determines just 50 percent of happiness while only 10 percent results from the impact of life circumstances. This leaves 40 percent of our capacity for happiness within our control. Like nearly all areas of human potential, this capacity remains undeveloped in most people because few of us realize our power to affect it by conscious choices and intentions. This takes us right back to the words of the Dalai Lama: “The key to happiness is in your own hands.”

. . .  but will you choose right?

Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, draws on psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics to show the limitations of human imagination and how it steers us wrong in our pursuit of happiness.

Malcolm Gladwell, reviewing Gilbert’s book in the New Yorker,  wrote: “What distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to predict the future–or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We spend a great deal of life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. Gilbert sets out to figure why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?”

After my post about the Dalai Lama, Lawrence commented: “My motivation for learning TI freestyle is a conviction, formed after watching you and Shinji . . . that if I could reach such a level of competency I would have a new and reliable source of peace and deep happiness in my life that I could enjoy every day. In short, what drives me on with TI is the rhetorical question I ask myself whenever I view these demonstrations: Wouldn’t it be *great* to be able to do *that*?”

The Happiness Principle I take from Lawrence’s comment is that the goal he seeks is one he can never fulfill: However he swims on a given day, he’ll return the next day trying to improve on it just a little bit. And that daily striving to improve is what will ensure Flow States while he’s in the pool . . . an enduring sense of well-being that stays with him for hours after . . . and motivates him to renew his quest the next day.

3 Responses to “Happiness: Head in the Clouds or Feet on the Ground?”

  1. David Shen says:

    To me, happiness is the wrong term to use. Happiness, as you note, can invoke this thinking about airy-fairyness or a state of carefree bliss, which, if pursued as thus, has a lot of negative implications. For example, think of our youth who, in the pursuit of happiness, use drugs to obtain that state.

    Then, if we don’t achieve happiness or some sort of state of bliss, then we feel like we’re doing something wrong, or there is something wrong with us. This is also wrong.

    To me, the right statement is to pursue POSITIVITY, again noted in the post in the term “positive psychology”.

    This is because to strive to be better than we were yesterday, or to always have some sort of positive slope in our lives, we may sometimes actually not be happy. This is NOT BAD. We are humans. It is OK to be mad, cry, or feel sad. Too long has society and this pursuit of happiness have caused us to feel like we’re wrong when we feel these negative feelings. As long as our lives are moving in a positive direction, it is IMPOSSIBLE to not feel negative feelings. Thus we should accept this and be better for it.

    For example, when I train and race Ironman, it is definitely not a state of happiness I am in when I am out there, struggling through the long hours, bad or hot weather, with my body sore just trying to reach the finish line. But dammit I sure feel good when I hit the finish line.

    If I break up with someone because the relationship was bad for me, I will feel a host of bad feelings. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t break up with that other person just because I will feel bad feelings; I will end up in a better place if I do BUT I will have to feel those bad feelings first. This is OK!

    When Columbus went searching for the New World, his crew endured hunger, scurvy, and almost mutinied. But yet where would be if he just gave up and turned around back to Spain simply because he wasn’t feeling the strict definition of happy?

    We should stop pursuing happiness but instead pursue POSITIVITY. It’s got a much better message attached to it and I think it reorients ourselves much better towards making our lives better and feeling fulfilled because of it.

  2. shuumai says:

    Nice response, David Shen.

    Being positive, or optimistic, according to brain people, is a what “normal” people usually are. (People who falsely believe that they are better drivers than the majority of drivers.) Mildly depressed people tend to be the most *realistic*. (I might never become a professional bowler, but I’m making some improvements, though sometimes I really suck.) Depressed people tend to be pessimistic. (Everything sucks and always will!) Being overly happy all the time might be a sign of being delusional. (I just started last week, but I’m the best in the world! Just ask me!) So, I guess being anywhere on the scale from mildly depressed to normal is the most functional state. Though I wonder about transcending all that and becoming “optimal.”

  3. Mary Jane says:

    I agree with David Shen about this idea of ‘positivity’ rather than ‘happiness’ which seems like such a nebulousness word, a bit like the word ‘love’. Also, I think to stay ‘happy’ or positive or whatever word you choose there, it is not so much a goal that you can never fulfill, but smaller goals that are constantly being reset. It is a bit Terry like your DVD’s where you teach one skill and I work and work at that, then you move on to the next. There is always something ahead for us all of us if we just set these things up for ourselves, always moving forward.

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