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By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Is happiness a choice?
This was the question raised by Socrates. The philosophers of the time argued that it was either through luck, god(s)-given, or through personal pleasure. Socrates believed happiness could be attained through effort, that it was created by virtuous activities that served society.
Socrates argued life was about meaning and that "the unexamined life is not worth living." He was convicted of corrupting the youth and sentenced to die, which he happily did. Willing to die for the principles he believed in. The attitude of the time was to lament anything unfortunate, that all that awaited us was misery in Hades. That happiness was not a choice, outside forces controlled everything. At best, we could steal moments of pleasure and forget about our woes.
Thousands of years later, there's still a lesson to be learned there.
From Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Ghandi, Dalai Lama, and the leaders of every great religion had the same message. It's about community, being connected, compassion, meaning in something greater, being a part of a greater cause, and that we all work together and need one another. That happiness isn't a feeling, it's a series of acts and choices.
Interestingly, most people define happiness as self-taking and associate meaning with selfless-giving. If self-taking truly is happiness, studies show we feel a lot better about ourselves when we choose meaning.
When we pursue self-satisfaction, difficult, stressful, and taxing situations are often avoided. Taking care of others and contributing to society often means thankless tasks and difficult situations, and you do them because you have to. That's not always a bad thing. Mike Rowe gave a TED Talk about Dirty Jobs and what he learned was, some of the happiest people had the jobs no one would ever want, but those jobs served a purpose. Serving a purpose makes it hard to be shallow and selfish. There's a bigger meaning to your work.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
— Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Your current definition of happiness is making you miserable -- Redefine it
Happiness and good health have long been linked, but it depends on the kind of happiness. Even on a cellular level, the two definitions of happiness (self-pleasure vs meaning and benefit of others) are different. In a study of immune systems, when your happiness only benefits yourself, you're just as stressed out internally as people who are depressed. When your happiness was based around altruism, you have better internal health and a much more resilient immune system.
According to psychologist Peter Kramer, resilience, not happiness, is the opposite of depression. A therapist may minimize depression, but from resilience to happiness, that's your end of the bargain. Think of it like your emotional immune system. The more obstacles you overcome, the more resilient you become. If you avoid those situations, resilience never has a chance to grow. Only sensitivity grows in its place. It's tough to be an excellent sailor when all you face is calm waters. Without resilience, you can't stay happy. Like any skill, it gets better with practice.
There is no catharsis from expressing negative emotions just to express them, in fact it may amplify those emotions. It acts as a constant reminder of feelings that may have dissipated on it's own. You're asking for sympathy. Sympathy is about being validated that you're special and you're the last person this should happen to. That it's not fair, you deserve better, and you're different from everyone else in the world. You're disconnecting yourself.
English teacher David McCullough at Wellesley High School said in his now famous "You Are Not Special" commencement speech, "...you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is."
When you try to connect with the world, the world connects back
Professor Brené Brown explains empathy is when others feel what you feel. No judgment, no validation, just connection. Happiness is about connection.
Previous advice about love and passion makes things more complicated
Pleasure and happiness may overlap, but they're different. School can be at times unpleasurable but you're happy you went. Eating junk food may give you pleasure, but ultimately it leaves you feeling unhappy. With superficial things, it's easy to see how it's just pleasure seeking and may not involve a lot of meaning. It gets more complicated when we talk about love, passion, and individuality.
When I deal with people who express unhappiness with their passion and can never seem to get out of their rut, I ask them who do they do it for. If I hear: I do it for my family, I do it for a cause, or any answer relating to something greater than themselves, I know their unhappiness is just temporary.
When I hear them say: I do it for myself, my love, my passion, my art, my identity, or any answer that deals with themselves; unhappiness may be ingrained into their definition of happiness. They'll only be happy if life lives up to their expectations for themselves. Their happiness starts and stops with them. It won't matter how the world is doing, how it's always sunny in California, they won't feel happy when their friends are doing well. Those things are nice; but their own happiness will only be based on how well they're doing, which leads to a lot of misery.
I know the previous generation told you about chasing your dream, your love, your passion. The part they forgot to tell you is what the generation before taught; which is the value of hard work, service, duty, loving thy neighbor, and being your brother's keeper. That you're a part of this society too. It was supposed to be a balance of the ideas. You can even see the changes in college studies over the years and how it's influenced the economy, job rates, and happiness in America. Happiness is based on effort as Socrates said. We wrongly believe happiness is based on the universe delivering our fantasies.
There are a lot of things we love and are passionate about and it's constantly changing, as Mark Cuban puts it, "follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it." You can easily add passion to things that you know has meaning. What are you good at, where is there a need, who can you benefit? Instead of trying to find your own happiness, what if you made others happy? Helping others is not a form of weakness, in fact only the strong are in a position to help others.
You're asking the wrong question. It's not about what makes you happy, what would make others happy?
In a spiritual sense, that's the most compassionate form of happiness. In the business world, no investor is going to invest millions of dollars if they don't think the world needs it, there's a reason why behind it (meaning), it serves others, make others happy, and you're good at it. In a productive and philosophical way, this is a better definition of happiness.
Biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says we can train our minds in habits of happiness. We can even be happy when we're sad, because it's about fulfillment and connection. Like working in a cancer ward to spread light.
Eastern Philosophy talks about happiness as service of others (connection and altruism). Somehow the message got lost in the noise and all we're left with are a series of meditations, mantras, poses, and gimmicks to try to attain personal happiness and self love. Karma (beneficial connections) no longer something about bettering others but a universal revenge system. Use those tools and that time to learn to love and forgive others. Don't wait for bad things to happen to people you don't like, use your energy for compassion and altruism, and gain good karma. "You can't love others unless you love yourself" is nonsense. You can't love yourself unless you forgive and learn to love others. It's difficult to love yourself when you recognize how self absorbed you are. So you compensate and pretend. You may convince others, but you know the truth.
What can the universe give me? What about asking what you can do for the universe? There's a lot more meaning and selflessness behind that. Your happiness being based on good things happening to you is hard to control. Doing good things with good intent for others, that you can control. Acts of kindness and virtue have been proven over and over at being effective in making us happy.
"Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country... The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.… Now the trumpet summons us again.… I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it."
— John F. Kennedy during his inaugural speech
The era of the self - or rather selfies
"Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't spectre of either narcissism or low self-esteem," said Dr. Pamela Rutledge.
It's interesting there's such a focus on the self, when we look out at the world, we can see everyone else besides ourselves.
With fame, the ones with the most staying power tend to find some cause they attach themselves to. Even they search for meaning and without it, they wouldn't be able to last in the business. Others leave Hollywood for more meaning, and they don't regret it.
Who do you do it for?
A leader needs a cause, a business needs a mission, an artist needs a message, and a workaholic needs loved ones to work for. Something that tethers them to shore when stress tries to wash them away. Happiness needs meaning.
If you follow the path of personal desire, there is no other choice but for your sense of self to get inflated. You're the star of your own movie and you can only win and be happy if you get everything you want. You're not part of an ensemble nor do you want to be. That want to be unique and special is not much different from covert narcissism. Narcissism has nothing to do with how vocal you are, it's about your internal wants and thoughts (if you were truly an introvert, would you want the whole world to know through social media?). It's about you standing out in the world, you beating the world, not you AND the world. Happiness is about being connected to the world.
If you're the protagonist of your own life story, happiness is something that happens at the end, a destination or goal, not a process. Not something you can live in every day, just something you hope for in the final chapter of your life, or the last hour of your death. If you can only be happy after getting what you want, and the chances of getting that thing is 1 in 11 millions, doesn't that mean there's 1 in 11 million chance that you'll actually get happy? That's if the 1 in 11 million shot ever pays off. Sometimes people will base their happiness on something that's not attainable. Looking a certain way, make a relationship that won't work work, become something they're not. Why base happiness on wants?
With weight loss, losing weight is possible; making your legs longer, hips smaller than the actual skeletal frame will allow, making waist smaller than the organs within the waist, being born a different person is not. It's a dangerous path to take, not only for happiness but for your health.
Since their only happiness will be the achievement of that goal, people will announce their goals. I haven't gotten this job yet, but let's tell people it's a sure thing so I can celebrate. I haven't lost the weight yet but let's tell myself and everyone else I'm on the journey and it's basically going to happen (and never mention the times you gain it back). If happiness is based on a goal, sometimes we pretend to achieve those goals so we can get moments of pleasure, but in the long run it only leads to more unhappiness. Always trying find reasons to eat cake and feeling worse afterwards.
Imagine an investor, who wasn't happy when he made incremental money. Just waiting for that one big pay off, a black swan event. Something that's unpredictable and hard to control. If it were to happen, it's still not over. They'd just want something different, or more of it. It never ends. We want a trick, one big weight loss secret, a billion dollar invention, the next big hit. Why delay happiness? Happiness shouldn't be contingent and conditional.
We're all interconnected and interwoven in a web of humanity
Arguably one of the most influential minds of the modern era thought long and hard about happiness, humanity, and individuality. Happiness was bringing value to the collective, individuality was about the special few who were able to use their talents to elevate the rest of us, not just elevate themselves.
"When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created... The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave...
A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in this matter...
It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine — each was discovered by one man...
Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society — nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community...
The health of society thus depends quite as much on the independence of the individuals composing it as on their close social cohesion...
The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.”
— Albert Einstein, Ideas And Opinions
Detach happiness from the "if and when" paradigm
"Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
— Abraham Lincoln
If and when I retire, I'll finally take those trips and be happy. If and when I find true love, I'll be happy. If and when I look the way I want, I'll be happy. If and when I my life becomes secure, I'll stop saving all my money and start enjoying it. If and when I get this, I'll be happy. What about in the mean time? What about if it doesn't happen? If you're waiting for perfect conditions to happen in an imperfect world, you'll never be happy. Look to live a good life, not a perfect one.
If you're only happy if and when you're doing your passion, what about all the other hours in the day? When dealing with all the BS that goes along with your passion project? If you're miserable all the other times, who'll want to work with you or help you? Or when you vacillate from misery to grandiose? Your passion for your passion might be the reason you never succeed.
In a recent Harvard study, when people think about things they want, they show less patience, self control, and will-power. When they think about things they're grateful for, they show more patience, will-power, and logic. Emotions and aspirations vs logic and gratitude. Socrates said, "the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." When you think about what you want, you think you know everything.
Isn't trying to be big and important an attempt at trying to connect to as many people as possible? Try connecting with thoughtfulness and kindness, it's more long lasting and unique. Trying to be special isn't all that unique. And in a world growing smaller and smaller through digital information, it pays to be kind.
Happiness isn't important to everyone
For many purists, there are things more important than happiness. Maybe its money, power, fame, your career, your art, your identity, or individuality. They're willing to sacrifice happiness for something more important than happiness. They want to dive deep into darkness to produce their art perhaps or their sense of identity is so important they need to disconnect from the world. Maybe it's about the bottom line and making as much money as possible, because money is how they keep score and the final score is all that matters. Maybe it's feeling better than other people. The want to be recognized is more important than the feeling of adding value to the world. Living in a toxic world to get what they want. There are existentialists who think happiness is silly. There are people who are too serious and too busy for happiness. Happiness for the ignorant masses. Want becomes more important than happiness. Happiness not an emotion but a commodity one can buy. Money buys happiness, more spending power more happiness.
Martin Seligman founded the field of positive psychology in 2000, the study of happiness is still a fairly recent phenomena. Many may not identify with happiness as the most important thing in their lives, in some cultures the trend has become money. Some aren't even aware of their values. You can still benefit from this knowledge.
Choose your words wisely
Even our words can affect our happiness. The subjunctive is a type of verbiage found in many Western languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred. It puts your thoughts in a mood and shapes your perception of the world.
Most other languages are indicative. Meaning their words and thoughts are indicative of their actions. It's why Yoda talks so funny. Part of the reason many people are unhappy is because they say things they don't plan to do. In fact the more subjunctive you speak, the more unhappy you tend to get. Once you get too existential and you can think about thinking about how unhappy you are, you can appreciate unhappiness in many different levels. You become an artist of unhappiness.
Happiness is a series of habits and so is self sabotage.
We were evolved to find meaning in happiness
If you think about it, we survived as a species through collective effort. We evolved with always the big question about, why? Why will this keep me alive? Why will this keep my tribe alive? We evolved to be rewarded for these responses. It's why empathy is hardwired into our brains. A threat to our own is a threat to our collective resource. It's why the cultures with the longest lifespans are also the most tightly knit communities. The better the group does, the better we do. The more we try to live in a vacuum, the less we care about others, we have less people to live for, the earlier we die. Try just cooking for one and see how difficult it is.
Individuality and self love is important but it's a balancing act, more important is feeling connected to others. The opposite is feeling alienated, disconnected. The shortest lifespans belong to people who are socially isolated.
You look at the morbidity of jobs that are completely ego or self love driven (rock star to investment banker), and their life expectancy remains well below the norm.
"Happiness depends upon ourselves" – Aristotle
Happiness is a choice and we can get better at it. Even in times of strife and protest, we can unite and try to make each other happy. And in doing so we make ourselves happy.
Source: Must Triumph
Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.