It rained last night and today – a brief, wet, respite right in the middle of the dry season. Locals have told us that these rains generally come every year, sometimes just for a day, sometimes for two.
“They water the mango trees,” they say, nodding, as if these clouds have arrived specifically to provide the mango trees with the boost to get them through until the monsoon. So Mike and I are calling them the mango tree rains.
The mango tree rains are making more than just the mango trees happy – they have dropped the temperature at least fifteen degrees and that’s always cause for celebration on my end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week – not just because of the mango tree rains but also because I recently agreed to write a distance learning course on wellbeing and resilience as it’s related to the humanitarian field for a university in the UK. This course has ten chapters in it on topics as diverse as childhood attachment and community resilience. I said yes to this project partly because I thought it would force me to learn a fair bit. On that front I haven’t been wrong.
I’m finding the chapter on positive psychology that I’m working on this week particularly interesting.
Positive psychology studies topics as diverse as happiness, optimal human functioning, subjective well-being, and the meaning of life. If you’d like a brief introduction you can go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and download the first article on the list – a Time Magazine Cover Story on The Science of Happiness.
Over lunch yesterday Mike and I were discussing this thing called happiness and one psychologist’s take on it. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:
- Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
- Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
- Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.
Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important.
“So how would you rate yourself on each of those domains right now?” Mike asked me yesterday.
These sorts of questions always make me look at the ceiling, fidget, and try not to get too hung up on the scores of “well, it depends on…” caveats that are suddenly flooding my brain.
“OK,” I finally said. “High on engagement – I tend to be very involved in whatever I’m doing. A bit lower on meaning at the moment. And fairly high on pleasure.”
“Really?” Mike said, giving every indication of being surprised. “High on pleasure?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, we get to hang out together a lot at the moment. We live in this nice house and all the air conditioners work. And we have a little dog to play with that makes us laugh. And you work five minutes up the road and often get to come home for lunch. And we can walk to dozens of restaurants here and eat out anytime we feel like it. And we live in this cool country that’s pretty interesting. I mean, the pleasure index is going to go down the hotter it gets – that’s unavoidable. But it’s been pretty high this last four months.”
“Huh,” Mike said. “That’s so different than the way I would have looked at it. I was thinking of pleasure being more associated with things like adventure bike rides and hiking, and I’m not doing a lot of that at the moment. And I would have thought your pleasures index would have been lower anyway.”
Oh yeah, I suddenly remembered. I’d spent a good proportion of the last three months battling pregnancy nausea. And I’ve been alternating between happy, neutral, ambivalent, and terrified about said pregnancy. And I’ve been craving bbq sauce on hamburgers and other things hard to procure here. And the hot water heater in our bathroom hates me and tends to turn off about four times during every shower, sometimes refusing to come back on at all.
Perhaps it’s good that these are not the first things to rush to mind when I’m trying to think about how happy I am. Perhaps I am more of a pessimistic optimist than an optimistic pessimist after all.
Or perhaps (thanks again to pregnancy) I have the memory of a goldfish at the moment and I am not a good judge of my own happiness.
Seligman would endorse the first of these possibilities. He argues that “we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences.” For him, studying how we feel moment-to-moment puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. It is the remembered self that provides us the truest reflection.
What do you think? Are we our memories more than the sum total of our moment-to-moment experiences? And how would you rate yourself at present with regards to pleasure, engagement, and meaning?