Tag Archives: meaning

The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. 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. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!

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Happiness and the Mango Tree Rains

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:

  1. Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  2. Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  3. 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?