Thursday, January 09, 2014

Happy is as happy does

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, happiness, self help

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, "Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be". If you take that notion, add the principle of hedonic adaptation—we get used to just about anything after a while—, and expand it all to book length, you'll get something like Sonja Lyobomirsky's new book The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't; What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does.

Dr. Lyubomirsky has made a career of studying happiness, and her prior book The How of Happiness is one of a very few self help books with scientific backing (get it, I plan to). Myths goes further, focusing on the turning points of adult life: gaining or losing key relationships, getting or losing an occupation or a windfall, and the inevitable changes of getting older.

Many years ago, during a phase in which I allowed myself to think myself a victim, I was seeing a therapist about "depression", and he had me read the book Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst. It was a big help, and this book would have helped even more. My real problem was coupling the usual mid-life crisis that accompanies one's mid-40s with the stresses of having an infant in the home. Most 45-year-olds have only vague memories of the infant stage of their teen-aged (or older) kids. A few years later, seeing a therapist over a completely different issue (thankfully, relating to non-relatives!), at one point he asked me, "What do you do when you are feeling bad?" I said, "I do something I like." He replied, "Then you don't need me any more," and I haven't been to one since.

The biggest "attitude adjustment" I underwent came later, after I experienced dying of cancer, but was rescued at the last minute by a terrifically skilled surgeon. As Samuel Johnson said, "…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Here is a before-and-after example. All my life I have been dogged by a tendency to over-submit to authority, and in particular, to quail when challenged. A few months after finishing chemotherapy, a manager (my boss's boss) assigned me something that was far and away outside my competence, in an area I had no interest in pursuing. I could see it was a recipe for failure, and sent a note, declining. She came storming to my office, pretty much trying to say, "Take it or else", and I said, "Look, I already died. What more can you do to me? Assign it to someone who is already good at that." For the rest of my career I operated as an equal partner with any supervisor or manager. And I was a lot happier!

The principle of hedonic adaptation is central to the book's approach, and is well studied. It is encapsulated in the proverbs, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," and "Familiarity breeds contempt," as applied not just to relationships but to anything we might care about. For example: you have a bitter fight with a cherished friend, and there is a period in which the two of you do not communicate. You are alternately devastated and insultedly enraged, but you are definitely not happy. For a time, the matter consumes all your thoughts, but if this goes on for weeks or months, you have to go on with life, and you do. If someone asks you, "Are you happy?" you are likely to respond the way you would have the day before the blowup. Then you get the chance to reconcile, and the two of you forgive each other and resume the friendship. You are over the moon. Then in time, your general level of happiness returns. Over several weeks' time, your "mood meter" might go like this (ironing out lesser events):

Within limits, we get used to both the bad and the good. This goes for money also, for example. We are all happy to get a raise, but it doesn't seem to take very long to find ways to spend it, and we are no happier than before. Suppose it is a big raise, so you buy a boat (or name your favorite extravagance). You are tickled to pieces! A year or two later, you are wondering if you can afford an even bigger boat, or even worse, getting irritated at the amount of upkeep.

Now, what about aging? Can we really age gracefully? It seems we all know someone 5 or 10 or 20 or even 40 years older, who is still good looking and healthy and keeping busy with enjoyable things to do. We might wonder, can I do as well? Look around some more. It is also likely that you know someone of a similar age with this or that problem, and maybe coping with the tighter budget of a "fixed income" retirement, but who seems quite content…or not! If you have known that person a long enough time, do you remember his or her general mood half a lifetime ago? It was probably similar. This gets back to Lincoln's quote.

Externalities don't determine our "inner climate", though they do affect day-to-day moods, more or less severely. As in her earlier book, the author presents a number of methods to attain perspective. I find it akin to Stephen Covey's "circles of concern, circles of control" principle. He advises us to take a careful look at everything we worry about, to determine which we can control and which we cannot. In his view, to be both happier and more effective, we must do what we can to increase our circle of control and to decrease the circle of concern until, ideally, they match.

Dr. Lyubomirsky would agree, and each chapter ends with a section titled "The Prepared Mind" (based on Louis Pasteur: "Fortune favors the prepared mind."). If we have suffered a reverse in any area, and can step back, and expect to adapt to it, we can do so more quickly. If we have a pleasant (or ecstatic) surprise, and we can step back, and realize we will also adapt to that, we can perhaps avoid the negative swing that often occurs when we say to ourselves, "Well, that wasn't quite as good as I imagined, long term." Nobody can get what Lucy wanted in one of the Peanuts strips, when she said, "Why do there have to be ups and downs? I don't want any downs. I just want ups and Ups and UPS!!"

Don't we all. Not available, folks.

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