Thursday, October 23, 2008

(Sometimes elusive) happiness

After spending almost an hour trying to explain ANOVAs to a group of undergraduate students, I walked out of the classroom, set my bag down, and put on my coat. I felt frustrated and inadequate. I looked up as I was working my arms into the sleeves, and my eye caught on something taped to the wall right in front of me. It was inches from my face. It read, “Happiness is found along the way, not at the destination.”

I was taken aback, instantly reminded of the fact that this IS life; what happens today and tomorrow and the next day is MY LIFE, not days leading up to the start of my life. Almost simultaneously, I recognized this quote is similar to so many others stating that “happiness is a journey, not a destination,” and I wondered why we so quickly forget this simple truth in our daily lives.

Even someone as well-adjusted, positive, and generally happy as me can sometimes lose sight of the good life.

In real life, there is no big “happily ever after.” We don't work and toil and hope and plan for that day when we will be “happy” and then relax (as many movies may want us to think). We make our happiness in how we live our lives on a daily level.

Joys and setbacks and frustrations and unseen ease...all of which make up a typical day. But, we get so caught up in the frustrations and setbacks that we forget to celebrate the joys or recognize the ease. Why?

Why do we get bored with our jobs? Why do we get frustrated with the time it takes to accomplish a goal? Why do we fail to recognize our successes so shortly after we have achieved them? And, why are we often ignorant of the ways in which our lives are blessedly going well?

Psychologists have suggested one explanation for some of these phenomena is that our bodies respond positively to novelty, while we quickly adapt to both positive and negative experiences. This automatic positive response to novelty, in the form of happy emotions, is thought to keep us constantly striving for new experiences and accomplishments. This striving is evolutionarily adaptive; those who continue to grow and change throughout their lives are better able to adapt to changing environments, solve problems, and pass on their genes to the next generation. It is this striving which enabled human kind to develop ways to heat our homes, build underground sewage systems, and create other innovations which make our lives healthier. Thus, the fact that we quickly adapt to our current situations is something we inherited from our ancestors and actually makes our lives better in the end.

Another, related, explanation is that we focus on the negative aspects of our lives because they are mostly rare. On average, our daily lives are mostly positive; most of our interactions with others are pleasant and we have a basic level of creature comforts at home (even if you are struggling to pay your bills). If we naturally tend to focus on things which are rare, or novel, then the negative things we experience, think, or feel, will demand much of our attention. Meanwhile, those daily pleasantries we have with our friends, significant others, and coworkers help maintain our general level of positive emotions (most people rate themselves above “neutral” when asked how happy they are), but they don't demand our attention like the negative moments do.

In a recent article in the Oregonian, the author asked Danish citizens why their country had the happiest people in the world. Some pointed to contentment, while others pointed to the government's focus on doing what is right for the middle class. There is definitely something to be said for appreciation and gratitude for one's life, and contentment in that life. One major lesson of Buddhism is that life is impermanent; sorrows and joys and frustrations and victories are all temporary and we must be able to roll with them. Being attached too much to any one thing or moment in life will only bring disappointment. Perhaps the Danish are better able to accept the transitory nature of life. Or perhaps it is something cultural; I cannot help but to think in some large way, the media's portrayal of the next big thing we HAVE to have or do, purposefully works to make us feel inadequate in their drive to get us to purchase, purchase, purchase.

Are we in the United States fed discontentment? Perhaps the media is where our seeking of novelty comes from, and not our ancestors?

Taking the idea of government into question: Would we be less bored or frustrated with our jobs and feel more pleasure in our daily lives if the government paid for things like our healthcare and our education? It may be that we would worry less about our financial situations and be able to enjoy more of life's little pleasures. Or, the system would be set up in such a way that would make us feel more supported in our lives, able to do the basic things we need for a good life, without struggle.

In any case, whatever the source this discontentment, researchers have also found that taking a few minutes out of every day to recognize those aspects of our lives for which we are grateful, significantly improves our sense of well-being and happiness.

It may also benefit us to try something new once in a while. If you normally come home and turn on the television, try going for a walk instead. Or, if you have the means, enroll in an evening non-credit course and learn something about that thing you've always wanted to try. I certainly found that having rowing in my life, and even starting this blog, have not only given me something to focus on outside of "work," but are positive in my personal development.

In the end, the more we are conscious of the positive in our lives, the less time we have to focus on the negative. It may be easier said than done, but worth a try, don't you think?


seamaiden said...

Nicely written post with many excellent points. I can identify with a lot of this... Interesting note about the Danish. Since I study Buddhism academically, I have to mention that one of the most basic tenets of traditional Theravadan Buddhism is that life is suffering and the whole point is getting out of this chain of life and rebirth. However, newer forms of Mahayana Buddhism have gotten more into the idea of realizing enlightenment in this world, although happiness is not always a factor in that discussion either... I guess my point is just that there are a lot of Buddhisms! :)

Anyway, I'm glad to have come across your blog and I will definitely be visiting you again. I also need to check and see if you're on my GF blogroll.

Have a great day, and I promise not to talk shop any more! lol

(working on PhD in RLST)

mbb said...

Great post and ANOVA - a favorite topic!