Don’t Wish for Happiness. Work for It.
Arthur Brooks writes this wonderful column for The Atlantic about “How to Build a Life” – in this piece he argues why we need to work for our happiness very unlike the Stoic thought: “In his 1851 work American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.” This is basically a restatement of the Stoic philosophers’ “paradox of happiness”: To attain happiness, we must not try to attain it.”
However Brooks makes a distinction – pursuing happiness doesn’t mean just wishing or desiring for it:
“In truth, happiness requires effort, not just desire. Focusing on your dissatisfaction and wishing things were different in your life is a recipe for unhappiness if you don’t take action to put yourself on a better path. But if you make an effort to understand human happiness, formulate a plan to apply what you learn to your life, execute on it, and share what you learn with others, happiness will almost surely follow.
“…self-awareness—to be attentive to our own thinking processes—leads to new knowledge and breakthroughs. One recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that self-awareness allows us to recognize emotional cues and distractions and to redirect our minds in productive ways. In essence, studying your own mind and pondering ways to improve your happiness takes inchoate anxieties and mental meandering and transforms them into real plans for life improvement.
…Rumination is to be stuck; self-reflection is to seek to be unstuck. The trick, of course, is telling the difference. Say you have just experienced a breakup. If you go over the painful circumstances again and again, like watching a looped video for hours and days, this is rumination. To break out of the cycle and begin the process of self-reflection, you’d have to follow the painful memory with insightful questions. For example: “Is this a recurring pattern in my life? If so, why?” “If I could do it over again, what would I do differently?” “What can I read to help inform me more about what I have just experienced and use it constructively?”
Self-reflection moves feelings of unhappiness from our reactive brains to our executive brains, where we can manage them through concrete action. The action itself is crucial.”
Brooks makes yet another suggestion that can help us in our pursuit of happiness – sharing with friends and family our knowledge and our experience of the science of happiness:
“Once you’ve reflected (not ruminated), learned, taken action, and reaped the happy rewards, it’s time to make sure the benefits are not temporary—that you don’t fall back into simply wishing. The key is sharing your new knowledge with other people.
Teaching arithmetic problems to others has been shown to improve people’s ability to solve them, and in my experience, the same is true for the study of happiness: Sharing knowledge cements it in your own mind. One of the most important assignments I give my graduate students is for them to talk about the science and art of happiness at every party they go to. This ensures that they have the ideas clear enough in their heads to explain them to others. (It also makes them more popular.)
Further, when we share knowledge about how to become happier, we persuade ourselves every bit as much as we do others. It is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that asking people to argue in favor of something can be a great way to get them to believe it. Sharing the secrets to happiness will also make you happier, because doing so is an act of love. And as we have all learned, love is generative: The more you give it, the more of it you get.”