Sunday, June 7, 2009

Predictably Happy?

The Atlantic has a very interesting article on happiness and success, which given the framework for this blog, I can't help but link to.
What Makes Us Happy? by Joshua Wolf Shenk
It's four pages, but if you click on the "printer friendly version" at the bottom of page one, it'll pop up the whole article in one page. While I'm extremely interested in this topic I still haven't finished it yet - I'm a product of the MTV "what's next, I'm bored!" generation X after all - but I do appreciate the detail, tone, and extent of the article enough to recommend it, even if you only read page one.

The focus is a longitudinal (read "long term") study started in the 1930s and continuing with varied depth until today. The "Grant Study" profiled a couple hundred Harvard men and followed them for years and many are still alive and participating. The study motivation was feeling that too much of medicine focused on identifying and preventing the sick and abnormal. The study originator wanted to focus on identifying and encouraging normality, health, happiness, and success. I can get behind that.

What they found though, was that "lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of 'successful living'...(the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship)." I can get behind that too! A former boss had done some reading on what made women successful in business, and the author found the only correlation between women seen as successful (by popular consensus) was that they successfully overcame a hardship that could have derailed them. In grand tradition, what didn't kill them made them stronger. It's not about living a charmed life, it's reacting to bad stuff in a positive, growth oriented way. That's not to say one can't grieve for loss, but one can't turn the grief into an excuse for future loss. When you cannot control what happens to you, you can control how you respond to it. And if you find yourself responding badly, you can get help to figure out how to respond better.

I spend rather a lot of time pondering "success". There are always spikes of pondering after reading the alumni news and hearing about how many classmates started and sold two companies to Microsoft then had their 2nd child while earning a solo pilot's license on paid sabbatical which they used to bring humanitarian supplies to disaster zones before curing paralysis in lab rats. Gah! Almost no one can live up to that kind of bar. But the thing is, no one writes into the alumni news with their worst, lowest updates. So we construct a ruler based on the best thing that everyone did and have no idea how often they bitched about wasting time on laundry. A ruler based on the thing that everyone does best is not a fair comparison. Even more, I don't want to live up to that bar because I don't want to do those things! (Ok, I'd take a paid sabbatical!)

To figure out what success is, one has to ask oneself for the definition first. One of the many things I detested about the Bush administration was that he spoke often about Victory and Success without ever defining what he meant by Victory and Success. When you make a condition of policy "we must be successful and victorious in Iraq" before we can leave, it's utterly meaningless. They talked often about timelines, but never that I heard of about milestones. Timeline speak is "we'll leave Iraq in August". Milestone speak is "we'll leave Iraq when the democratic government has had one round of 90% non-violent elections, with 90% non-violent power transistions, fewer than 1 suicide bombing a month, and at least 50% of the country has reliable electric and water supplies for 20+ hours a day." That's stuff you can turn into directed action - get people on board with elections, provide deterrence security for the transition teams, make suicide bombings unacceptable culturally (that might be too much, but it's necessary for a stable society), and get security and engineers on the electric and water supplies and distribution system, and the local neighborhoods invested in keeping them sound. /rant

Back to the happiness for regular-guy people. Is success retiring with $3 Million by age 55? Is success working at a craft until the day you die? Is success working to help people overcome problems (medical, natural disaster, mental, etc...)? Is success doing anything to avoid working retail sales? Is success having and raising 4 healthy kids? Is success going to your beach house twice a month or twice a year? Is success being able to afford your favorite coffee every morning? Is success starting your own company and running it forever? Or starting one and selling it?

Further, what if you want three of these things and only get one? Are you successful? Do you feel successful? Only you can say. And if you get the sense that you're not, only you can decide to change your focus and maybe look at the world thru a new lens.

I have found that by occasionally taking time to write down 3 things that made me happy during a day, regardless of the shitstorm that may also have occurred, I have found it easier to accept happiness. Writing down the good things at the end of the day means that I stop focusing on the bad stuff and remember the good stuff. I don't forget the bad stuff, I just don't let it be my primary focus. The more I search for things that make me happy, the easier it is to find them. Focusing on happy things makes it easier to find the good in the bad as well as the good in the good.

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