When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

05 October 2005

So what do you have to do to find happiness?

So what do you have to do to find happiness? - Sunday Times - Times Online

Although most people rate themselves as happy, there is a wealth of evidence to show that negative thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Experiments show that we remember failures more vividly than successes. We dwell on what went badly, not what went well. When life runs smoothly, we're on autopilot — we're only in a state of true consciousness when we notice the stone in our shoe.

Of the six universal emotions, four — anger, fear, disgust and sadness — are negative and only one, joy, is positive. (The sixth, surprise, is neutral.) According to the psychologist Daniel Nettle, author of Happiness, and one of the Royal Institution lecturers, the negative emotions each tell us 'something bad has happened' and suggest a different course of action. Fear tells us danger is near, so run away. Anger prompts us to deter aggressors. Sadness warns us to be cautious and save energy, while disgust urges us to avoid contamination."

Joy, according to Nettle, simply tells us, "something good has happened, don't change anything". The evolutionary role of pleasure was to encourage activity that was good for survival, such as eating and having sex. But unlike negative emotions, which are often persistent, joy tends to be short-lived. We soon get sick of cream cakes or blasé about our pay rise.
The ruthless evolutionary logic of being a sad-sack. Whew.

I have always thought that Hobbes' description of the life of man in the state of nature--"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"--would make an excellent name for a law firm.

"Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness LLC" gives it a fair run for its money.

I digress. The excerpt quoted above is from a really fascinating article on the subject of happiness: what it is, how it can be measured, and how it can be attained. Happiness seems to have a very sound neurological and biochemical basis, unsurprisingly, and some very bright people seem to be closing in on understanding it.

Here's an irresistible detail on what works, in terms of increasing your happiness:
In one internet study, two interventions increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for at least six months. One exercise involves writing down three things that went well and why, every day for a week. The other is about identifying your signature strengths and using one of them in a new and different way every day for a week. A third technique involves writing a long letter to someone you're grateful to but have never properly thanked, and visiting them to read it out in person.
My thoughts:

It is glib and reductive, but I have always conceptualized happiness as a rather simple equation (this isn't original, but I'm damned if I can find an authoritative citation for the original source):

Happiness = (reality - expectations)

In other words, the amount of happiness that you are experiencing can be expressed as the "amount" by which the perceived quality of your current situation meets or exceeds what it is that you want. This seems to suggest that you could be happy all the time if you abandon your expectations, which, you know, I think I may have heard somewhere before.

Related site: Dan Kohn's Happiness Page (he also likes the Happiness Equation)

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