August 27, 2007

Key to happiness.

Otherwise titled: Forget all the self-help books: the one way to have a happy life is to actually want to be happy.”

I’ve been thinking about life and happiness quite a bit recently, but still remain puzzled about the whole notion. After all, the whole concept of happiness is problematic: attempting to create a measurable metric for something that is not only completely unquantifiable, but also entirely subjective, is close to impossible.

Now, I’m well aware that Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness indicator, so measuring the abstract notion of happiness is perhaps possible, but it still doesn’t mean it is easy to quantify. In fact, I’d argue that happiness is perhaps even harder to measure than sadness, as people are quick to point out when things aren’t going their way.

So today, I’m going to put all hedonimetrics aside and reflect upon happiness as a notion that can’t be measured and compared: instead, I’m going to look at happiness as something that acts as a guiding principle for life.

More than just work

More and more people are realizing that the pleasure that you get from their work is an important indicator of their disposition in the rest of your life. However, the focus has shifted from what you do’ at work to how you do it’ instead. A recent article on Web Worker Daily indicated that one of the most important thing that people expect from their jobs is increased trust between employer and employee,” rather than simply just meaningful tasks to complete.

It is easy to cave into the temptation to rest our emotional well-being on work: as someone that works for about 75 hours a week, I do it all the time. It is easy to forget that relationships, the environment, and your own personal outlook are equally important influences on a person’s joviality.

More than just friends

A recent article by Todd Pitock on Jugglezine on happiness reminded me of the Talmudic saying that stated: Love without criticism is no love at all.” Easily forgotten, this nugget of wisdom often seems contrary to most advice on happiness, but is in fact the perfect complement to it all. When we’re told to surround ourselves with the right people,” we often forget that the right people also include people that will give perspective, negative or positive, to any endeavor.

The same article went on to say:

Ideally, good relationships, which are a component of happiness, thrive with a degree of negativity. One workplace study showed that business teams who had a three-to-one positive-to-negative ratio of interactions did best. Those who were ten-to-one were as ineffective as teams who were disproportionately negative.

Happiness, at its root, is based in satisfaction and value. A true feeling of value comes not only from unabashed praise, but from constructive criticism and realistic engagement. You can’t argue that the Talmudic sages got it right.

More than just achievement

I’ve extolled the virtues of Twitter before, but I’ll give you yet another example of why I’m such a big fan of the service. A few weeks ago, Anil Dash posted a tweet that had one simple nugget of wisdom — a quick quote that actually ended up being the impetus for this post: 

Happiness is being good at something.”

I still have the SMS with that message saved on my phone. It acts as a reminder that I don’t necessarily have to do something great in order to be happy — I just need to take what I do all the time and do them well.

If we take, again, happiness as being based in satisfaction and value, Anil’s tweet rings even truer: instead of value being placed in specific achievement, value is being put in a repeated pattern of behavior, whether small or large in impact. The best part of the statement is that everyone is good at something if they just think about it, so everyone, in essence, has something to be happy about.

More than just self-help

I’m no self-help guru, but since you’re here, I’ll tell you my secret: the reason I’m happy these days is because I’m making a conscious effort to be happy. Yes, you can put away all those self-help books and how to be happy” lists you’ve bookmarked (though I quite like Behance’s 100 Tips to Improve Your Life, so don’t throw that one away) and do one simple thing to actually be happy, and that’s just to be happy.

Too many people depend on external forces and external valuation to validate their self-worth — while the thoughts of others, the things you do, and the places where you work, play and live all have their merit, the most important determinant of self-worth is the self. Makes sense to me.

In order to do this, people like Steven Shapiro encourage getting rid of your goals in order to live a happy life. While I do agree with some of what Shapiro says—particularly his ideas on breaking out of routine and being open to doing things that aren’t objective-oriented—I disagree that happiness comes from shedding objective-based behavior. Instead, happiness should be a primary goal — and not this abstract, long-term vision of Utopian and ideal happiness, but a daily sentiment of pleasure and contentment.

Easy to say, I know, but not so easy to do. The steps, however, are easy to take if you break them down: smile at random people on the street, be courteous in traffic, take some time out to read a good magazine article. Making a conscious effort to be happy may seem like an eccentric and oddball thing to do, but no matter how strange it seems, the payoff is worth it.