Saturday, October 17, 2009

Philosophical Happiness

Last week while I was in Memphis, I was talking to a friend of mine about happiness. I told him how I always found it kind of amazing that there seemed to be certain people who can shape their world, kind of creating their own reality and maintain a certain amount of happiness in their lives.

For instance, I used to work with a woman who always seemed happy – despite stressors that existed in the office, difficulties she might be experiencing with her kids, unstable romantic relationships and so forth. Regardless of the external strains and pressures on her life, she seemed to carry this sense of constant happiness. (Everyone in the office pretty much thought she was crazy.) Now don’t get me wrong, she got upset about certain things but always recovered pretty quickly. She also had this uncanny ability to turn an unexpected or disappointing result into a result that she decided was probably the better choice anyway. I’ve met several people who are able to do that with outcomes (flip the unwanted result into the better overall result before the affects are realized) and I’ve always found them very intriguing. For some reason, I think men possess and practice this ability more so than women.

Anyway, my friend, Chris, told me about a TED talk he had recently seen about happiness and it was similar to what I was describing. He forwarded me the link. The talk is excellent and the term that describes what I'm talking about is "synthetic happiness." It’s definitely worth the 20 minutes of watching.

While I find the talk philosophically interesting, I don’t know if I completely buy his premise. I think he makes a couple of huge leaps with his conclusions, resulting in fallacious arguments.

For example, his argument about people being happier with fewer options. I don’t know if I truly buy that or not. While someone may have an easier time making a decision between two things verses five things, I don’t think that necessarily translates into happiness. I guess one could argue that the simpler things are, the easier it is to be happy, but again, I just think that’s a huge leap. To me, it makes too many assumptions, the main one being that we are all equal – in the ways we contemplate, seek and achieve happiness. In reality, I don’t think we are all modeled or wired the same way to achieve happiness.

For me, I think I personally have such high expectations for myself that I'm often let down when I fall short. In an order to pull me out of my self-inflicted funk, others tell me that my expectations are too high and if they had achieved what I have, that they'd be ecstatic, and so forth. When I hear that, it doesn't really do much for me, except maybe question that person's own self expectations and wonder if s/he might be a slacker. I know that is a wrong and unfair assumption, which I later discredit, but I'm being honest here. I think it's because I don't believe that synthetic happiness is as good as achieved happiness. It's the whole fake thing that gets me. I don't know how to do it and talk myself into believing it without feeling like a fake, a fraud and a sellout.

Maybe there's more truth in Dan Gilbert's argument but it'd be more about the limited knowledge. For example, if my knowledge is limited, then I have no idea about everything available to me - to help me achieve happiness. The problem is everyone's amount of knowledge is vastly different. A dog is happy because his world is limited, he doesn't have to worry about death and making a difference in the world and performing at his optimal level of dogness. I guess an argument can be made that there are limits within our world and applying the same philosophy should result in the same outcome, but it doesn't make a sound argument.

More thoughts later.

1 comment:

Leslie Wardell said...

Paula, I have a friend who has the worst life including a son who served time for pedophilia, but she is so simple that she doesn't see the horror or shame in everything the way we do.
I guarantee she hasn't read a book in her entire life so she has no deep thoughts or questions, she just is.
Sometimes I envy her naivety especially when I am tormenting myself about one thing or another.
She is Mary Hartman, who's main concern is keeping her house clean and free of yellow waxy buildup.
She is also incredibly boring.