The Happiness Challenge: Keeping it Small
As you know, I’ve been sinking my teeth into the topic of happiness, which for me has been a learn-as-you-go-along exercise. What got me started was The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler MD, with its strong emphasis on cultivating loving kindness (or compassion). Basically, people who manage to see beyond their own stupid crap and put others first (but without being a doormat) have a lot more to be happy about.
Then I pulled up a New Yorker piece on the “Grant Study” led by George Vaillant that has tracked the lives of 200 Harvard men since 1937. Among other things, that study strongly suggests that it is not the trouble in one’s life that determines happiness or misery, but how one responds to trouble. Unhealthy or "immature adaptations" include various forms of acting out while healthy (mature) adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation, and other behaviors.
This sounded to one of my readers, Tabby, like positive thinking, and in a comment she challenged me on it. “Let me understand ...” she began. “Those who look at life always as "half empty" either die early or are stricken with chronic illness ... whereas those who look at life "half full" live happy lives much longer.”
She also picked up an irony that the “half full” people may in fact be struggling a lot harder with common misfortunes that do not fit into their positive world view.
Both the Dalai Lama and Dr Vaillant focussed on the practical value of leading positive lives, but to me this did not equate to the common (mis)perception of positive thinking. As I responded to Tabby:
I think if happiness were simply a question of looking at life as the glass half full it would be easy. All we would have to do is think positive. But that to me is a Fool's Paradise. Rather, we are challenged - often in the face of crushing and incapacitating depression - to be compassionate, to put others first, and to respond to life's many surprises with skill and grace.
Okay, time to come back down to earth. Early this year, a review copy of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project arrived in the mail. Over the course of 12 months, Gretchen set out to apply everything she researched on happiness to her own life, blogging daily as she went.
I’m about half-way through the book, and what jumps out and hits me in the face is that no high-minded principles are driving it. This is all about paying attention to the small stuff. For instance, in the first chapter, Getchen comments that “sleep is the new sex.” Apparently in our sleep-deprived society (we get 20 percent less of it than our great-grandparents) a day-time nap can border on orgasmic.
As Gretchen notes, according to one study, along with tight work deadlines, a bad night’s sleep is a major factor in upsetting our moods (tell me about it) while another study suggests that an extra hour of sleep each night would contribute more to one’s happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.
Once Gretchen wised up and made the requisite changes, she began to “feel more energetic,” and that “getting out of bed in the morning was no longer torture.”
Never underestimate the value in paying attention to the small stuff. Learning to love your enemy may be a noble goal, but you might want to tackle more mundane projects first, such as moving that pile of paper off the TV tray in the living room - and folding up the tray and putting it back in its proper place while you’re at it.
Yes, Gretchen actually delves into topics such as getting rid of clutter and clearing up unfinished tasks. (And how do you feel having some control of your life? Better? Happy, even?).
Then there is the art of getting along with others. Once again, it’s the little things, such as taking time out for small gestures of appreciation (pretty easy) and “fighting right” (not so easy).
Then there’s the slightly bigger stuff, such as choosing the right livelihood. One day, years before, Gretchen had a revelation that the career she excelled in (law) was not something she would do if no one was paying her to do it, such as writing. Over time, she made the change. The bio on her book lists her as the author of four other books.
Four months into her project, Gretchen took stock. Her preliminary conclusion was that while her fundamental nature hadn’t changed - she was still the same familiar Gretchen - there was more happiness in her life each day. This translated to “more sources of fun, engagement, and satisfaction,” and less “sources of bad feelings, such as guilt and anger.”
Ah, the small things in life.