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The Pursuit of Happiness

by David Myers

Ancient Greeks thought happiness came from living serenely, above the world's passions and material cares. So Epicurus said that wise people remembered the past with gratitude, took delight in present pleasures and faced the future without fear.

There is a danger in taking 'surveys' at face value, particularly when asking about behaviour. (People much prefer surveys that confirm their own beliefs or behaviour) Shere Hite sent out 100,000 questionnaires to am unrepresentative group of women, got back 4500, and on basis of those, decided that 70% of women married more than 5 years were having affairs. Made great headlines, but when someone checked with a more scientific weighted survey, they found the true figure was under 10%.

Ambrose Bierce's definition of happiness: 'An imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults.'

We feel good or bad depending on who we compare ourselves to (hence the almost universal habit of keeping 'friends' you don't really like, but who are worse off than you are ...)

Some religions have concept of making us more appreciative of what we have by taking them away for a while - eg Muslims daytime fasting at Ramadan. If you feel 'disadvantaged' spend a day in a hospital ward and see the things that patients never realised were blessings to count - being able to sleep on your side, being able to scratch an itch etc. Sometimes even imagining other's misfortunes is enough trigger renewed life satisfaction.

Simple experiment based on old saying 'Count your blessings' - After just five times completing the sentence 'I'm glad I'm not a ...' students rated themselves happy with their lives. In contrast, the other group, who completed sentences that focused their attention on unsatisfied desires, beginning with 'I wish I were ...' came away feeling a lot worse.

Best predictor of life success is not satisfaction with family or friendships or income, but simply satisfaction with yourself - a very high correlation between high self esteem and well-being. People who like and accept themselves feel good about life in general.

Most people grow up believing that our attitudes determine our behaviour. Although this is partially true, it's even more true that our attitudes follow our behaviour. We can act ourselves into a new way of thinking far easier than we can think ourselves into a new way of acting.

Many streams of evidence converge on this attitudes-follow-behaviour principle. Immoral acts shape the self. Saying becomes believing. The well known experiment where men gave severe electric 'shocks' to students who gave wrong test answers began with very small shocks. But by the time they'd dealt out five small shocks the men had begun seeing the students as stupid and stubborn, and 65% had no trouble dealing out 'shocks' that had the recipients screaming in 'pain'. But the principle works the other way too - moral acts also shape the self. Children who resist temptation become more conscientious. Altruists come to like the ones they’ve helped. Jewish tradition that you deal with anger by giving a gift to the object of your rage.

There is a practical moral here for us all. If you want to make a change - boost your self esteem, become more optimistic or more socially confident - fake it - pretend self esteem, feign optimism, simulate out-goingness. Saying-becomes-believing-becomes-reality.

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