Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Finding the Buried Treasure: Part One

In the last year I've read several books about happiness, creativity and talent.  Taken together, they have provided me with a treasure map. I have been followed the map.  I have been spending my days digging at the "X".  I've not yet found the treasure I know is buried down there but I'm glad to be doing the work.  I'd like to share those books with you. Some of you are unhappy with where you are in life.  I hope that you might read these books and benefit from them.

The first book is Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a psychologist at Harvard who studies happiness.  He asserts, and I think he is right, that the most defining trait of  human beings is that we are able to think about the possible results of an action before we do it. We can run a simulation in our conscious minds.  This allows humans to consider if we put the fulcrum there and make the lever this long that we can may budge the boulder out of the way.  It was a key development in our evolution as humans.  Our ability to think about what comes next before we act is an incredibly valuable tool.  It is not something any other species can do, so far as we know.  What this also allows humans to do is speculate about what would make us happy.  We can imagine that the ice cream cone will make us happy so we eat it.  Later on we are miserable because we broke our diet and we feel like a loser with no self discipline.  Humans are very bad at predicting what will make us happy, how long it will make us happy and the intensity of the happiness.

A fascinating phenomenon was brought to light in Gilbert's research.  This finding matches my own personal experience and maybe yours as well. Single events we believe will make us happy or sad for a long time usually have a temporary effect.  We win a bunch of money.  A year later, we've gotten used to having a lot of money, some negative aspects of having a lot of money appear and we aren't any happier than we were before.  We have a terrible car accident and can't work the factory any more.  A year later, we find some other thing we can do with our selves and start a new career as a book reviewer and enjoy what we are doing.  The money isn't as good but the work is satisfying.  We don't take into account that there may be downsides to our upsides and upsides to our downsides.

This is why so many of us struggle to figure life out.  We buy stuff but the stuff only has a temporary effect.  We get a younger girlfriend but she's shallow and after a while the sex isn't enough.  We eat brownies and get fat which makes us sad.  We smoke to be cool but then develop a long term addiction that affects our health and makes us depressed.  What is amazing is that the things that lead to real long term happiness are simple though not always easy to get.

Gilbert's research indicates that the general things we need to live happy fulfilling lives are simple.  We want to have the basic necessities of life met: food, water, shelter and a few other things beyond that.  A feeling of Autonomy: We want a certain amount of freedom and independence.  A feeling of competence: We want to feel like we can do what we are working at and are able to navigate life successfully.  Positive personal relationships with friends and family.  That's it.  Happy people have those life experiences of security in their needs, a feeling that they are doing what they want to be doing and do it well and are able to have meaningful relationships.

This is something worth considering. There are a lot of questions that this idea generates.  So what do I want to be doing?  What if I do find what I want to be doing and I suck at it?  How do I figure any of this out?

Next Up: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield