Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A happiness paradox

Some people are fond of quotes suggesting that you can't be happy if you're trying:
If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time. -- Edith Wharton
They use such quotes to suggest that you shouldn't even be reading books on happiness. So what happens when you read a study about how exercise elevates mood, and then go exercise? Do you necessarily become unhappy because you've made the dire mistake of "trying to be happy"?

Of course not. Such quotes only make sense in the context of dwelling neurotically on your happiness, or trying to affect it in some direct way.

So there you have it: it's okay to read about this stuff...

Happiness & intuition: part II

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. -- Carl Jung
There seems to be a popular opinion that being happy all the time would be boring (and hence unhappy). Such a belief, I think, stems from poor intuition about emotion. Plus, there's a logical fallacy there.

First: is there any difference between a chronically depressed person and you (assuming you're not the former)? His relative mood is probably much like yours: it elevates a bit when good fortune strikes, and depresses when things go wrong. If happiness were defined by contrasts, it wouldn't be meaningful to say that you're happier than he is.

But the huge size of the antidepressant market is good evidence that this isn't the case. So why is it hard to believe that there exist people for whom your situation is analogous? Would you prefer to be miserable because everything else is boring?

Second: to say that being happy all the time would be unhappy implies that there are two different usages of "happiness" here. We can't logically be simultaneously happy and unhappy if they are to refer to the same dimension, but we could conventionally say such a thing (and sometimes do, colloquially) if they mean slightly different things. But if so, and it's the latter meaning that we're emphasizing and trying to optimize ("...then you would be unhappy"), then we can meaningfully ask: what if you were consistently happy in that sense? It logically precludes the possibility of you being anything other than happy.

Another take is that being unhappy all the time leads to unhappiness. In this way, there is only one state we're discussing. But now we're making a behavioral claim about how people must react (as opposed to a philosophical claim about how mental states are relative), and plenty of evidence from positive psychology indicates that we're pretty wrong about the upper reaches of mental ability.

Look at it this way: is "tall" a relative term? Yes, but only in relation to other people. You're not "tall" because you're taller than you were a few years ago. If you vary in height between 4' and 4'8", you're still never "tall." And if you're 8' in a world full of 8'ers, you may not get the distinction of being "tall," but you can still damn well dunk on an 8' rim.

Trump bares all

I found this nice page full of Donald Trump quotes. The purpose of the site is "Motivation and Strategies for Entrepreneurs." No surprise, then, that we find quotes like this:
"We won by wearing everyone else down. We never gave up, and the opposition slowly began to melt away"
And that we don't see one of his wiser quotes (which in fact is found in exactly one place on the web):
"It's a rare person who can achieve a major goal in life and not almost immediately start feeling sad, empty, and a little lost. If you look at the record -- which in this case means newspapers, magazines, and TV news -- you'll see that an awful lot of people who achieve success, from Elvis Presley to Ivan Boesky, lose their direction or their ethics. Actually, I don't have to look at anyone else's life to know that's true. I'm as susceptible to that pitfall as anyone else"
It seems evolutionary psychology is still hard at work. Ethics doesn't pay the bills or help us reproduce, does it?

Happiness & intuition

I'm currently reading a technical volume on Emotion Regulation. I'm both encouraged and disappointed that the state of the art includes such nuggets as:
"Tamir (2005) has argued that hedonic considerations can sometimes be trumped by other considerations, such as whether a given emotion will help a person achieve his or her immediate objectives."
i.e., sometimes we act with goals other than immediate pleasure and:
" individuals mature and gain in life experience, they might increasingly learn to make greater use of healthy emotion regulation strategies (such as reappraisal) and lesser use of less healthy emotion regulation strategies (such as suppression). Evidence now exists that such an age-related change does occur."
i.e., wisdom happens.

Let it be noted, lest I sound cynical, that I fully appreciate that the gathering and analyzing of objective evidence is indispensable in any science; psychology is no exception, regardless of whether or not its hypotheses are intuitively reasonable.

On the other hand, intuition is an individual thing. And although it may be hard to measure objectively, surely some have better intuition than others. So although intuition in general cannot be relied upon -- that is, some psychological findings are "counterintuitive" -- it seems that perfect intuition should jibe perfectly with those findings.

For this not to be a tautology (i.e., to avoid having to define "perfect intuition" as that intuition that perfectly predicts objective findings), such a thing should exist in the real world and be definable in other ways (say, the supposed omniscience of the Buddha).

Anyway, it's interesting to note that intuition doesn't seem to be constant; one can develop it through persistent introspection. And bit by bit, more psychological insights make a transition from counterintuitive to natural and obvious. To me, that seems like a good operational definition of wisdom, and a fount of happiness.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


After watching the nightly news, and rediscovering after three months that the planet is going to Hell in a handbasket, I'm reminded of the central point of the awesome book Blessed Unrest: humanity seems to act as an innate immune response when the Earth is suffering. It seems we're all well aware of the social and environmental havoc being wreaked, and we are all doing some small part to salve it.


Paraphrasing one of the central claims in Buddhist philosophy, the empty clarity of mind is naturally imbued with a kind of intelligence or wisdom borne of compassion. One of the benefits of meditation seems to be that, by piping down the competing racket in the mind, the inherent wisdom of mind shines through more brightly.

Is Buddhist practice necessary to uncover this intelligence? Certainly not. Is retreat critical? Probably not. Is it crucial to devote more time to finding ways of accessing this deep-seated sagacity and selflessness, and then implementing them? Probably.

My suspicion is that the recent upsurge in interest in meditative practices just when wisdom is needed most urgently is no coincidence.