Chapter 11 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” is titled “Creating Meaning and Happiness” and I admit that it starts off pretty strong.
You don’t find happiness, but rather, you create it a little bit at a time. This is an active process of invention as much as discovery, one in which you shape the meaning of your own experiences in such a way that they inspire you to continue along the transformative path. […] It is estimated that about 50% of reported happiness is the result of genetics, and another 10% is influenced by particular situations and contexts. The good news is that this means that as much as 40% can be shaped, influenced, and controlled by strategic intentional actions. [pp. 235-236]
I’m not as thrilled a few pages later though when he shifts into the concept of those who move away from “happiness” as being too hard to define. I don’t disagree that it’s challenging, but I think most people understand intuitively what it means to be unhappy rather easily, and even what it means to be extremely happy. It’s just the whole middle ground. My real problem is that while difficult, I think happiness is WAY better than the counterpart terms “well-being” or “flourishing”. I think people start to throw stuff in there that are more “foundations for happiness”, not actual happiness. I suspect in part it is because true happiness is more an emotional or spiritual state (or both) than something that can be quantified.
Although I like his list of what social scientists have found that contributes to happiness i.e. the roots:
Focus on positive feelings and try to make the best of those that are unpleasant;
Hold onto an optimistic perspective, looking at the best in people and things whenever possible;
Live in the present and honor those moments when you can;
Do good work for which you feel proud;
Spend quality time with those you love the most;
Forgive those who have hurt you and let those resentments go;
After you figure out what you love, make a habit of doing those things as often as possible. [pg. 244]
I find the list both compelling and repulsive. In the first instance, you could take any one of those phrases and, without turning a critical eye to what it says, think it is extremely profound. Optimism in the face of adversity, for instance, is an extremely powerful mental perspective. Living in the present, equally solid. Serving others. And so on.
But if you turn a truly critical eye towards the list, it all starts to run into, “If you want to be happy, be happy”, or more simply, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
On the worst days, does anyone really think “be positive” changes the outcomes? Will it drag the poor out of poverty? Will it put food on the table? Will it cure disease? It’s about as facile as saying, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right” to someone on the Titanic. No, everything will NOT be all right. Being positive doesn’t change your situation. It only changes your interpretation by being blind to reality, or being too simple-minded to understand what is really going on. I’d go so far as to say that might work for about 10% of the population and that’s about it. But, then again, being negative or pessimistic never helped anyone either. I think there’s a small piece in there, but exceedingly minor.
My favorite is the last one…on a classic note, it is the same as “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Instead, the framing here is about the equivalent of “find things that make you happy and do that.” Really? That’s considered a profound element? Do more things that make you happy than make you sad and you’ll end up happier? Wow, let me write that down.
I’m also less thrilled when he talks about how it is all about relationships…great, more social capital stuff?
I’m okay though with thoughts about finding things to do that seem more meaningful or socially useful — it is a good way to feel a purpose in life, that you are contributing to society or at least a positive outcome for someone, and thus to feel better about your role in the universe (and thus be “happier”).
It’s at least a start towards something resembling “being happier”. And more therapeutic than the kindergarten advice, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”