Friday, November 2, 2012

Dan Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness

Well, I completely blew off the month of October, 2012. So now I've made a Second-Tier Vow (not as much energy put into it as a First-Tier Vow) to redouble my efforts and write more. After all, if one wants to become skilled at writing, one should...well, write.

Recently I became aware of Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness reveals some amazing research on what makes people happy.

Click on the book cover to go to the official website.

This is a book that I'm going to have to get, as soon as I can budget for it (money being tight right now). In the meantime, there's a video of a TEDtalks presentation ("The Surprising Science of Happiness") given by Dan Gilbert which apparently covers some of the material presented in the book. The clip can be viewed at either the TEDtalks site or on YouTube. Here's a link to the YouTube version:

One of the amazing results of research (a factoid?) presented by Gilbert in this lecture: people who won the lottery, and people who became paraplegic (lost the use of arms and/or legs) rate as psychologically equally happy with their lives one year after the event. In fact, on the bar graph Gilbert presents of the data, the paraplegic group is just a tick happier than the lottery winners!

Screencap from Dan Gilbert's TEDtalks presentation.

This is somehow stunning — yet not unexpected — to me. My spiritual tradition teaches that happiness is not dependent on external things like wealth or social standing or political power — or any particular situation or location. Happiness is a quality of mind and a way of reacting to the content of our mental processes. You cultivate happiness; it's not something that you find somewhere. But this little illustration from Dr. Gilbert brings home the point in stunning clarity. You probably thought, as I did, "Wow...if a severely disadvantaged person such as a paraplegic is happier with his or her life than I am, then something's wrong here."

An important point that I've heard several spiritual teachers/wise people from various cultures, religions or societies emphasize is that even happiness can be an impediment to your own mental health. Or more precisely, the craving for or clinging to happiness can paradoxically cause unhappiness if your quest for happiness doesn't succeed. Therefore, you need to create happiness in whatever situation or experience you happen to find yourself in, in the moment.

Paradoxically, for me to find happiness, I have to drop even the idea of happiness, and to settle back and find value in, and be grateful for, whatever I'm experiencing in this moment — pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.

Physican, meditator and Huffington Post contributor Mark Hyman touches on this in his essay, "Why Doing Nothing is the Key to Happiness:"

What matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and the happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to the moment we are in, to the simple, sweet, and alive gifts of a smile, a touch, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, or a firefly flickering in the early summer night.

But that is harder than it sounds. Our monkey mind gets in the way. In order to pay attention we need to be quiet, to be practiced at stillness, to know the habits of our mind and be skilled at dancing with them, not to be controlled or dominated by them. To witness the thoughts and feelings we have without having them overwhelm, dominate, and control our lives.

So that is my task now, to paradoxically find happiness by not seeking it.