Happiness

22 Jul

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
Soren Kierkegaard

Happiness is a concept that is difficult to pin down. However Daniel Kahneman gives an interesting lecture describing a distinction between two kinds of happiness.

He says that we have happiness in the moment, where a “moment” is defined as being a period of around three seconds that our conscious mind holds. This happiness in the moment is contrasted with the happiness of the memory of the event, i.e. looking back at what happened given our constructed story of what happened.

This perspective sits well with the idea that William James puts forward in defining the difference between the self as “I” and the self as “me”, where the former is the “consciousness of the self in the here and now” and the latter is the “self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This distinction does draw into focus what you are trying to achieve in your pursuit of happiness. This is worth considering given what so many psychological studies reveal about how our memories don’t necessarily give a true picture of our past but are rather highlights or what we prefer to remember for better or worse.

Kahneman talks about a cool study which shows that people who have a colonoscopy that finishes particularly painfully will remember the procedure in a worse light than one that was longer and more painful yet ended on a relatively mild note. The implication is that you remember better the last part of a bad experience which then colours your memory of the whole experience.

In terms of enjoying the moment I can recommend the increasingly popular mindfulness approach which is essentially “bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment, and non-judgmentally“. The last few years has seen a lot of positive studies proving the efficacy of mindfulness in increasing happiness as well as reducing stress, improving sleep, relationships and helping with psychological problems such as depression.

Other Philosophers

Of course plenty of philosophers have considered happiness over the years and it’s interesting to look at what they say in the light of Kahneman’s distinction.

Epicurus says what you need to be happy is:

– food and shelter
– time to think
– friends to talk to
– autonomy from a tyrannical boss
– a fine woman

Seneca says that you should expect the worst, so as to be happy with what eventually does happen. This approach requires accepting what you can’t control.

Montaigne contemplates the simple and carefree life of a goat and suggests that rather than reciting what other people think, it is preferable to understand for yourself how to achieve more happiness and fulfilment.

Nietzsche talks about how you can attain fulfilment through effort that may not be pleasant, using the analogy of getting to the top of a mountain. As a cyclist I can agree with this.

For some very practical and positive ideas to help in the pursuit of happiness, see my review of Bertrand Russell’s excellent book.

Agnes Repplier said “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere“.

Personally I tend to take the Nietzschean approach to fulfilment, and so I have to make an effort to focus on the moment in a more mindful way. I think choosing one thing to focus on and doing it to the best of your ability fits with this. Multitasking is not a productive way to do things and neither is taking on too much, so it’s preferable to learn to let go of things so you can focus on less things and do them well, which can give more fulfilment.

A helpful aphorism from Richard Feynman goes: “Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do“.

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4 Responses to “Happiness”

  1. 5i5i July 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Results of the ONS UK survery on happiness:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18966729

    I think the comment about ones perspective is key.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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