Tag Archives: Fulfilment

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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The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

19 Jul

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

– Abraham Lincoln

Written in Russell’s usual say-it-like-it-is style, The Conquest of Happiness gets straight to the point with an incisive view of how to be happy, that is as apt today as when it was written nearly 50 years ago.

The book is split into two halves: the first describing the main causes of unhappiness, and the second, well I think you can guess that it’s the causes of happiness.

To summarise: live in the present; enjoy the small things; don’t compete with others; avoid boredom, yet aim for moderation in things that excite you; avoid fatigue, mental as well as physical; don’t envy others, rather aim for an expansive view, becoming pleased for the success of others; eschew guilt: be able to separate yourself from the, usually subconscious, influence of parental morals, and question your moral framework so that it is wholly rational; aim for a realistic self-perception and don’t be afraid of what others think, as that way they’ll think better of you!; show affection for others and you in turn will be shown the same, though don’t do it with payback in mind; find a balance with the work you do: one with autonomy, mental challenge, something that is constructive rather than destructive; give yourself lots of interests – the person who says he has many dislikes and is disinterested in so many things has less opportunity to enjoy life; accept what can’t be changed and work to change what you can; while introspection is good in small doses, looking outwards maintains a healthy perspective and increases happiness.

A lot of the things he says may seem obvious to me, but then I’m a happy person already. That said, some things are great and I am pondering them further. Besides, some of the simplest lessons in life are those that we have to learn over and over again. I think it can help plenty of people that want to make the effort to be happier. It’s the kind of book that can be read more than once, and will reveal more insights when you’ve had more life experience.

I’ve written an overview of other philosophers’ approaches to happiness here.

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