Saturday, April 24, 2010

The How of Happiness

YY or Mariposa, a reader, brought this book, The How of Happiness, to my attention. In a comment on this post, YY said, "Have you read the book 'The How of Happiness' by any chance? Sounds like you might have.. ;-) I'm in the middle of it now and it's one of the most illuminating books I've ever read! It may end up next to the bible for me in terms of guidance for living... :D"

Wow, next to the bible! Now this perked my curiosity. I've not read the book but found an iPhone app called Live Happy, and here's a video of the author talking about this app.

I asked YY why she would think that I might have read the book and she said, "Oh, because you mentioned in a recent post that you don't think you're a fundamentally happy person (the book posits, through research, that people are born with a predetermined 'happiness-setpoint'--a happiness thermostat, if you will--that determines the basic 50% of their happiness).

And then in this post you mentioned the term 'overthinking'--which the book elaborated on as one of the list of 'happiness activities' to embark on (this one is about *avoiding* overthinking, actually).

However later as I searched your blog I realized you had previously read something called the 'Happiness Project' and was at one time applying its suggestions.

Oh I see. I totally believe in Happiness Setpoint. This is not really from reading any book or from that Happiness Project site (which I've not visited in a long time), but partly from listening to New Creation's Pastor Prince's sermons, I think. Whatever one might say about this pastor's swanky lifestyle, all I know is his sermons are the only ones that ever stick in this cynical mind of mine.

So anyway, I remember having an aha moment when Prince said something about how nothing can really satisfy or make us truly, truly happy but Jesus (and I expect other religions teach the same, either to search within or at a higher being). And then I thought about all the promotions we hanker after, that new house, the latest gadget, that wonderful crush...and you notice how you tell yourself that you will be happy forever if only you get that promo, that person to love you back, that gorgeous apartment, and yes, you do get a high after achieving something, and then within weeks, days even, you're back to your old self. Nothing really changes. The same old things still bother you. The same issues still make you depressed, think negative thoughts, think the future's bleak, lose precious sleep over.

So when you depend on these achievements, or even people, for your happiness, you are bound to be disappointed. Cos even those closest to you, your spouse, your children, they will say or do things which hurt you. You do the same to them.

Not overthinking things helps too. Overthinkers tend to be a less happy lot, I think. There I go again, even blogging about this is kind of overthinking, isn't it? haha.

So this book says we have a happiness setpoint, which determines about half of our state of happiness, another 10% is due to our circumstances, which leaves 40% that can be determined by our actions (I may be wrong, this is just what I gleaned from the video).

I guess the 10% is where Money comes in, having means helps, but note only 10% or less, according to the book. Monica and I were just talking about the recent Idol Gives Back, and how the African kids, despite their intense suffering and poverty, still smile and always look happy. She went on to say, "Our kids seem like spoilt brats.", I said, "Not just our kids, us too!"

Now what about the 40%? I don't know what the book says, but here's something I learnt from my mother-in-law. She's a staunch Buddhist who meditates. She's gone through lots yet laughs a lot, though sometimes I do see sadness still in her eyes amid the laughing. I asked her once how she manages to stay positive, and she said something about how there really is nothing much you can do to change others, you can only make changes in yourself. It's like what I always tell my kids, you can't control how other act, you can only control how you react.

From my talk with her, I also realised that for the most part, no one actually intentionally goes out to hurt us or be cruel to us. The villains in our lives (for the most part, I'm not talking about rapists, murderers, paedophiles) do so to fulfil their own needs, yes, even thieves cos they need the money to maybe feed their family or their drug habits. Mothers scream at kids cos they are stressed at work. Bosses are mean cos their own bosses are mean to them. Some people are just inherently mean, what can you do about it? You can't let someone else dictate how you let it flow past you. Don't take things personally. I found this helped me a lot to get over unhappiness faster and return back to a happier state.

Being slim makes me happy too. But having struggled with weight all my life, I've only been happy in this aspect a few times in my life, right before my wedding when I was at my skinniest ever, and some other times after crash diets. I blame the media for their portrayal of ideal woman (size zero) and Singapore women in general for being so darn thin, kidding (not really :P)! Well, I now realise I'm never gonna be small, so no more fad dieting, I'll be happy being healthy and at a healthy weight. And no, I'm not there yet, not even close, but I'm taking steps to get fit. Thanks to Hsien, I've embarked on the C25K running programme, and am into my 4th week at it.

Not comparing is another crucial key to happiness. I wanna stop doing this. What I have is what I have. I don't wanna sound like sour grapes too. I will admit it would be nice to have a bigger place than my tiny apartment in Singapore, but if it means extra stress on the sole breadwinner, forget it. If I'm not willing to work my own butt off climbing the corporate ladder and bringing in the dough, I shouldn't be comparing to others who are. It really is about counting our blessings, we all have them. My cousin sister and I have been emailing each other recently, and it really is a case of grass greener over the other side; funny how I think she has it all, and she thinks the same about me.

Anyway, I'm sure the book has lots more to offer, and the tips are said to be scientifically backed up. So go have a read if the pursuit of happiness is something you wanna do, if not, never mind. I'll be looking out for this at the bookstores.


monlim said...

It sounds like you've reached a new level of self-discovery (which ironically is due to over-thinking but this time for the better!)

From one over-thinker to another, I'll say you're definitely right about always wishing for something else, thinking it will make us happier but actually it doesn't. How many time have I thought to myself, "if only I had this and that (not just material things), life would be perfect." Only to have that wish granted and find that I end up hankering after something else. I've come to the conclusion that sub-consciously I need a scapegoat for my non-contentment so in that sense, I'll always be unhappy, or at least not as happy as I should be. Isn't it ironic we sometimes sigh, "if only I could be content!" LOL

Events like Idol Gives Back give me a jolt into reality, to show us what brats we really are. Why some people can be happy with nothing and others unhappy with lots proves time and time again that happiness has nothing to do with what we have. You and me both, we really have no reason not to be happy :)

Lilian said...

I'm so glad I have you to overthink things with though. I can tell you all my evil thoughts and you never judge me haha. And I always feel a whole lot better after talking to you.

It has taken a long time to come to this stage. Maybe it's part of ageing. Maybe it's being in Thailand and seeing the huge gulf in rich-poor divide. It made me realise those of us living in Singapore/Malaysia, most of us have a roof over our heads, never go hungry (unless intentionally), have access to basic medical care, work in relative as long as we still have our health, really, what's there not to be content about?

monlim said...

Likewise my friend, likewise. If I'm not able to whine to you to let off steam, I think I'd be filled with constant guilt! Guess we're lucky to have "found" each other. Hey, something else to be thankful for!

This comparing thing is just so pervasive. Actually, if you think about it, comparing is not only with the "haves". We tend to be discontent more after we've heard of someone who's just moved into a big house/gotten a large bonus/touched lottery. But in a perverse sort of way, I just realised that by being content only after we're reminded of sick kids in Africa/pple living in the streets/children going hungry is also due to comparing! So maybe the trick is to be content, regardless of the pple around us. Not sure if it's achievable though!

Lilian said...

I was also thinking about that! That sometimes we are thankful when we watch scenes of extreme poverty/starvation, and that's not right either. I remember always being annoyed when my mum would say, look at the Ethiopians, we are so blessed compared to them...and I would think, so loser-ish, keep comparing with the have-nots...what about those who have much more than us. hahaha, yes, I am very small-minded in that sense.

So no need to compare with our life the best way we can, and that's it. If it means surfing the internet all day, so be it, don't let another person's definition of sloth define us...hahahaha...see, I can make myself happy by thinking rubbish all day.

Yes, it's a happy day today.

mun said...

Thanks for highlighting this book. Will look for it in a book store to browse it.

mariposa said...

Yes, the book advises against 'overthinking' and 'social comparison' (which, btw, it lumps together under the same heading!).

'Life circumstances' only contributes to 10% of our happiness, and under this would be those things-that-we-hanker-after (losing that 20lbs, kids getting into GEP/SAP/whatever, passing that exam, getting that promotion, etc etc). Haven't we all been through times when we've told ourselves: "If only we get 'that thing', things would be so much better!" And then when we've actually gotten 'that thing', we're happy and transformed for a while, but after a while 'that thing' just doesn't have the same transforming effect on our lives anymore. And over the horizon looms yet another 'thing' upon which our future happiness appears to hinge.

The book describes precisely this phenomenon, which researchers have called 'hedonistic adaptation'. Although it is a survival mechanism in helping 'crushing' circumstances to become less 'crushing' after a while, it also explains why a 'change of scene' is only a temporary fix to our level of happiness.

We may have noticed that some people we've known in our lives--even kids--are perpetually happy, whilest others are perpetually unhappy. It's not as if the former has luckier sets of circumstances and the latter are hardluck cases either. Some people are just quick to complain and pick out the negatives in any situation. Others are 'happy-go-lucky' and don't have to plan and angst over every minutiae of their lives, and even if things don't go the best way they could have, so what? I think this baseline predisposition to happiness or unhappiness is what is referred to as the 'happiness setpoint'.

As Christians we know that true happiness is only found in knowing God, etc. But haven't we all known of Christians who are unhappy for long stretches of their lives, for whom lasting happiness still seems elusive? Some Christians are perpetually unhappy, and the 'joy' that they experienced at their 'conversions' seems to be only temporary fixes, in retrospect. In my observation, for these unhappy Christians, it has everything to do with their inborn happiness-setpoints and their lack of insight into this and the related lack of skills to deal with this. This kind of all-pervasive angst and unhappiness is even projected onto their personal relationships with God, making them able only to identify with parts of the bible that speak of doom & gloom rather than reading hope into everything as what the Good News should be about.

It's also a bad thing that amongst Christian thinkers there seems to be an attitude that 'positive psychology' should not have a place in theology. I disagree. I think pastors need to learn a bit of positive psychology as it is obviously lacking in many Christians who suffer from depression and these pastors need to know how to counsel those amongst their flock who are depressed. Perhaps what we really need is for there to be a branch of theology called 'Positive-Thinking Theology' that would then legitimize all this on the pulpit.


mariposa said...

I would like to add that the 'pursuit of happiness' is not a selfish, indulgent thing. I see it as our DUTY to the people we live with. As someone who has grown up with a perpetually unhappy parent, I can't overstate how much that parent's unhappiness has overshadowed my early life and how much happier I immediately became when I was able to leave that environment!


Lilian said...

Agree with everything you said here YY, and I mean everything. There are definitely people I know who focus on the gloom and doom and wrath and anger in the bible. And to them, the rapture is always nigh, so REPENT!! Instead of looking at every single natural disaster as a sign that the world is ending or a punishment on sinners (read: nonbelievers), I wish they would pause and hold those thoughts, use that moment to just have a kind thought for their neighbour, believers or otherwise.

I did wonder if my pursuit of happiness was rather selfish and something only self-absorbed people think of. But now hearing about your own childhood experience makes me think it is indeed a worthwhile aim.

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm sure it will not just help me, but others as well.