The Pursuit of Happiness Doesn’t Always Make You Feel Happy—and, in Fact, it Shouldn’t; and Here’s Why


.choose-happiness-16
Becoming a “better” person—becoming more centered, emotionally mature and stable, principled, conscientious, (yes, all of these nice adjectives and virtues I like to list), pensive, reflective, composed, affable, joyful, (you’re almost at the end of the list o’ adjectives), good-natured, kind-hearted, generous, patient, courageous, humorous, happy—isn’t always an easy or a happy and joyful process.  At times it can be quite difficult, quite a struggle—and even make us feel bad.

Gretchen Rubin, in her book “The Happiness Project,” sums up this seeming paradox up quite nicely—

“Six months into my happiness project, although each day I felt more joy and less guilt, had more fun and less anxiety, the areas that had been toughest for me when I started were still the toughest.  I was continuing to struggle to keep my temper and to be generous.  In some ways, in fact, I had made myself less happy; I’d made myself far more aware of my faults, and I felt more disappointed with myself when I slipped.  My shortcomings stared up at me reproachfully, in the form of X marks instead of checkmarks, from the page of my Resolutions Chart.

“One of my secrets to adulthood is ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy,’ and  a heightened awareness of my failings , though salutary, wasn’t bringing me happiness in the short term—but in the long term, I was sure, I’d be happier as a consequence of behaving better.  I was comforted by the words of my model Benjamin Franklin, who reflected on his own chart: ‘On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.’ ” (pp. 163-4)

Sincerely trying to become a better person will indeed help you become a better person—likely a *much* better person— than had you not tried focusing on becoming a better you.

It’s like taking up golf or tennis.   You become a better golfer or tennis player by actually playing the sports—picking up a racquet or set of clubs and hitting some balls.  You won’t become a better golfer or tennis player—you won’t even become one, period—unless you first pick up a racquet or set of clubs and start hitting some balls.  If you want to be become a better person—more mature and stable emotionally, more brave and courageous and persevering, more composed and reflective, more kind and affable—then you have to make the decision to start, to take up the challenge, to make the attempt—to try and start behaving in those ways (the ways of a better person) more and more often.  You have to practice those behaviors and patterns and attitudes that lead to betterment, clarity, wisdom, happiness, perspective, moral goodness.

It’s really that simple.

And that difficult.

The theory is simple—and really inviolable.

But the practice and application are more difficult—perhaps even much more difficult, depending on where we’re starting out from—i.e. our current level of psychological fitness, our upbringing, our emotional state.

Practicing behaviorally the behaviors of a better version of ourselves will require mindfulness, focus, resolve, initiative, proactivity, a good memory, will-power, some modicum of discipline, et cetera.  Just a thimbleful at first is all that is needed.  Just 20 seconds of raw courage.  Just some shred of self-discipline—because that’s the irony about developing self-discipline: it requires some iota of self-discipline, or some external discipline and outside motivation, to develop it.

And some of us, by virtue of good genes and or good upbringing, may have a head start over others, who because of not as good genes and or a tougher and less favorable upbringing, may have the deck stacked more against them.

But regardless of how favorably or unfavorably our deck is stacked, action—doing—getting off our butts and our buts (excuses, rationalizations, justifications)—is essential.—

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.  This is the case with the virtues: by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.  The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; rather it makes a very great difference: it makes *all* the difference.” – Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 1 (http://nothingistic.org/library/aristotle/nicomachean/nicomachean08.html)

You—me, any of us—becomes a better person simply by *trying* to become a better person—by making the sincere effort and decision to become a better person, and by starting now to do the things that a “better person” or a better version of you would do.

And one of the first things to do is to admit or acknowledge or realize that a better version of yourself does indeed exist and is possible.

Which means paradoxically some form of self-rejection.—

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This goes for ourselves as well.  Too much self-acceptance—I am this way or I am that way and I can’t change it, it’s just the way I am—can be a bad (or stultifying) thing.  Life is change.  Change is certain; but growth and deepening in response to all / some of that change is *optional.*

Granted, self-acceptance and self-rejection tend to be touchy subjects.  Self-acceptance—especially “radical self-acceptance” tends to be en vogue in certain new age and self-improvement circles.  But the concept of “self-acceptance” tends to be a muddy and ill-defined one—even one that is inherently and internally contradictory.  The truth (ok, my opinion; —but it may also be the truth too) is that we can’t—or won’t—grow without the right mix or *balance* of self-acceptance and self-rejection.  Too much self-rejection and we go off the deep-end and plummet into a dismal spinout cycle of violence and or substance abuse or depression, et cetera.  But if we over-correct or if we go for too much self-acceptance, then we will never really change or grow much, and we may well find ourselves surrounded / insulated with people who are as neurotic as we are—people who are blind and or hurting in a way similar or compatible with how we are hurting and or blind, and also opting for more self-acceptance and comfort and healing—and possibly stagnation—than growth and change and depth.  (Maslow divided people into two types: deficit and repair oriented, or growth-oriented.  He posited that most people—the vast majority of people—were deficit and repair oriented; and that perhaps only 2% of people were truly growth-oriented.)

If we can ease up a bit on the throttle of our inner-critic and inner-fault-finder, become a bit more gentle and kind with ourselves as we (hopefully) would if we were mentoring a child, if we can learn, paradoxically, to think more clearly, and improve our own critical thinking skills (perhaps what is often most needed in terms of dealing with one’s inner critic and to silence him or her is to start thinking critically about that voice!), and we can find a healthy and wholesome balance between self-acceptance and self-non-acceptance, then we will have done much to set the stage for some genuine growth and self-betterment.

In fact, just getting this balance right or more in balance is itself a major feat of personal growth.

And success—perfection—becoming a perfect is never the goal—even though the Bible does make mention of this (I tend to suspect that in this day and age, were Jesus to see the poop-storm that the term “perfection” typically unleashes, he might have qualified his words.  Maybe he wouldn’t have, but I tend to suspect he would have).  Instead of perfection—which is something that is outside of our control—i.e. scoring 100% on a test can be done, but likely requires some luck, a couple of good / educated guesses, et cetera; but getting an A on a test should be more doable—so instead of perfect, aim for excellence or improvement.  And maybe something modest, maybe 10% improvement.

In other words, get acclimated to the idea up front that becoming a better person may mean failing, it may mean faltering and stumbling, it may mean some missteps and wrong paths; it may mean feeling bad or guilty or regretful about things you have done or not done.

—And all of this is par for the course.

All of this is to be expected.

None of it is unusual.

You’re going to see a lot of things about yourself that you may not like—that you never did like, but that you were anesthetized to (perhaps in part because of who you had surrounded yourself with—people who didn’t expect much out of you, or people who expected *much* out of you but didn’t have much to offer you in terms of direction and support).

Part of becoming a better person almost always means *losing the blinders,* having the scales removed from our eyes, becoming less desensitized to what we perhaps ought to have been very sensitive to in the first place.

And this is the sort of thing that doesn’t make us feel good or happy when it happens—but that can and likely will lead greater—far greater??—happiness in the future.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

(Which means that a lack of excellence is likely also a habit.)

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what he gets by it, but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin

“Ideals (and principles) are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.” – Carl Schurz

Advertisements

The Truth—Will it Set You Free or Will it Completely Fry Your Ass and Undo You?


Your life is the mirror of what you are. It is in your image. You are passive, blind, demanding. You take all, you accept all, without feeling any obligation. Your attitude toward the world and toward life is the attitude of one who has the right to make demands and to take, who has no need to pay or to earn. You believe that all things are due you, simply because it is you! All your blindness is there! Yet none of this strikes your attention.

None of this strikes your attention because you have no measure with which to measure yourself. You live exclusively according to “I like” or “I don’t like,” or “I feel like” or “I don’t feel like.” You have no appreciation except for yourself. You recognize nothing above you—theoretically, logically, perhaps, but in actuality no; you submit to nothing except your own desires and subjectivity. That is why you are demanding and continue to believe that everything is cheap and that you have enough in your pocket to buy everything you like. You recognize nothing above you, either outside yourself or inside. That is why you have no measure and live passively according your impulses and likes and dislikes.

Yes, this lack of appreciation for anything and anyone except for yourself blinds you. It is by far the biggest obstacle to a new life. You first must get over this threshold, this obstacle, before progressing even one step further. This crux alone is what divides human beings into two kinds: the “wheat” and the “chaff.” No matter how intelligent, how talented, how gifted, how brilliant a human being may be, if he does not change his appreciation of himself, there will be no hope for real inner development, for a work toward honest self-knowledge, for an awakening. He will remain such as he is now for his entire life.

The first requirement, the first condition, the first test for one who genuinely wishes to work on oneself is to change his appreciation of himself. And he must not do this theoretically—he must not imagine, not simply believe or think; rather he must do this in actuality: he must see things in himself which he has never seen before—which he has never had the nerve or courage to see before. And he must see them fully. A person’s appreciation of himself will never change as long as he or she sees nothing new and untoward in himself.

Today we have nothing but the illusion of what we are. We do not respect ourselves. In order to respect myself, I have to recognize a part in myself which is above the other parts. And my attitude toward this part should bear witness to the respect that I have for it. But so long as I treat all parts of myself equally, I think too highly of myself and I do not respect myself, and my relations with others will be governed by the same caprice and lack of respect.

In order to see oneself, one must first learn to see. This is the first initiation into genuine self-knowledge. In order to see ourselves realistically, we must see all the ways in which we habitually over-estimate and over-appreciate ourselves. But you will see that to do this is not easy. It is not cheap. You must pay dearly for this. For bad payers, lazy people, parasites, there is no hope. You must pay, pay a lot, pay immediately, and pay in advance. You must pay with yourself; you must pay with sincere, honest, conscientious, disinterested efforts. And the more you are willing and prepared to pay without economizing, without cutting corners, without cheating, without falsifications, the more you will receive. Because from that moment on you will become acquainted with your nature. You will begin seeing all of the tricks, all the dishonesties that your nature resorts to in order to avoid paying with real cash, real effort, real expenditure, real sacrifice, real cost to oneself. Because up till now, you like to cheat, you like to cut corners; you like to try and pay with your readymade theories, your convenient beliefs, your prejudices and conventions, your “I like” and “I don’t like”; you like to bargain, pretend, offer counterfeit money.

Objective thought is a look from Above. A look that is free, that can see. Without this look upon me, seeing me, my life is the life of a blind person who goes her own way, driven by impulse, not knowing either why or how. Without this look upon me, I cannot know that I exist.

I have within me the power to rise above myself and to see myself freely—and to be seen. My thinking has the power to be free.

But for this to take place, my thinking must rid itself of all of the garbage that holds it captive, passive, unfree. My thinking must free itself from the constant pull of emotions. My thinking must feel its own power to resist this pull—its objective capacity to separate itself and watch over this pull while gradually rising above it. For it is in this moment that thought first becomes active. It becomes active while purifying itself.

If we cannot do this—if we refuse to do this—our thoughts are just illusions, something that further enslaves us, that we use to numb and avoid ourselves, a snare in which real thought loses its power of objectivity and intentional action. Confused by words, images, half-truths, fantasies, falsehoods, it loses the capacity to see. It loses the sense of “I”. Then nothing remains but an organism adrift, a body deprived of intelligence and seduced by any- and everything, and wholly at the mercy of “I like” and “I don’t like.” Without this inner look, without this inner seeing, I can only fall back into automatism, and live under the law of accident and nature.

And so my struggle is a struggle against the passivity of ordinary thinking, being seduced and led astray and obliterated by it. Without struggling against ordinary thought, a greater consciousness will not be born. At the heart of this struggle—to create order out of chaos—a hierarchy is revealed—two levels, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, one world, there can be no vision. Recognition of another and higher level is the awakening of thought.

Without this effort, without this struggle, thought falls back into a sleep filled with seductive and consoling words, images, preconceived notions, approximate knowledge, dreams, fantasies, and perpetual drifting. This is the thought of a person without any real intelligence. It is a terrible thing to realize that one has been living for years without any intelligence, without a level of thinking that sees what is real, with thinking that is without any relation to the real world. It is a terrible waste to think this way.

But without realizing this—without realizing that perhaps one has been thinking for years without intelligence—there is no hope for awakening.

Try just for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact that you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself every moment, all day, all your life. And that this lying rules you to such an extent that you cannot control it any more. You are the prey of lying. You lie, everywhere. Your relations with others—lies. The upbringing you give, the conventions—lies. Your teaching—lies. Your theories and art—lies. Your social life, your family life—lies. And what you think of yourself—lies also.

But you never stop yourself in what you are doing or in what you are saying because you believe in yourself. You never doubt or suspect yourself. You must stop inwardly and observe. Observe without preconceptions, accepting for a time this idea of lying. And if you observe in this way, paying with yourself, without self-pity, giving up all your supposed riches for a moment of reality, perhaps you will suddenly see something you have never before seen in yourself until this day. You will see that you are different from what you think you are. You will see that you are two. One who is not, but takes the place and plays the role of the other. And one who is, yet so weak, so insubstantial, that he no sooner appears than he immediately disappears. He cannot endure lies. The least lie makes him faint away. He does not struggle, he does not resist, he is defeated in advance. Learn to look until you have seen the difference between your two natures, until you have seen the lies, the deception in yourself. When you have seen your two natures, that day, in yourself, the truth will be born. You will finally be born.

– Jeanne de Salzmann, abridged and adapted and at points modified from “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teachings,” pp. 2-6.

Steve Jobs on Death


When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

It made an impression on me.

So ever since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

You are already naked.

There is no reason not to follow your heart.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5aY6rMbOBo&feature=player_embedded#!

(from a commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, at Stanford University, on June 12, 2005)

Real Growth & “Making a Change”


The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun.” – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215

.

Why aren’t more people truly “growth-oriented”?

Psychologists and psychiatrists estimate that about 4% of the population can be diagnosed as having Antisocial Personality Disorder (meaning a sociopath without a conscience, with no sense that other people exist and are “real”), and that another 3% are not just narcissistic but are so extreme in their narcissism that they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and that at least 2% of the population can be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. That’s about 8 – 9% of the population or about one in 12 people that you meet.

On the other hand, Maslow estimated that less than 2% (less than 1 in 50 people) are truly growth-oriented, meaning capable of not just making a change, but of making a healthy and sustained change. And that even fewer people are capable of carrying out that change and growth to the point where they “transcend” the confines of the self (“self-transcendence) and are actually able to be good to and for not just themselves but, but to and for the entire human race—think of Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, and lesser known everyday heroes and saint.

The Buddha said, “If it were not possible to free the heart and mind from entanglement in greed, hate, and fear, I would not teach you to do so.”

Which begs the question. For how many people is this possible? What percentage? What percentage are capable of what in Christianity is termed a true “metanoia”—a deep and radical change of heart and mind and life direction, from one of dishonesty and avoidance and rationalizations (rational lies), to one of honesty, integrity, goodness, growth, faith, and love?

If only 1% of the population is capable of self-transcendence, then is that also approximately the same percentage that is capable of a metanoia or of “waking up” (not dying asleep and full of self-deception)?

Maslow’s numbers are not very encouraging, but they sound about right to me. If 98% of people are “deficit and repair oriented” (meaning comfort- and safety-first, addicted to living life superficially and in the shallows, addicted to the path of least resistance, and thus fairly asleep and self-centered and immature, if not pathological) and only about 2% of the population is “growth-oriented,” then that would seem to mean that only about 2% of the population is capable of true mental health and the other 98% are either asleep, blind, fairly unhealthy or immature or even outright pathological psychologically and emotionally.

I don’t think there’s just one reason or just one cause for why these numbers/estimates are the way they are. There are multiple causes and reasons. As a person who is philosophical by nature and who is an armchair psychologist at heart, all of this is something that I think about fairly often—Why can’t or don’t more people push themselves to grow? Why are so many people willing to settle for so little out of themselves in terms of honesty, knowing themselves, seeing themselves as they are and for what they are? Is it a question of ability, capacity, will, want? How can more people truly and deeply and profoundly become more aware of their own lenses and blind spot and self-defeating and counterproductive (maladaptive, even pathological) patterns and tendencies?

I know I have fairly high standards for myself; I know that I am leading a very reflective and examined life—I sense myself to be more alive and awake and self-aware than the average bear.

And since I have these high standards out of myself and seem to think that for the most part I have met them, I also tend to have them for others and expect them of others—i.e., if I’m capable of this, then others should be as well, especially if they would do some of the same things that I did or had to do, expose and subject themselves to some of the same rigors and burdens—think more, work on their moral compass, face and acknowledge their own fears instead of habitually being dishonest about them by denying them or running from them or burying them, spend time reading decent books, and then writing or journaling about their own thoughts on these books (thus the rationale behind including the excerpt from Merton that I did at the head of this post) and thus learning to better observe and become more informed and objective about their own inner processes, spending more time trying to examine their own motivations and paradigm and programming and patterns. If I can do it, why can’t or won’t more others?

This is your one brief precious life. This is all we can actually know that we get—the rest is speculative at best and delusional and dishonest at worst. Do you want to go through this life asleep, blind, unaware of yourself and your own patterns and motivations? Or deep down do you really want to wake up and see yourself and your patterns for what they are, and thus not merely “make a change” but actually grow up and truly become a psychological and emotional and spiritual adult?

Every day, people get up and tell themselves they’re gonna change their lives, and they never do. Well I’m gonna change mine.” – from the motion picture “The Town

.

Doug MacRay: I’m thinking about, uhm, taking a trip . . . going out of town.
Stephen MacRay: Takin’ heat?
Doug MacRay: Just makin’ a change.
Stephen MacRay: Yeah, don’t tell me ‘making a change’. Either you got heat or you don’t.
– from the motion picture “The Town

.

To awaken is difficult to do; homo sapiens are already submitted to a cosmic hypnotic influence (called survival and daily life); and if this were not enough, each individual, when he does not like the reality of life or is not satisfied with himself, dreams of himself and the world in a manner ideal for himself.” – John Baines

.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

.

And faced with the choice between changing one’s way of thinking and living and proving there’s no need to, almost everyone get busy on the proof by trying to discredit the messenger if not psychologically killing him or walling him out. It’s easier to spin out and wall up and make excuses for it (tell ourselves and others rational sounding lies [rationalizations]) than it is to look very honestly and fairly and objectively at our own actions and patterns and how we have acted in ways that have bred distrust and suspicion and insecurity—both in ourselves and others. It’s easier to spin out and deal with that level of pain than it is to shed our many buffers and look honestly at ourselves and feel that pain and guilt and shame.

.

Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” – Milton, “Paradise Lost,” book II, Line 432.

.

If it were easy kid, everybody would do it.” – from the motion picture “The Town

.

Our life transformation will be in exact proportion to the amount of truth we can take without running away.” – Vernon Howard, “The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power,” pg. 13

.

The process of self-development can be described as the stripping away of layer after layer after layer of all that is false.” – Vernon Howard, “The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power,” pg. 249

.

What does every person want? . . . He wants to be free. But from what? He only senses vaguely what he really wants. So he spends his days anxiously seeking the wrong needles in the wrong haystacks, not realizing that he is seeking the wrong needle or searching in the wrong haystack. Human beings are frightened wanderers. And they wear a variety of mask to hide this fact from themselves and each other and convince themselves that their masks are real. They wear smiling masks, wise appearing ones, excited ones, masks of worldly success, all to convince themselves and others that the act is real. So what does every person most deeply want? To be free from himself—from his own fakery and falsity, from his ego-centered ways, from his heartache and suffering, from his compulsive desires and neurotic fears, from his secret shames and guilt carried over from past follies, to no longer be at the mercy of his moods and circumstances and other people’s opinions and approval. What every person wants most without realizing it is self-liberty—liberty from all that is ill and weak and wounded and biased and distorted and anxious and frightened within himself.” – Vernon Howard, adapted from “The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power,” pp. 9-10