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


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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

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Active v Passive Reading


There are two ways to read a book: The right or correct way, and the wrong or incorrect way. There is the way a book ought and deserves to be read, and then there is any other way than this.

Most of what is out there waiting to be read—the vast majority of magazines, books, et cetera—has been written either purely for entertainment or for “infotainment”–a quick lively/clever/witty summary of a given subject or idea.  And because most of what is written tends to be lacking in depth and substance, the best way to such material is to read it quickly, without wasting much time—or life—on it.  Much of what is out there vying for our reading time and attention really has little to offer other than the consumption of our time and the weakening of our attention.  Most books aren’t written to be read: they’re written to be skimmed.

Many books may help us to become more clever or entertaining or witty, they may give us something to talk about with others at work or at lunch or at a social gathering, but other than that, most books really don’t offer us much in terms of helping us to become better persons—maybe a more entertaining person, perhaps a more superficially happy and anesthetized person—but not a better and wiser and more substantive person.

The same holds true for why and what to read:  Don’t just read for escape or so that you’ll have something to talk about with others, read stuff that helps make you a better and wiser and more courageous and loving person.

Realizing this long ago has made reading much easier. Why read a given book (an 8 or more plus hour time commitment) if I can watch the movie (a 2 or 2&1/2 hr commitment)? Do I really have so much time left on the clock in my life that I can afford to spend much of it on reading entertaining or infotaining books and magazines? My free time is precious; reading for pleasure (light reading)—which honestly hasn’t been something I’ve done or wanted to since my preteen years reading “The Hardy Boys,” “Encyclopedia Brown,” and “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”—just doesn’t pique my interest any more. I’d much rather be spending time with my family, or out in nature practicing my photography, or out exercising riding my (mountain) bike or playing tennis. And if I need to be entertained, I’d rather watch a movie than read the book the movie was based on.

So what does all of this have to do with Active versus Passive Reading?

Since most of what is out there waiting to be read is mostly for infotainment or dissipation/escape/anesthetizing, then reading it quickly and passively (skimming it) is completely apropos. Life is too short, too precious.

But when it comes to wisdom books, advice books, poems—potential change your life type stuff—reading these sorts of materials passively is the wrong way to read them.

When we read something passively, we read it quickly, undeliberately, more or less in a way tantamount to skimming it. When we are reading passively, we are not allowing ourselves room to think, to question ourselves, to question our own reactions, to question the author, to dwell and reflect on what is being communicated to us (which may be very little).

In other words, to read passively is to read uncritically and in a unthinking manner.

To read something Actively is to read it not just critically, but deeply, and in a way that encourages and nurtures our own thinking, imagination, awareness.

When we are reading something Actively, we read it slowly. We don’t mow through 50 pages in one sitting—that is evidence enough of having read something Passively or something purely entertaining. Instead when we read Actively, we may be lucky to make it through 5 or 10 pages in one sitting. When we read Actively, we read like a tortise, not the hare; we read deliberately; we read with highlighters and pencil in hand or nearby. We stop—by necessity—every few lines or so because we have read something that is so packed with insight and revelation that we need to pause and read the sentence again, and let our mind wander over and rummage the idea, sit with it for a while, give our own thoughts time to evolve, give ourselves time to ponder and ask questions. Or we stop every few lines or so because something we’ve read has triggered in us several thoughts that we need time to jot down, journal about, ruminate over, contemplate, et cetera. There’s no finish line we’re racing towards. The journey is the destination. The development and exercising and increasing of our thinking, awareness, perspective, is what we’re after.

“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

If we are truly reading something actively, we will have to stop and consider what we think, explore what we think.

And writing and or journaling our thoughts is a crucial part of this process—the process of Actively reading or digesting something.

In fact, in my experience, once one learns to read Actively, it’s hard to read passively again—or to read things that are written to be read passively. Those faculties that develop and strengthen by reading Actively like to be continue being developed and strengthened, like to be exercised, in fact long to be exercised and used, and not wasted or numbed or atrophied by reading things meant to be skimmed and that do not reward Active reading.

When we learn to read Actively, we have given birth to something in us—to a new nexus of characteristics and capacities within us—and those capacities and characteristics want to live, want to grow and strengthen. They have a will to live all of their own, and because of that, this part of us wants to be well used and not wasted on reading books that are not full of insight and wisdom and rev

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw

This applies to reading as well. The true joy of reading is not in reading for escape and pleasure, but reading actively, for the exercise of our mind and heart and soul—for our betterment and enlarging our perspective and points of reference.

In some ways, reading is like skiing. Everyone has to start from zero, learning the basics—reading simple books, practicing skiing on the bunny hill. But once you learn to ski well, the bunny hill just doesn’t hold much appeal; you want to test and exercise your skills by skiing a trail that is more in keeping with your level of skill. And eventually you want to try your hand at being a force of nature on the slopes, swooshing down a black diamond run.

In my experience, the same holds for reading once a person has learned how to read Actively; once one has been introduced to wisdom books, other (and arguably lesser) books and materials just don’t hold the same appeal or interest.

Other posts about reading and about books that might be of interest:

http://phranqueigh.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/house-of-books/

If You Only Knew . . . .


The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

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If You Knew” – Ellen Bass

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

.

“We all have to say goodbye to everything eventually. All of us are here only for the time being, tumbling along as we all are in the river of time, on our way to the endless ocean. We will each wake up one morning and realize that a whole period of our life—our youth, our career, our marriage, our health—is no longer what it was, and has passed. We are vulnerable—intrinsically vulnerable—to sickness, old age, and death. Nothing will save us from this, our common fate. However puffed out our chest may be, however booming that voice of ours, however many tall buildings or stocks we own, we too are exquisitely, excruciatingly exposed to the fact that, sooner or later, our place in this life will be cleared and we will be gone.

“When we remember this, something softens in us. Our judgments soften, our hurry slows down a little, our worries return to proportion. We breathe a little deeper and more meaningfully. After all, every one of us is in the same leaky old boat. Everyone we meet, everyone around us—the wise, the foolish, the saintly, the murderous—all of us alive today are heading together, in one great fellowship, toward the final waterfall—even as we argue or lash out at each other, care for each other, love each other, betray or reject each other, support or affirm each other—regardless of what it is we do or don’t do.

“This is why ours is an exquisite vulnerability. It is exquisite because it is so touching, so life-affirming, when we see through the shell of a person—our own or another’s—to the tender reality beneath. One of the women I pass in the café most mornings was in the local supermarket the other day. We had sometimes smiled in recognition, but never spoken. She always seemed busy and brisk to my eye; in charge of her day and what she was doing. When we bumped into each other in the supermarket I greeted her by saying how colorful she looked in her bright blue shirt. She said her husband had died recently, and it was the first day since then that she had felt a little alive. I am so sorry, I said. She burst into tears and clung to my shoulder, sobbing. The wave of her grief washed through and over me.

“I had had no idea.

“I would never have known.

“She was not in charge at all. She was just trying to do what she could to get through.”

– Roger Housden, adapted from his October 18, 2011 blog post—

http://rogerhousden.com/blog/

http://rogerhousden.com/read/