Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reflections: The Happiness Hypothesis

As elusive as happiness is, it is even more elusive to read about it. But I still try. I don’t know why I have this need to theorize or analyze fundamental human emotions, but it’s my personal plague. So, anyway, in this richly analytical book, Dr. Haidt presents a holistic picture of Happiness - how and where does it stem from, what influences it and sustains it? He takes ancient wisdom and philosophy prescribed by philosophers and spiritual spearheads and analyzes if these tenets are relevant to modern life and its practicalities. He makes the case for an adapted philosophy derived from both ancient truths and modern research to pursue and sustain meaning in life, and consequently, reach the sensitive plane of happiness.

Eastern philosophy states that Happiness can only be found within. If it were to be dependent on external circumstances (many of which are often beyond our control), the wise texts and realized souls warn us that such Happiness is but transient, fickle, and not even real. Real, deep happiness comes from within oneself, in such a manner that it can be revelled in, regardless of the external factors. Wise words indeed. We all would like to embrace this philosophy to its core, but despite our attempts, only a handful among millions actually realize this state of Happiness. Such a state of mature, content, detachment doesn’t come easy. In this world that keeps erupting with materialism and ambitions, it’s hard to be attached just to the right degree. It takes several years to perhaps just inch closer to the balance even if one is disciplined to do so. So, what of the several years in between when one vacillates with frustration and discontent in either attempting to reach that delicate balance of detachment, or trying to doggedly achieve a state of fulfillment, or just plodding or whizzing through life trying to make the best of it?

According to Dr. Haidt, there is a formula. Indeed, a formula for Happiness that takes into account other variables than just the inner-self. This is his practical adaptation of ancient wisdom. True, happiness is largely dependent on one’s subjective state of mind, but it is to be conceded that this state of being is also influenced by circumstances and environment. When you cannot control those variables, look for variables that you can actually control, and work towards those. Where have we heard this before? Everywhere. In that sense, the book was not wowing, but it was still analytical and insightful in how the suggestions were made.

Dr. Haidt gives a comprehensive background of every theme and topic he addresses in relation (however indirect and roundabout) to Happiness. He digresses into moral philosophies, the institution of morality in human societies, the value of  virtue in society, the essence of reciprocity and altruism in human nature/society, the need for social maladies like jealousy and gossip, the role played by religion and God, and the transcending power of love. They are all intensely interesting topics on their own (at least to me) and I liked learning about them, but I found myself lost in the middle of each of these chapters, wondering - “Interesting, but how is this fact related to the Happiness Hypothesis again?” I would then find a roundabout answer somewhere (mostly with my own interpretations and extrapolation) but it never came to me as a conclusive insightful paragraph that tied all the different themes together. The themes often floated on their own, occasionally merging with glimmers of understanding. For example, I found the chapter on reciprocity to corroborate with everything that other books (The Moral Animal, The Origin of Virtue) have mentioned, but I didn’t see the link to happiness. Yes, reciprocity and gratitude help with cooperation and survival, ants and bees do these fascinating things, but how is it related to our ability to be happy? I had to think of a link. Altruism makes others happy, making others happy makes us happy too, so the kind of happiness that comes from empathy and altruism is good for you and the society? So indeed altruism is one way to feel good? The author does arrive at this point much later in the book by stating that studies have shown that helping others and engaging in random acts of kindness elevated one’s mood and state of happiness much more than having ice-cream everyday. But there isn’t a cohesive link within each chapter, especially when the particular theme is delved really really deeply, running into sub-branches of facts.

It was also interesting that the author spent time in India (in Bhubaneshwar) studying Manu shastra, Bhagavad Gita, and Hindu customs and rituals. He brings in his observations and learnings throughout the book, but sometimes (especially the chapters on emotions of Disgust and God/Morality) went into so many specific facts that I didn’t grasp their relevance to the bigger picture of Happiness. They were informative, though.

But what I took from the book and its varied chapters is this - Happiness is a sensitive bandwidth within our mental state. Certain materialistic ambitions that are triggered by the primeval part of us (the animal instinct) like being wealthy, owning something expensive, hedonistic pleasures, etc. will make us shoot up to the mental state of happiness really fast, but they are not powerful enough to sustain us within that bandwidth. We will soon drop off it, because we get “used to things”. An expensive car makes us happy for a few weeks, even months. But after that, the novelty wears off, habituation sets in, we take it for granted, it becomes the status quo. So what promises more lasting happiness?

In order to hover within the Happiness bandwidth, you need to
  1. Find your passion/s to actualize your self and complement your core values and personality. Align your values and interests to your action.
  2. Keep setting achievable goals in your field of passion such that you derive a constant dose/flow of Happiness while engaged in the process of executing those goals rather than just completing them. An example the book gives - remember that feeling you get when you are close to solving a problem but haven’t solved it yet? When you get a creative inspiration? The rush you get when you set out to put all the steps together to solve or create? That’s when you are in the Happiness spectrum. Find projects to put yourself in that spectrum.
  3. Give back to others. Yes, altruism is not selfless, it’s great. It makes you and others happy. It also helps you forgive.
  4. Value family and personal growth, not corporate growth. But maybe corporate growth is your passion, so.... well, learn to balance. At the end of the day, you have the potential to derive more love and happiness from family.
  5. Take time to relish and savor each of the above. Savoring a cake slowly feels so much better than gulping it. Take time to smell the roses...

But sometimes, circumstances in our life are not that easy.  In order to be able to do the above, we  also need to
  1. Wake up every morning, believing that your life has meaning and purpose
    1. You may not understand the meaning OF life, but you can very well define the meaning of YOUR life by giving it purpose. Set out and find your own purpose in life. That is, find your passion. We’ve now entered the age-old vicious cycle around purpose and passion. But the field of Positive Psychology could help you.
    2. Religion can sometimes give you the structure and foundation to build your meaning and purpose in life. It can be a valuable anchor if adopted right.
  2. Motivate, motivate, motivate yourself
    1. If you can’t find motivation?
      1. You cannot change yourself and your state of mind through sheer power of will alone. Some of us have been hardwired to notice much more positive things (thus being more happier in nature), and some of us have been hardwired to identify more negative things (thus being more skeptical and wary). Dr. Haidt calls it the “Cortical Lottery”! I love the term.
      2. So, work on changing your behavior by -  Meditating to calm the senses, looking into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or in extreme cases -  anti-depressants. Or loop around steps 1a and 1b.
  3. Realize that no tragedy is the end of the world. We have the potential to always find happiness (as shown in research). Some measure of sorrow and misfortune in life makes us appreciate things better. It helps us learn, grow, gather perspectives, identify what’s important, and relish the state of happiness that much more.
  4. Forgive and let go
    1. Don’t believe in the myth of “pure evil”. Nobody or nothing in the world is purely evil that’s out to attack and destroy you. Empathy helps you understand other perspectives, it makes you more forgiving, thus allowing you to let go of grudges and negativity that prey on happiness. Learn to give back.

That’s my little condensed summary of take-away points. As I mentioned, nothing in the list is necessarily new. Several people from several disciplines have talked about some or all of them. But what makes this book worth a read is that it makes all these suggestions through in-depth analytical discussions surrounding human psychology and the nature of human societies. In that sense, it is quite informative and interesting to read. You would sometimes plunge too deep into a topic and flail around a bit to see the bigger picture, but clarity will emerge eventually.

Happiness comes from within, but there are ways in which you can set the conditions around you to influence that state of being from within you.

A side note: I went through this as an audio-book and my experience was good.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Reflections: Three Men and a Maid

For a light and breezy read to break up the monotony, I resorted to this book. Wodehouse never disappoints. Although this isn’t one of his best works, it does the trick to infuse some light-hearted mirth. Nothing and noone soothes me better than Wodehouse.

The novel revolves around three men and the turn of events in their romantic lives. They are all connected to each other through some fortuitous or unfortunate circumstances, and at the center of it is one volatile girl. What follows is some chaos and drama before all becomes well. Flighty idealistic girls break hearts, strong-willed women nurse and rule, and peace-loving English gentlemen are inconvenienced by the whole lot.

I must say that the writing style in this earlier book of his is quite different from the usual. The humor is more sarcastic, subtle, and the descriptions are a little restrained. But regardless, it is still a fun book. A classic Wodehouse tale filled with chuckles.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Reflections: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I finally got around to read this popular book.Christopher is an autistic young man who narrates and records his experiences following the killing of his neighbor’s dog. Deciding to get to the bottom of the mystery of the killing, Christopher applies all the detective skills he has learned and assimilated from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But little does he know that the detective game he doggedly pursues would lead him to secrets and revelations that are too complex for him to understand and cope with. Christopher’s story is raw, emotional (for the reader), and helplessly real. This is a fast-paced, incisive book that draws an honest picture of a family that strains to keep it together.

The narration of the book is what gets you, the reader. Although I’m not an expert on autism, drawing from my limited knowledge/experience, I felt that the book was convincingly written in the voice of an autistic boy. Christopher’s narrations lack emotion because he struggles to understand emotions. However, the raw sentences trigger so much emotion in the reader. Just with sparse clinical descriptions of the other characters, you get to intimately understand the other characters. Readers would find themselves alternating between empathizing and being frustrated with all the characters, because the story is a realistic slice of the struggles a family goes through as they do their best to raise a child with developmental challenges. It’s just a difficult situation all around. Everybody goes through their own personal battles, and it’s not easy to untie all the complexities and present a nifty solution. It is a painfully continuous process of coping. The story is as honest as it can be.

It is a quick read that will have you immersed in the intelligent and honest writing all the way till the end. The nice thing about the book is it indirectly presents the unbiased perspectives of all the characters concerned. Within the short span of the book, you will be exasperated, overwhelmed, and touched by Christopher’s journey.