The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year. A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage. The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role. Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.
Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views. I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.
One article in particular far outpaced all other posts. My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined. Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list. The other six were published in 2010. Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.
Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year. And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.
It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest. And each was posted with great personal satisfaction. This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011. These other posts include:
One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention. I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written. As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.
Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development. Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live. The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.
This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth. It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings. It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.
The bottom line:
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.
I’m not an emotional man. As such, I rarely experience the extremes of sadness or joy. This is not to say that I do not experience joy or sadness – I do. I take great pleasure in life and also feel the pain that comes with it. But, I am very stable and steadfast – very familiar and comfortable with the middle of the emotional spectrum. Some might say that I am too serious, and that they have.
Because of this disposition, I don’t cry very often – in fact it takes a lot to make me cry. It is not as though I actively resist crying, or that I view it as a weakness. I just seem disinclined to go to such places. It is my composition.
Lately however, things have changed and I have found myself more inclined to tear up. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer about six months ago and has since endured a great deal. I guess one might say that I too am a bit more vulnerable and raw.
The tears that I have shed have not sprung from fear or even from empathy. I have sustained confidence that she will survive this. And at times when she has been fearful or just exhausted and frustrated, I have instinctively been her rock. My tears instead, have fallen quite unexpectedly at times of great relief.
I vividly recall meeting with my wife’s surgeon just after her diagnosis and tearing up as he left the office having reassured Kimberly that she will be okay. I held Kimberly firmly in my arms and we both wept.
On the day of the lumpectomy I sat with my mother and our college aged children as we anxiously awaited news from the surgeon. At that point in time Kimberly had also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and we did not know whether her breast cancer had moved to her lymph nodes. It was a very tense and scary time. When her surgeon called me out for the post surgical conference, he shared with me the good news that her lymph nodes were clear. I choked back tears as I thanked him. The emotional relief emerged forcefully and tearfully when I walked back into the waiting room to share this news with my family. I’m sure that my children have never before seen me in such a state. A few minutes later, as I tried to share this news with Kimberly’s mother on the telephone, I could not talk and again tears streamed down my recently moistened cheeks.
Since that Spring day, Summer has come and gone, and Kimberly has endured prolific post surgical bleeding, mammosite radiation, a reevaluation of her thyroid nodules (negative for cancer), completed 50% of her chemotherapy treatments and I have resumed my steadfastness. I have been a rock – steady and sure. Of course this is not completely true. I am less able to endure violence for entertainment on the television and I have little patience for the malicious or ignorant forays of others. But generally, I have held it together.
Then one day my wife came to me in tears after reading a letter sent to her by my daughter (Meghan), her step-daughter. I read it and it shook me to my core. I cried as thoroughly as I ever recall. She wrote (this is just an excerpt):
All of the things you are going through really, really, really suck and it is out of everyone’s control. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before with the flood of cards you have been receiving since mid May. But maybe you haven’t heard what I am going to say…
Life is amazing. We are all so truly lucky to be here. Out of all the stars, out of all the systems WE are here. It is a one in infinity probability. And despite all the suffering, you are here and you are unique; the only one that thinks like you… you are the only one that hears your thoughts… you are the only one here right now experiencing what you’re experiencing and feeling how you feel about it. And maybe that makes people feel lonely, but I feel lucky and I hope you do too. So whenever you’re having one of those moments when you’re hating everything, “Why me?!” turn it around to “I am lucky to be here and living the life I’m living.” You’re the only person who can have the relationship you have with me, my Dad, with Alec and Paige, with your siblings. With this random chance of us all being in the same time, we are all so lucky… So keep going, hang in there, stay strong, let weakness, vulnerability, and sadness take over when you feel it fitting, but after, breath deeply (because you are the only one in that moment feeling what you feel, breathing that 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen & remaining percentages, that is your breath and only yours). We have to cherish and recognize the awesomeness of it all, it is truly incredible and it blows me away almost daily. So the next time we are all together at dinner or bumming around, take a second to think “Wow, there will be no moment like this, we are truly unique!”
My daughter in that moment became the rock and I could let go. And I did let go! This morning I read a quote posted on Facebook by a friend that read:
People cry not because they’re weak. It’s because they have been strong for too long.
It is immensely touching and life changing when your “child” rises and shows the capacity and wisdom to be the rock. And I am thankful that I had the capacity to let go of that role in that moment. I am fortunate to have a wife that helped nurture such love in my daughter, and a daughter who has herself persevered through adversity and grown into an incredible woman. Meghan is right, we are so very fortunate to be here at all, to be together, to be loved, and to be aware of the uniqueness and improbability of it all. A wise person of unknown identity once said “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” This cancer has given us the opportunity to appreciate the strength and character of those around us who take turns being the rock. It is this strength of others that gives me the occasion to let go, and shed some tears.
I have often said: “Life has a way of getting in the way of itself.” I had been implying that life plans don’t necessarily work out due to the vagaries of life itself. In my wife’s case, a more literal interpretation is fitting. A DNA replication error set in place a rapid cell duplication process resulting in invasive ductal carcinoma. Her breast cancer, this life gone amok, has taken center stage.
Talk about a game changer – this changes everything. In my role as a psychologist I long ago became acutely aware of just how wrong things can go in life, and these professional experiences solidified in me the importance of appreciating the things that go well. It has also instilled in me the knowledge that absolutely nothing is permanent. But this cancer diagnosis has taken this enlightenment to a whole new level.
Thomas Hobbes once noted, “… the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Historically, this has been true for many of our ancestors, and it remains true for many today. Such is not the case for many of us who have been fortunate to be born into a time and place where survival is not an everyday struggle. But when facing a diagnosis of cancer, Hobbes’ perspective seems particularly cogent. I can only imagine how true this perspective must be for Kimberly. Although her family surrounds her with love and support, only she alone, faces the scaring scalpel and the life sucking chemotherapy.
In the vast configuration of things, we all know that she is not alone. Many people go through this, but none of those near and dear to her, know what she endures and fears. Life for her has temporarily, and most certainly, become at times, nasty and brutish. There is an ebb and flow to this process, but the difficult times rob her of the many activities that filled her with zest. Even at relatively good times, her quality of life is a poor reflection of what it had been. Often food is less tasty, if desirable at all. Restful sustained sleep is hard to come by and endurance and fortitude seem to be a thing of the past: as is her gorgeous full head of hair. It’s one thing to be a man and gradually lose one’s hair over a period of decades (I know it well). It’s quite another to be a woman and leave a trail of hair where ever you go. And really feeling good – it’s an occasional visitor that does not stick around long. I know this is torturous for her. It breaks my heart.
On the plus side, there is the reality that this life-run-amok has changed perspectives and brought our family closer together. From my point of view, it has brought into focus what really matters in life. It has freed us from the banal fruitless issues du jour.
But underneath this greater closeness is a universal fear. We all share it, but I am certain that it resonates deeper in Kimberly’s mind. The fear is: “What if this isn’t over?” We have no certain answers, but the statistics are on her side. Long term survival is the norm. This is one form of cancer that science and medicine has effectively constrained.
Her chemo is a preventative measure, not one aimed at eking out a few months or years. With this in mind, I try to frame this phase of treatment within the context of a physical challenge. One of our favorite activities is riding our tandem bicycle. We don’t just get on a clunky unwieldy tandem and leisurely putz around town. We ride a high tech machine and we ride it hard and fast. A typical ride covers 20 to 30 miles and often involves ascending some of the biggest hills in our area. These climbs are often long and brutal – requiring a special focus and tenacity. The reward however, is the effortless descent that is sweeter for the effort that made it possible. Over the next few months we will be climbing a new and even more difficult hill – struggling as we go. We shall strive to endure it for the rewards on the other side. We will make it.
And once we reach the top, it is my sincerest hope that all of us who have fought this battle with Kimberly will make the best of the rest of the ride. Life, with or without cancer, is short and exceptionally precious. This experience has certainly and deservedly taken center stage, but it has also put a spotlight on what is truly meaningful. The other stuff is just clutter. Meanwhile, the slow arduous slog continues – and we endeavor upward with anticipation of the sweet descent. All the while we take solace in the warm glow of love that sustains us and powers us up and ever onward.
Isn’t it interesting how hard times help us bring into focus that which is really important? I believe that this is true in our day-to-day lives as well as in the mindset of a nation. True crises sharpen our vision and help us cut through the minutia that often takes precedence in our day to day lives. Or does it?
For so long, rampant consumption, the behavior that typifies the American way of life, has been the rule. The mantras of “the bigger the better” and “he who dies with the most shit wins” capture the mindset that drives this behavior. This is particularly true this time of year. Somehow, many of us turn the Holidays into a competitive event spurred on by Martha Stewart and Madison Avenue – with massive divestitures of capital, time, sleep, energy, and ultimately health.
As Americans we make up 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of the world’s resources. Our economy is perilously balanced on this mentality of consumption. No longer can we afford this – economically or environmentally. China and India, whose populations greatly exceed that of the US, have expanding economies, and when their citizens’ develop consumptive appetites like our own, we are in serious trouble.
Sustainability, both personally and environmentally, demands that we cut back – we have to shed those deeply entrenched materialistic ways of old. This is not easy given that we have been programmed to value things over people, to seek happiness through acquisition, and to enhance our status through the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.
Perhaps this sustained economic crisis will help us all refocus on what is really important. I believe that ultimately we will be better off if we share the view that enough is riches. Having enough food, shelter, water, and clothing stands one in good position relative to the vast majority of people in the world. Conspicuous consumption to keep up with the Joneses is really a zero sums game. But such a minimalist mentality wont drive our current economic scenario out of the doldrums. This is the rub.
How do we move forward as a people and a nation in a sustainable manner? Our economic needs and our planet’s needs are at odds. The solution, I am certain, is complex – yet the need has never been more clear. I believe that we can make choices to cut back in strategic ways and at the same time take steps to engage in sustainable practices.
For example, we can take real steps to reduce our consumption of, and dependence on, hydrocarbons. And we can buy our food in ways that reduce the impact and power of large unsustainable factory farms. We also can spend our money in stores that provide a living wage and health care for their workers.
How do we do this?
First, get away from the mindset that consumption and material items will raise your status. Then consider driving less and walking or biking more. Look into renewable energy sources like solar or wind generation systems. Turn off the lights, computer, and TV when they are not in use. Turn down the heat or A/C and dress to compensate. Buy based on need not want. Buy your produce from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and grow your own vegetables (learn how to can or freeze fresh produce from these sources). Buy your meat from local farmers who graze their livestock in pastures where they consume what they have evolved to eat. Learn that convenience comes at a cost – and that those costs, in many ways, are hidden and delayed.
Cost is the second rub. All the things that I have suggested (with the exception of the conservation efforts) cost more. And they all demand more effort. It costs more to shop at Krogers, Wegmans, or Tops than at Walmart. It costs more to buy your food at a CSA farm stand or from a local sustainable farming practitioner. It takes time and effort to grow your own food. And although the tax benefits and governmental subsidies for wind and solar power are huge, one still has to lay out some money to install such a system.
Regardless, if we are more careful and mindful about how we spend our money, I believe we can take strides to reduce the fiscal impact of sustainable buying. At the same time we can grow the economy, by rewarding sustainable and responsible practices over unsustainable and unethical practices.
For my family the motivation to take these steps has come from gaining increased insight into the hidden costs of practice as usual. The ethical, economic, social, and environmental implications of business practices like those of Walmart and huge food conglomerates like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, ADM, AgriBank, Cargill, JBS, etc. are not well known or even all that accessible. If you desire more knowledge or inspiration perhaps a good place to start is with the movie Fresh. See the trailer below.
Happiness keeps popping up in my life. Not just the feeling, but the topic. In fact, this morning I woke up to a text asking me how happy I was. That didn’t make me feel happy at all. More on that in a minute. Ever since my recent posts on happiness, it feels like relevant conversations and tweets also keep popping up. I know that this is a result of my reticular activating system cuing me into this omnipresent topic, but it just makes me happy when it happens.
Certainly a big contributor to my awareness of happiness is my participation in a research project that randomly asks me to quantify my level of happiness throughout the day. I heard of this study on NPR’s Science Friday where Ira Flatow interviewed a Doctoral Candidate from Harvard University upon the publication of his study that found a relationship between mind wandering and lower levels of happiness (Killingsworth, 2010). The way the data was collected is very interesting, well actually it is very cool (at the risk of sounding too pedestrian). To a guy who really appreciates technology and has a dendrite tight connection to his iPhone, this is way cool. So this is how it works. Once you sign up to participate and give some basic demographic data you start getting texts that ask you to rate your happiness at that moment. They also ask other questions such as wake and sleep time, quality of sleep, desire and need to do what you are doing at the moment, level of current social interaction, degree of focus on task, what the task is, and where you are. They ask other questions too, but not too many in any one session. Each session takes about a minute to complete. And upon completion, they send you some graphic data about you and your responses over time. The catch is you need to have an iPhone to participate. Granted, this skews the data set, but pretty soon they will release it to Android owners, so that wannabes can participate too 😉 . Yes, I know! The data will still be skewed.
I have found this to be very rewarding on multiple levels. It is great to contribute to research, yes, but I have also learned some things about myself and about the levels and situations of my happiness. For one thing, I find that I am happier far more often than I had ever really realized. I guess I don’t really think about it much, but when asked and put in a position to respond, I assess my mood, and often find it to be good to very good. The grumpy and pissed off moments really amount to that, just moments, and for the most part, I’m feeling pretty good.
I also found that my inclination to be exercising with my wife or working on a project or being outside or helping someone to be associated with the highest states of happiness. There is one more topic they assess from time to time, which I will not share here: but lets just say that it is associated with the pinnacle of pleasure. I am drawn to all the above activities perhaps because I am rewarded with a flood of the feeling good neurotransmitter (dopamine) that sweetly caress my nucleus accumbens (NAcc). These are parts of, and reactions that occur in, the brain. I felt the need to clarify this for those that may be reading soft porn into my prose.
Granted, the data is limited to three sessions a day (I selected this frequency) so not all activities of my daily life have been sampled sufficiently to draw any firm conclusions, but it is interesting nevertheless. I suggest that if you have an iPhone, you should go to https://www.trackyourhappiness.org/ and sign up. You will be contributing to science and learning a bit about yourself. Really it is non-invasive and actually quite fun, except at 6:00 am, (I gave them permission to send texts at this time), the morning after hosting a large family Thanksgiving Dinner. I got over it, and really I was quite happy anyways. I’m very fortunate to have such a great family.
“It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.”
Obviously, this is a satirical paper, but it says something important about happiness and perhaps more importantly, something about our obsession with it. This paper was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics back in 1992. You can see get a free copy at Pub Med. Its a “fun” read if you get a kick out of reading scholarly papers written tongue in cheek.
Finally, I have to state the obvious, Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. This weekend I went camping with my brother-in-law. It was snowing, very windy, and pretty darn cold in Western New York. At one point my companion checked the Weather Channel on his Android hoping to find that the lake effect snow bands were swinging south to really blast us. The temperature was 24° and the wind chill made it feel like 12° (Fahrenheit).
Later, in the middle of the night, in my tent, my thermometer read 25 degrees. And I was HAPPY! My wife suggests that it is a testosterone thing. I’m not sure, but I find that there is something greatly fulfilling about enduring adversity such as this. At one point my brother-in-law blurted out his supreme happiness, as we sat eating a delicious freeze dried beef stew among great rock city quartz conglomerate relics of Devonian Age deposition. And as we later cooked our dinner over the hot coals of our warmth providing camp fire, amidst bone chilling winds, we again mutually proclaimed deep happiness. There is something about eating food cooked outside on a fire or even on our tiny camp stoves that makes it taste so much better than it would were we to cook it in the shelter and warmth of a conveniently contrived home. It’s about getting back to one’s roots: it’s about the struggle for survival, the very capabilities that ultimately brought us here, to this point in time in our evolution. But it also reminds me how fortunate I am to have such conveniences. I am aware that what I now have was not available to a vast majority of my fore bearers. I am also aware that even today, so many of my fellow human beings are far less fortunate. I am happy because I can appreciate the relative bounty that is my life. So much of happiness is about perspective. From my perspective – life is good.
Are you Happy? What makes you happy? These questions, although seemingly rudimentary, are more difficult to answer than you might think. As it turns out, happiness, as a condition, eludes clear understanding.
Throughout history, mankind has grappled with a definition of this emotion. Perhaps the most meaningful framing of happiness is rooted in the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia suggests that fulfillment comes not from experiencing the feeling of joy, but from living a virtue-based and meaningful life. Central to this notion is an emphasis on being a good person. Others have put forth perhaps equally telling notions. Nietzsche wrote that “the secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.” Bertrand Russel noted that “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” These latter two concepts acknowledge something important about the reality of happiness that Ayn Rand denied when she wrote that happiness is “a state of non-contradictory joy, joy without penalty or guilt.” (Salerno, 2010).
We all know (I hope) the feeling of happiness. We might surmise that, if given the power to manipulate our circumstances, we would be able to effectively engineer our world in a way that would guarantee this desirable state. But, as it turns out, as Nietzsche and Russel suggest, happiness is paradoxical.
We think we know what we want, but the acquisition of one’s desires often fails to live up to expectations and sometimes it brings regret, remorse, guilt, or dissonance. Those situations or items we covet in hopes that they will bring us happiness, come with detractors. Many women for example, desire children. Yet many mothers struggle with the need for fulfillment beyond domestic responsibilities (Salerno, 2010). And these two pursuits often collide in stressful ways. We are it seems, hard wired to pursue some goals that are, by their very nature, contradictory when happiness is concerned.
Life’s most prized aspirations, namely children and wealth, actually do not tend to bolster happiness. When looking at the research on the impact of children on maternal levels of happiness, the conclusions suggest that child rearing has a neutral to negative affect on quality of life. Positive associations are hard to come by. And although it appears that there is a slight positive relationship between wealth and happiness, there are numerous caveats to this correlation. Lottery winners for example, after the initial excitement of the win end up being no happier or even less contended than they were before the draw. And people in the United States, the richest nation in the world, report overall lower levels of happiness than folks from poorer countries. (Salerno, 2010).
In reality, our daily lives are comprised of unending battles between opposing objectives. On the one hand, we are drawn to selfish, indulgent, freedom while at the same time we are constrained by altruism, frugality, and commitment (Salerno, 2010). We can’t have it both ways and this conundrum often leaves us conflicted. After all, if we all were to pursue or own selfish interests we would have a highly dysfunctional, disjointed, and even dangerous society. The drive for social cohesion and the necessary restraint have deep evolutionary and strongly compelling roots. And then there is the drive to build social status through material acquisition or conspicuous consumption. This pursuit is really a zero sum game. Whatever you accumulate, there are many others that have bigger and better houses, cars, and jewels. It is all quite complicated and we are a curious lot. We want happiness, yet often what we aspire to, diminishes our happiness. I am reminded of the proverb: “Be careful of what you wish for. You just might get it.” What we want and what really brings happiness are often opposing forces or at least likely to stir conflict. This seems to be especially true with regard to deeper, genetically driven, intuitive drives (e.g., procreation and status building).
A similar paradox plays out in society where it is need, or misery, that catalyzes advancement. To paraphrase Plato: Necessity is the mother of invention. We prosper through innovation, creativity, and achievement: all of which, to some degree, stem from discontent (Salerno, 2010). Sociologists Allan Horowitz and Jerome Wakefield suggest in their book, The Loss of Sadness, that sadness has a clear evolutionary purpose – essentially to propel adaptation. Daniel Gilbert (2006), a happiness guru from Harvard University once wrote that “We have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain. That word is dinner.” It seems that contentedness fosters passivity and stagnation. For example, college students who score very high on measures of happiness rarely have correspondingly high GPAs. And the perkiest adults among us tend to make less money than their more even-keeled colleagues. (Salerno, 2010). I refer to yet another paradox in “Adversity: Had Enough?” where I shared research that contends that happiness is strongest in those that have experienced two to four adverse life events. Moderate amounts of adversity seem to bolster one’s capacity to tolerate and cope with future stressors and elevate one’s general level of contentedness (Seery, 2010). One might assume, that smooth sailing brings happiness, but as it turns out, this is not quite true. And a newly released study from Harvard University suggests that lower levels of happiness are associated with mind-wandering (Killingsworth, 2010). I discussed this in Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy, where I suggested that the mantra of FOCUS & FINISH will result in more efficiency (Nass, 2010), but as it turns out, it may also bring one a better mood.
Okay, so what brings people true happiness? There are general circumstances that appear to be associated with higher overall levels of happiness. For example married people tend to be happier than singles, church goers happier than atheists, and people with friends tend to be happier than the insular (Salerno, 2010). Recent findings suggest that people in their 50s are happier than those in their 20s (Stone, 2010).
To me happiness has to do with how you frame it and mostly about your expectations. It is helpful to think of life as a transient series of states dappled with moments of joy. It is unrealistic to expect a chronic state of bliss. We are much too inclined to misery to ever accomplish this. And this brings me to perhaps my greatest offering:
Misery exists in the gap
between expectations and reality.
Think about it. I am suggesting that a flexible and open minded focus on the world and the realities of its constraints will help you avoid misery. The most miserable people I know have the most rigid expectations about life, about others behavior, about rules, about fairness, and about shoulds. We have a concept in psychology called the tyranny of the shoulds (coined by Karen Horney) whereby one’s expectations that things should go a certain way, result in subsequent neuroses. This is often true it seems because generally our expectations are unrealistic. The more rigid and prolific one is with regard to expectations, the more likely they are to be slapped down by reality. These folks are consistently victimized by life.
Happiness I contend is a multidimensional construct. In part, it is an absence of misery. But that doesn’t tell us what it is. Perhaps Charles Shultz had it right when he said “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In reality we have to accept that it is paradoxical and that pursuit of it is a personal responsibility. This latter fact is a stressor for many (Salerno, 2010). I myself get joy from shared moments of close interpersonal intimacy, from adventure, from persevering on challenging tasks, from increased understanding of the world around me, and from the contributions I make toward the betterment of other people’s lives. I am happy because I make a difference, because I choose to include adventure in my life, and because I am very fortunate to live in this time and place where I am relatively well off (although not wealthy) and loved.
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010, October 11). Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021344
I have long suspected that a certain amount of adversity in life ultimately leads to greater degrees of happiness. This is contrary to the commonly held notion that suggests that traumatic stress is inherently harmful. It can be argued, as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’m in sync with Nietzsche here: hard times build resilience and help one appreciate the better times with deeper enthusiasm. A recent Scientific American Podcast indicated that I might just be right. In Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction, Christie Nicholson reviews the results of a multiyear study by Mark Seery, Alison Holman, and Roxane Cohen Silver that was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Using a national survey panel consisting of 2,398 subjects who were assessed on multiple occasions over a four year period, the authors tested for “…relationships between lifetime adversity and a variety of longitudinal measures of mental health and well-being: global distress, functional impairment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and life satisfaction.” In their analysis of the data they found that:
“people with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity.”
For the purposes of this study adversity included: “own illness or injury, loved one’s illness or injury, violence (e.g., physical assault, forced sexual relations), bereavement (e.g., parent’s death), social/environmental stress (e.g., serious financial difficulties, lived in dangerous housing); relationship stress (e.g., parents’ divorce); and disaster (e.g., major fire, flood, earthquake, or other community disaster).” It is important to note that adverse events were measured using a frequency count rather than any qualitative analysis of degree of adversity.
The implications one might draw from these findings is that without at least some adversity, individuals do not learn through experience how to manage stress; therefore, “the toughness and mastery they might otherwise generate remains undeveloped.” Overwhelming levels of adversity, are more likely to exceed one’s capacity to manage stress, and thereby impede toughness and mastery. The authors are careful to note that these data are correlative and as such do not establish causation, but they contend that moderate exposure to lifetime adversity may contribute to the development of resilience.
So, it seems, as Nicholson notes:
“… there’s a sweet spot, where a certain amount of struggle is good and produces a toughness and sense of control over one’s life, but anything above or below that amount is correlated with the inverse: Distress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed.”
You might ask “Where is this Goldilocks Zone?” At what quantity does adversity benefit one’s life perspective and where does it cross a line? Seery et al., acknowledged that it is impossible to pin point the exact parameters of such a sweet spot, but that the data suggests that around two to four adverse events may sufficiently enhance one’s capacity to sustain happiness and tolerate stress. However, and this is important to note, They do not recommend engineering disasters for those who have been “fortunate” enough to escape adversity.
This research reminded me of a story by an unknown author that my mother sent me a few years back. I’m guessing that it has made the rounds on the internet. Regardless, and despite the melodrama, it seems relevant here. What is cogent here is the notion of just enough.
I Wish You Enough
At an airport I overheard a father and daughter in their last moments together. They had announced her plane’s departure and standing near the door,he said to his daughter,
“I love you, I wish you enough.”
She said, “Daddy, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Daddy.”
They kissed good-bye and she left.
He walked over toward the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see he wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on his privacy, but he welcomed me in by asking, “Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?”
“Yes, I have,” I replied. Saying that brought back memories I had of expressing my love and appreciation for all my Dad had done for me. Recognizing that his days were limited, I took the time to tell him face to face how much he meant to me.
So I knew what this man was experiencing.
“Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?” I asked.
“I am old and she lives much too far away. I have challenges ahead and
the reality is, her next trip back will be for my funeral, ” he said.
“When you were saying good-bye I heard you say, ‘I wish you enough.’
May I ask what that means?” He began to smile. “That’s a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone.”
He paused for a moment and looking up as if trying to remember it in detail, he smiled even more. “When we said ‘I wish you enough,’ we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with enough good things to sustain them,” he continued and then turning toward me he shared the following as if he were reciting it from memory.
“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough “Hello’s” to get you through the final “Good-bye.”
I don’t suppose that it is a reach to suggest that exposure to small inconveniences such as rain or pain will likewise help you be more appreciative of sunshine and comfort. After all, we as humans tend to quickly habituate to smooth roads. Without a few potholes, we tend to take unbroken roads for granted. But, the adversity study is suggesting more than this. Its about developing resilience or reparative mechanisms that help us cope with future stressors. This is referred to as adversarial growth, of which, I wish you enough.
Nicholson, C. (2010). Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction. Scientific American Podcast.http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=adversity-is-linked-to-life-satista-10-10-16
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010, October 11). Whatever Does Not Kill Us:
Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021344
How one chooses to live one’s life is complicated by the uncertainties of tomorrow. Often there is an internal tug of war between the interests de jour and those that will be realized tomorrow. Due to the wonders of compounded interest, it is wise to save as much as you can – as early as you can. However, another powerful reality is that there may be no tomorrow – or a reality that tomorrow may manifest itself in unimaginable ways.
I am surrounded by reminders that saving your better days for tomorrow is unwise. Over the last decade, I have witnessed numerous loved ones and colleagues ravaged by disease. Most of them died, but those who survived are essentially incapacitated. They live-on, but are unable to experience life as they would prefer. Of those that are no longer with us, some were quite young and some were reaching or had just reached retirement age. Most lived their lives well, some did not: regardless, their peril certainly raised the value of their time, and they certainly had much left to live for.
Then there are the statistical realities of threats that my loved ones and I face. These threats include cancer and car accidents and even the more improbable, but not impossible, threats associated with catstrophic volcanism and asteroid strikes. The latter two events may seem to be ridiculous considerations, but the fact of the matter is that both are likely in near geological time. Some facts to contemplate:
Volcanoes -In a Discovery Channel piece on the supervolcano at Yellowstone it was indicated that “A modern full-force Yellowstone eruption could kill millions, directly and indirectly, and would make every volcano in recorded human history look minor by comparison. Fortunately, “super-eruptions” from supervolcanoes have occurred on a geologic time scale so vast that a study by the Geological Society of London declared an eruption on the magnitude of Yellowstone’s biggest (the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago) occurs somewhere on the planet only about once every million years.” It was also reported that “But at this hot spot’s current position under Yellowstone there have been three massive eruptions: 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. While those eruptions have been spaced roughly 800,000 and 660,000 years apart, the three events are not enough statistically to declare this an eruption pattern…” The risk is low but the threat is very real.
Asteroids – Although small (relatively harmless) bodies frequently enter the Earth’s atmosphere, it is estimated that 1 km (0.62 mi) in diameter asteroids hit our planet on average every 500,000 years. Larger asteroids (5 km or 3 mi) strike Earth approximately once every ten million years. Even more rare are the large body impacts (10 km or 6.2 mi). The last known major impact was the dinosaur killing KT extinction event 65 million years ago. Although it is unlikely that an Earth shattering asteroid will end or drastically alter my life – were it to happen – life as we know it would end. And we are past due. According to NASA “Statistically, the greatest danger is from an NEO [Near Earth Object] with about 1 million megatons energy (roughly 2 km in diameter). On average, one of these collides with the Earth once or twice per million years, producing a global catastrophe that would kill a substantial (but unknown) fraction of the Earth’s human population. Reduced to personal terms, this means that you have about one chance in 40,000 of dying as a result of a collision.”
I am careful not to “blow” these threats out of proportion, but they have figured into my thinking. Taking all this into consideration, I find it prudent to plan for tomorrow (by saving for retirement), but I find it equally important to live for today. Thus tomorrow, my wife and I jet off to Europe for a two week exploration of Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. This is something that my wife has dreamed of her entire life. We are relatively young and able-bodied and can afford it (kind of): putting it off any longer seems unwise. Next Friday we will be in Venice, but I think I’ll wait to make my next post until the weekend when I’m in Florence where I’ll post a picture of Galileo’s middle finger. 😉