The 6th Happiness “Sin”: Distrusting Life
We people attach great importance to setting and achieving goals. Since we cannot foresee the future we cannot figure out all the downstream consequences that an outcome (a reached goal) will trigger. An outcome that currently seems positive (e.g., getting married to a sweetheart) may well turn out later—as it often does—to be negative. For this reason, it is advisable not to get obsessed with achieving a specific goal. Most people, however, have two concerns about this approach.
They fear that they would run the risk of never feeling happy again: “If I didn’t feel happy upon getting a good job or for getting married to my sweetheart, why would I feel happy about anything at all?” Scientific research though shows, that we don’t need to be dependent on the results, in order to be happy – we could derive all our happiness from the process of working towards outcomes
. We could, for example, derive happiness from preparing
for an exam or from planning
for a vacation.
The second concern is that delinking happiness from outcomes would kill the motivation to pursue goals? This will not happen if we make a very important difference: de-linking happiness from outcomes refers to not judging outcomes only after they have occurred, and not before they have occurred. That is, before an outcome has occurred, you would have a preference for some outcomes over others. However, once an outcome has occurred, you wouldn’t judge it as “good” or “bad.”
Three Broad Approaches to Goal-Pursuit (based on the above)
• The first approach might be called the “obsessive pursuit of passion.” This approach involves having a strong preference for certain outcomes over others both before and after they have occurred (reaching the goals that we have set).
• The second approach is what might be called, “indifferent pursuit of passion.” This approach involves being indifferent to outcomes both before and after they occur. This would lead to a lifeless pursuit of goals.
• The third approach, which is also the optimal one from the standpoint of maximizing happiness is the Sixth Habit of the Highly Happy. It is what we call “the dispassionate pursuit of passion.”
The 6th Habit of the Highly Happy: Exercising “Smart Trust”
We know from personal experience that our feelings towards both negative and positive events generally become less intense with time. This change is more pronounced for negative—versus positive—events. This suggests that negative events lose their sting more rapidly than positive ones lose their glow. Negative events also provide far greater opportunity for growth and learning than do the positive ones.
The fact that our feelings towards past negative events turn more positive with time suggests one way by which we could nurture the 6th habit of the highly happy, the dispassionate pursuit of passion. The dispassionate pursuit of passion involves having a preference for certain outcomes over others before they occur, but being non-judgmental about them after they occur. One way to practice this part is by consciously reminding ourselves that, if we can revise our feelings about past negative events, we might as well do the same with the current negative events.
But there’s a catch—the exercise won’t work as effectively if it isn’t accompanied by an implicit trust in life. By implicit trust in life, I mean the belief that good things are going to happen to you and that life, by nature, is more benign than malign or indifferent.
What’s the most rational belief to have about whether life can be trusted or not? Is it that life is benign? Or is it that life is malign? Or perhaps it is that life is indifferent? The answer, it turns out is: all of the above. To a person who believes that “life is benign” and that “life can be trusted,” life does turn out to be benign and trustworthy. To a person who believes the opposite, life’s experiences offer ample evidence in support of the view that life is malign.
However, what can be proven is that from a utilitarian perspective—that is, from the perspective of maximizing happiness—it is better to believe that life is benign than it is to believe otherwise.
Of course, it’s one thing to recognize that it’s more useful to trust life and entirely another thing to adopt that belief. What can one do to develop greater trust in life? One practice that has great potential is gratitude. Exercise 6 – Three Good Things with a Twist – helps develop this trust in life.The 6th Happiness Exercise – 3 Good Things (with a twist)Introduction
There’s a very powerful happiness-enhancing exercise called “3 good things.” Professor Seligman, who developed that exercise, found that 94 percent of those who had kept a record of three good things that happened to them for a mere fifteen days showed a significant improvement in happiness levels. The exercise even lifted some of the people out of depression!Goal
Like “3 good things,” this exercise too involves making a note in your journal of three good things that happened to you each day for a period of time (in this case, one week). However, there is a twist: you have to make a note of those things that started out badly, but eventually turned good.
For example if you were stuck in heavy traffic on the way to work (negative event). But because of this, maybe you got to hear a string of your favorite songs on the radio—songs you hadn’t heard in a while (positive consequence). Such recognition can help mitigate the tendency to exhibit “post occurrence judgmentalism” and thereby, help nurture the “dispassionate pursuit of passion”.
Note: It is important not to choose major negative events. For example, do not use the case in which you were fired from work. At first you will find it very difficult to find something good, but if you are persistent enough, you will manage.Steps
1. First step is to think of at least one (and up to 3) mildly negative events that happened to you recently, and describe what occurred in writing.
2. The second step involves identifying at least one (and up to 3) positive consequences triggered by each negative event that you identified. Once you have identified at least one positive event for each of the negative events that happened, go to the next step.
3. The next step involves “connecting the dots.” This means making a quick note of the chain of events—starting with the original negative occurrence—that led to the eventual positive outcome(s). Do this for each of the original negative events for a whole week (seven days).
4. This step needs to be completed only after you have maintained a record of “3 good things with a twist” for a week. After you have had a chance to review your notes for these seven days, answer the following questions:
• How easy (or difficult) was this exercise for you? Why?
• Do you feel more confident now that most events are not “purely” positive or negative? Why (or why not)?
• Those who complete this exercise for a week tend to spontaneously look for positive consequences that are triggered by seemingly negative events. Did you feel that this happened to you?