2012-05-10

Another Look At Happiness

A couple of days ago, one Leo Babauta posted a few tips on how to be happy.

Farbeit from me to declare what will make other people happy. Leo provides a list of tips that have worked for him - and that's good. Without saying he's wrong, wrong, wrong, I thought I'd simply use his list as a starting point and explore his recommendations a little.

First, some context. Leo's recommendations seem to center around ideas that run contrary to basic facts about human beings, namely that less is more. Part of the reason I think blog entries like that exist is because they are mantras, they are things that people must repeat to themselves over and over in an effort to wish them into truth.

That's not to say that happiness can be found in the rat-race, but just that... Well, David Lee Roth said it best when he said, "Money can't buy you happiness, but what it can get you is a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it."

Let's take a look at Leo's list:

#1 - "You need very little to be happy."
This is the thing we all desperately want to believe because, frankly, none of us is capable of having all the many things we would like to have. Furthermore, these things that we want genuinely would make us happy. So we are inclined to say they don't matter, to help us feel better about the fact that we may never have them.

Truthfully, the more awesome stuff you have, the more awesome your life will be. The problem is that it's not the stuff, per se, that makes you happy. Really, it's the fact that having stuff means you have access to preventing a little more misery in your life. As Mises might have put it, you've managed to remove a greater number of your daily wants.

So, rather than trying to be satisfied with your meager list of possessions, I suggest we all dedicate our time to obtaining the things that really do make us happy, whether it's a yacht or a wife or a new car or whatever. Just don't waste your time chasing stuff that doesn't make you happy and shoot yourself in the foot. Don't work 6 hours of overtime when you really would rather go home and have a glass of wine. Be aware of what you really want.

#2 - "Want little and you are not poor."
Leo suggests that if you always want more than what you have, you are actually "poor." Technically, of course, this is false. But it is really just poetic rhetoric. What Leo means to say is that having a black hole in your heart that can never be filled up is a bad thing.

And he's right. But again, I'd argue that a person who has such a black hole is simply focusing on the wrong things. Don't host a thousand stressful dinner parties if you'd rather just chill out and read a magazine. Want as much as you feel to want, but make sure you actually do want what you say you want.

#3 - "Focus on the Present"
This is classic Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. Faithful Stationary Waves readers know that in order to foster a good sense of mental health and achieve good things, you need to extend your cognitive time-horizon as far as you possibly can. This isn't about living in the past and the future so much as it is being able to understand how you got where you are and how to get to where you want to be.

Which brings us to...

#4 - "Be happy with what you have and where you are."
Not bad advice at all on its face. Where Leo goes wrong is that he suggests readjusting such that you shouldn't strive for more. But why not? It's fun to do new things!

#5 - "Be grateful for the small pleasures in life."
I say, take pleasure in all things, big or small. Everyone has small pleasures in life - we need not be "grateful" for them. They are "small pleasures" precisely because we all have access to them. It's only the big pleasures we should be grateful for, because those are the ones that are truly rare experiences. Those are the ones that give us stories to tell and memories to cherish.

But that doesn't mean you should disregard the tiny moments of life that make you smile.

#6 - "Be driven by joy and not by fear."
There is a lot more to life than "joy" versus "fear." Such as, to quote Donnie Darko, "the whole spectrum of human emotion."

Don't be driven by fear. Don't be driven by joy. Try this instead: When you're afraid, take solace in courage; when you're sad, take solace in joy; when you're lonely, take solace in love; when you're angry, take solace in grace.

In other words, when you find it hard to be strong, default to your greatest strengths. It might not always work, but it's far better than blindly surrendering to the emotion of the day.

#7 - "Practice compassion."
This one is pretty vague. Leo seems to mean "compassion for yourself," for the most part, which he defines as eating right, accepting yourself, and coming to terms with your past mistakes.

I can go for that, sure, but I'd suggest that if you spend a lot of time accepting yourself and coming to terms with your past mistakes, you're probably not focusing enough on your strengths.

Whenever anyone asks me, "What went wrong?" I tell them that they're asking the wrong question. I don't think people should focus much on figuring out mistakes or problems. I think people should focus on the good things and figure out why they're good. "What went right?" is the better question to ask. You don't really want to figure out and replicate a mistake. But figuring out and replicating an achievement guarantees your ability to do it again in the future. Now we're getting somewhere!

#8 - "Forget about productivity and numbers."
Leo doesn't seem to like numbers and benchmarks much. I agree that Leo should forget about productivity and numbers.

But I know lots of people who love numbers. They're called mathematicians, engineers, scientists, analysts... numerate people in general! If you like numbers, why should you forget about them? If numbers inspire you to move forward, why not make use of that fact?

True, numbers aren't inspiring to everyone, but if you're one of the lucky ones who likes them, go with it! No sense fighting your own happiness.

Conclusion
Well, that about does it for Leo's list. As you can see, the Stationary Waves philosophy diverges quite sharply from anything "zen." Naturally, there is no "one, correct way to live life," so I won't suggest that I am right and Leo is wrong.

What I will suggest is that zen philosophies in general are the majority viewpoint in self-help media out there, and that they simply don't apply to everyone. Some of us like numbers, rationality, long-range focus, and an unyielding focus on the positive aspects of life. If you've tried new age feel-good mumbo jumbo and it hasn't worked out for you, why not give enlightened rationalism a try?