The idea of happiness is a mongrel concept. As Daniel Gilbert wrote in STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, “happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please” (p.31.). Although it’s something we feel, it’s not a simple emotion.
Happiness is an experience that involves the satisfaction of some of one’s important desires combined with the awareness of the goodness of that satisfaction. As I wrote in 5 WAYS TO DIMINISH FAILURE ALMOST INSTANTLY, “the important point is that happiness is a derivative good . . . [that] supervenes on our having other goods and avoiding evils” (p. 52.).
Experiences occur in the present moment, and they are cumulative in that experiences affect subsequent experiences. Since happiness is an experience, if you spend your life acting in such a way as to maximize your future happiness, you’ll never be happy. If at all, happiness is now. If you want to do your best to ensure future happiness, be happy in the present moment.
Instead of theorizing endlessly about happiness, let’s construct a practical, 3 step plan for increasing happiness that is grounded upon the understanding that happiness is a derivative good that is experienced in the present moment.
(1) ASSUME COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN LEVEL OF HAPPINESS. If you are over the age of 18, it’s time to quit blaming others for your unhappiness about anything.
As a child you were powerfully influenced by your (i) genetic endowment and your (ii) environment. (i) Genes are not destiny. Genes can be silent or very active–and it’s environment that determines which. Your genetic nature is fixed, but its expression is not fixed. (ii) How you learned to behave through reacting to your environment and following environmental models can be unlearned. Deliberate mental training that is grounded in intense focused attention can cause observable, significant changes in your brain.
Your greatest freedom is your ability to focus your attention. How you focus it determines what you experience. By practicing better focusing, you have the ability to change your experience and, so, change your environment.
The truth is that cognition and emotion are inseparable. This has been known by meditation masters at least since the time of the Buddha 2400 years ago and has recently been confirmed by neuroanatomy (see Sharon Begley’s excellent TRAIN YOUR MIND CHANGE YOUR BRAIN).
When activity in the left prefrontal cortex area of the brain is significantly and chronically higher than activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people are happier, enjoy a greater sense of well-being, and report feeling more alert, enthusiastic, energized, and joyful. The more of your life you spend being focused (for example, in meditation or engaged wholeheartedly in some worthy task), the more activity there will be in your left prefrontal cortex and the happier you’ll be.
Since, no matter what your circumstances, you are free to choose to engage in such activity or not, you are, in fact, completely responsible for your own level of happiness. Therefore, if you want to be happier:
(2) COMMIT YOURSELF TO MASTERING A WORTHY TASK. Selecting a worthy task for you depends upon self-examination.
Through your years of formal education, you probably already have a good idea of your natural abilities or talents. Mastery requires persistent practice of the right kind on some task at which you have ability. Sorry: though there are shortcuts that you can learn from those who have gone before you, there’s no easy route to mastering anything valuable. Though it may be simple, mastery is never easy. It’s the most difficult task you’ll ever do. It’s also the most valuable and what will maximize your happiness.
(3) PRACTICE HARD EVERY DAY. If you are not spending at least 1 or 2 hours daily intensely working on your craft, your commitment to excellence is too weak.
Forget about evaluating your daily practice: just do it. Evaluating is thinking, and what you should be doing is doing–not thinking about doing.
That’s it! That’s a simple, 3 step plan for increasing your happiness. Take your focus off becoming happier, which makes sense because happiness is a derivative good, and focus on working your plan. If you work properly and hard enough and persistently enough, one day you will look up from your practicing and notice how happy you’ve become!
There are all sorts of obstacles and distractions that will tempt you to quit. Well, if you are too lazy or lacking in confidence or uncommitted, you will fail. However, the truth is that being happy is your birthright and all you have to do is to claim it. If it’s important enough to you, you will. Other than yourself, what could stop you? Please set your egocentricity aside and get going. I wish you all the best.