On Happiness

Earl Vickers

Last weekend I went to Anaheim, home of DisneyWorld or Land, which, as you know, is the Happiest Place on Earth. Actually, to be more accurate: One of Two Happiest Places on Earth, or Three If You Count EuroDisney. But that's not as catchy.

Anyway, while I was there I considered making the following resolutions:

  1. to be happy,
  2. to love myself (in the less crude sense), and
  3. to be good to other people.

Having been indifferent, at best, to the concept of personal happiness for much of my life, this seemed a worthwhile experiment. I found the first of these goals especially interesting, as it embodies the concept that one might simply will oneself to be happy. Instead of waiting for certain ill-specified fortuitous events, I might take the grand shortcut of Just Being Happy, intentionally viewing the bone-dry glass as half-full or, hell, even overflowing with far too much fullness.

These thoughts were triggered by a song I heard on KPIG, in which the singer enthused about how much he loved his life. I'm thinking, is this guy serious? I couldn't even fake loving my life that much. Frankly, I don't give that much of a shit about the whole thing. So I was impressed, even inspired, to hear someone who does.

Of course, this feeling quickly wore off, but I do feel I'm moving in an ever-so-slightly more positive direction. For example, I found myself scribbling the following words onto a yellow Post-It®:

Don't hold back
Be super-creative

I have held back my whole life. I mean, here's someone who feels physical pain at the thought of ending a sentence with an exclamation point! (Ouch.) Living life to the fullest seems like an awful lot of work, especially when you have the option of living it partially.

But now my thought is: if I consider doing something, why not err on the side of just doing it? (Gusto is still optional.)

Once when I was a kid, maybe 7 or so, I considered resolving to be good and always do the right thing. I agonized over this for a while and finally decided I just couldn't do it.

In college, my personal philosophy consisted of the idea that if something was funny, I had a moral obligation to do it. As it turns out, this may not always be the best basis for making major life decisions.

Summarizing, here is the evolution of my experiments in personal philosophy:

Be good ->

Be funny ->

Be happy

For me, if I reframe the desire for happiness as an intention to love life or search for joy, it resonates better and feels less trivial. "Happy" seems like such an insipid word.

As for the part about being good to other people, Mark Vonnegut has a line about our purpose in life being to help other people get through this thing, whatever it is. Maybe I should give that a try.

Update, Nov. 2004:
I'm now engaged in a full-scale happiness quest, exploring the latest scientific research in the area of positive psychology and taking a course based on Martin Seligman's book, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment." Seligman focuses on enhancing one's positive traits rather than trying to remedy one's deficiencies. To this end, he has developed a number of interventions, many of which have already been tested to demonstrate their effectiveness.

As an example of one such intervention, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, tested whether asking people to commit five random acts of kindness each week, preferably in one day, would reliably increase their level of positive emotion. The result: yes.

Here are Sonja's instructions: 

In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger's parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter.

One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act, and the act may or may not be similar to the acts listed above. Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.

 Also see smiletherapy.com for a daily one-minute exercise that makes use of the facial feedback hypothesis.

See the Stuff I'm Learning page for the latest update...


Earl Vickers Museum of Conceptual Art