On Happiness

Happiness is an elusive goal. Our minds, simply put, did not evolve to be happy and at peace. Instead, they are worry machines, the by-product of thousands of years worth of survival of the most neurotic.
Happiness has many different meanings, so we should probably settle on one. Happiness does not mean non-stop joy and everlasting bliss. This is not a fairytale. By happiness, I mean a life of contentedness, and tranquility—what the ancient Greeks called Ataraxia. Happiness is the quality of a life lived in such a way that it is largely free of unhealthy negative emotions. Unhealthy negative emotions are rage, depression, anxiety and their like—the ones we associate with problems in mental health. The opposite of these are the healthy emotions—joy, sadness, grief, regret, frustration, concern. I know that might seem counter-intuitive but it is necessary to accept—the good life includes its share of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and grief. There is simply no way to lead a life absent of these (short of being hooked up to a perpetual euphoria machine that would over-stimulate your brain’s pleasure circuit until you starved to death). Anyone who is offering you a life a free of the full spectrum of emotions is either deceived or a charlatan trying to swindle you (and probably both).

So how do you do find this elusive state of unperturbed happiness? In short, you change the beliefs that that are creating the unhealthy negative emotions, replacing them with rational, healthy beliefs. Irrational beliefs are inflexible, dogmatic beliefs that get in the way of you living according to your values and reaching your goals.

Through the posts on this blog, I will walk you through many of the concepts required to do this. But you do not have to learn this from me. The way has been thoroughly explored. The best way to learn to remove unhealthy negative beliefs is to study a system of thought that has this as its aim.

The method that is most in line with what I will be posting is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. This school of psychotherapy, created by Albert Ellis, is the original form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Often referred to as CBT). This is a method for recognizing your irrational beliefs and replacing them with healthy beliefs. REBT suggests a number of healthy beliefs which will lead to improved happiness.

An alternate source of healthy, rational beliefs can come from ancient wisdom such as Stoic Philosophy (which is a was a major influence for Albert Ellis). In addition to Stoicism, Buddhism could be seen as another source of positive philosophical ideas. Both of these philosophies deal with mindfully behaving in positive, virtuous ways while accepting the things that are beyond your control.

The central idea of all of this is summed up in the words of a crippled Roman slave turned renowned philosopher. His name was Epictetus and his philosophy might be best summarized by his quote, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

This simple quote tells us that we can change our view of the world to be in line with happiness. And if that is true, then we are responsible for our own happiness—no one else. And that also means that no one can take it away from us.

The Principle of Curiosity: Part one of the 12 ideas that can change your life

Cognitive Therapists use a tool called the Unhelpful Thinking Styles to point out common flaws in human thinking—the kinds of errors that can lead to us feeling miserable.  I’ve noticed that not everyone takes to learning these ideas. It is a bit like a physician studying gruesome diseases in order to understand health.  I wonder if some people would get better use out of learning them as positive statements—as healthy beliefs rather than dysfunctional ones.

So is it possible to create a list of very powerful ideas that could could create positive effects in our lives? Could we identify ways of thinking that prevent negative emotions rather than offer relief from them after they have already occurred? I believe we can. By reversing some of of the unhelpful thinking styles, drawing on the work of Albert Ellis, and throwing in a dash of ancient philosophy I think we can derive a set of potent and positive ideas.  I call these the Twelve Helpful Thinking Styles.

In subsequent blog posts I will be introducing all them. Today I will cover the first, an idea that pertains to our relationship with the vast and awesomely complex universe we find ourselves in.

1. The Principle of Curiosity

Be curious. Learn what you can of the world, but hold lightly to your truths, being ready to discard them if new evidence is found.

Be humble with regard to reality. Seek to understand the world as it really is, but avoid rigidity in your thinking. Avoid concluding that your understanding of anything is perfect, flawless or complete. There is always more to learn.

The world around us is awesome and complex. You could spend your whole life learning the intricacies of one small facet of one tiny corner of the globe. Wonder at this marvelous arrangement. How much better is this than living in a universe that was so easily understood there would be no cause for curiosity or investigation?

You do not need to understand every aspect of the world to live a good life within it. Our understanding of the world around us will always be limited, but that is not a bad thing. We can use what we know to improve our lives, but we don’t need to cling to any truth as dogma. As we find new, helpful information and improved ways of being, doing, and thinking, we can let the old ways go. All evaluations and generalizations should be seen as tentative hypotheses rather than solid facts.  Be ready to make adjustments when new information is provided.

In some ways this first thinking style is the most important because without it, the ideas that follow will never take hold. After all, it is theold ways of thinking that have led to whatever problems you are facing now. Being a more effective, happier, less stressed person cannot occur without curiosity and flexible thinking. If you are locked into believing what you have always believed, you will also be locked into being what you have always been. Even in Cognitive Therapy, the client cannot progress unless they are willing to change the thoughts and beliefs that have been holding them back. Without a willingness to consider what it would be like to think a different way—without the spark of curiosity—we would all be stuck exactly where weare.

What this idea will help you avoid: 

All humans are prone to engage in motivated reasoning—the tendency to start with a preconceived notion, ignore information that doesn’t go along with it, and manufacture (or cherry-pick) details that seem to support it. But we don’t only do this to defend our cherished beliefs, we also do it to justify the negative views we take of ourselves and others.  The nasty little words we equate ourselves with, the rigid rules that hold us back, and stubborn assumptions we make about others—these are all a product of being unwilling to consider the possibility that we might just be wrong about a few things.

What this idea will help you gain:

Curiosity over time yields knowledge. Knowledge collected patiently and carefully applied yields wisdom.  This is because flexible thinking will allow you to build an understanding of the world that will be closer to how it really is. You cannot effectively respond to the world without truly knowing it. This is what prevents us from navigating through our lives with an outdated and distorted map. Don’t confuse stubborn clinging to old views as any kind of strength. There is no weakness greater than fearing to know the world as it really is. There is no courage greater than being willing to know reality and embrace it in all its aspects.

Go to the next idea!


The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.