The Fuzzy Science of Happiness

I found this as a post on a forum a few days ago –  thought it made a whole lot of sense and I wanted to republish as it’s something that almost everyone can get something from. The author was saying that they had read very many personal development and positive psychology books – or which many are rubbish or even counter productive – but there are a few points that most of these authors agree on… If you really want happiness, and a successful meaningful life, here are a few rough guidelines worth paying attention to:

  • Seeking “happiness” alone is misguided; happiness is a byproduct of many different things in life: a meaningful mission, a passion, close relationships with friends, family, and lovers.
  • Natural selection has wired us in such a way that it’s not the outcome but the process that makes us happy. Happiness comes from a sense of making progress rather than achieving specific outcomes. Takeaway tip: break your goals into very small subgoals; completing them elicits a surprisingly potent and continually replenishable boost of satisfaction.
  • Pure hedonism unmarried to any higher purpose or sense of social connection is a sad, empty, hollow existence.
  • Sex is good. So have it a lot. Connect. Intimacy beats variety.
  • Positive affirmations (“I like myself!”) are ineffective; don’t waste your time on them.
  • Your prefrontal cortex is prone to a cognitive illusion called the impact bias. It vastly overestimates how happy certain outcomes will make you feel (“If only I had X, I’d be happy”). Don’t take your goals too seriously. That doesn’t mean do not have goals; it means do not expect the achievement of particular outcomes to be crucial to your happiness. It absolutely is not.
  • It’s not about how much money you make; it’s about how much money you make compared to the next guy. Happiness is largely relative (you can thank the zero-sum game of natural selection for that). Use comparisons to remind yourself how fortunate you are.
  • To be happy, your work must fulfil three immutable human needs: autonomy (you have control over your time and what you do), competence (being excellent at a useful and valued skill), and relatedness (feeling connected to others).
  • We overestimate the effect that acquiring material goods will have on our long-term happiness. That 60-inch TV will not make much of a long term dent after the initial high. Once over a middle-class threshold of wealth, increases do not bring much extra happiness.
  • How you look is important; you will be happier if you are in shape and well-dressed than if you are a fat unwashed slob dressed like a dirtbag. People do better in exams when dressed well.
  • Work out. It gets you into a meditative-like state and pumps natural painkillers through your brain. Depending on how hard you push yourself, “runners high” can create rushes of pleasure and insight similar to that elicited by opiates and mescaline, without the harmful side effects. Learning to push yourself when exercising makes you more resilient in facing the inevitable hardships in life (“reading and running” are the keys to life according to Will Smith). Exercise powerfully boosts your mood and alleviates depression among those unfortunate enough to suffer from it.
  • To those of you who worry constantly about what people think of you: they’re thinking about you less than you imagine. Other people are thinking about themselves, not you. (This is bad news to those of you whose self-worth stems from the delusion that the world revolves around you.)
  • Happiness is significantly heritable (about 50%). Some people are just born with genetic predispositions to be grouchy and rancorous all the time, while others are more cheerful and sanguine. But it is possible to become happier.
  • Take more chances. “Worst case scenarios” don’t usually transpire and are not as painful as you imagine they will be. Terrified to ask someone out on a date? Do it. If they say no, you will NOT be crushed forever with humiliation; it will nowhere near as bad as you think it will be. (And, all else being equal, you have about a 50% chance of a stranger agreeing to a date with you – not bad odds).
  • Baseline happiness is fairly stable against abrupt environmental changes. Lottery winners, after their initial spasmodic bursts of happiness, level off after about one year at their previous baseline. On the positive side, when something catastrophic happens to a person, such as suffering paralysis in a car crash, there is a period of devastation lasting about a year but when this passes the person will return pretty much to how happy they were before the accident. This is one of the most counterintuitive findings from the psychology of happiness. If something terrible happens to you, don’t give up.
  • Fulfilling, intimate, close relationships are important, but individual people (such as a lover) are a dangerous, unsteady ground upon which to construct your happiness. Don’t do it.
  • We prefer experiences that end on a happy note. You will perceive twenty minutes of agonising dental work as more unpleasant than twenty minutes of agonising dental work followed by five minutes of mildly unpleasant dental work. The last 10 or 20 minutes of an interaction or situation strongly influences how you feel about it after.
  • Get outside for a while when the weather is good
  • Performing acts of kindness makes you feel better about yourself.
  • Don’t just “count your blessings”; vividly visualise how your life would be if those blessings were suddenly taken away from you. This elicits sincere gratitude.
  • When you feel on top of the world for whatever reason, you feel that you’ve always been happy and your life is great. When you’re pissed off and miserable, you feel that your whole life has been like this. (This messes up subjective measures of life happiness in questionnaires). When bad moods come along, don’t despair. Your whole life is not a festering crappile. Your bad mood will go away.
  • “Chase your dreams” is good advice. Find a way to make money doing what you would do if you couldn’t make money out of it – the thing that gets you into a flow state. But this must be tempered with a dose of reality: there is no magical occupation in life that will fill you with endless delirious happiness. Thinking otherwise will lead you to be relentlessly unhappy and dissatisfied. (And even the thing you love, the thing that inspires and motivates you, will drive you nuts if you do too much of it).
  • Having too many options leads to perennial dissatisfaction. The freedoms you have, and the multiple alternative life possibilities available to you, are, paradoxically, a source of enormous dissatisfaction. It may lead you to dislike and leave an ideal job and to believe that your circumstances, no matter how good they are objectively, are inadequate because you’re nagged (unconsciously or not) by the idea that you’re missing out on something greater. And it can cause a kind of choice paralysis, ironically. If you set yourself a firm, unwavering goal and stick with it, and acknowledge that unrealistically high expectations are an impediment, your life satisfaction will increase.
  • Exploit your talents. Put more focus on becoming as good as you can at your narrow range of talents rather than stretching yourself thin trying to become competent at everything.
  • People feel unhappy about experiencing positivity that they feel they didn’t consciously generate. Consciously, through effort and determination, construct (rather than pursue) your happiness, and pride and satisfaction follow. Plan your future and the positive things you are going to do.
  • Perennial unmoderated heavy drinking and drug abuse will engender rapid degeneration and unhappiness. What goes up must come down.
  • Nurture close friendships: quality over quantity. But don’t expect friends to be obligated to you in any way.
  • Simplify your life. You are probably doing too many unnecessary things that clog up your schedule, stress you out, dilute your productivity, and detract from your enjoyment of life.
  • Good things come to those who wait, but you can’t wait forever. Don’t get into the habit of perpetually delaying your happiness, suffering now for a promise of abundant joy at some future time. Make your satisfaction and happiness priorities of every moment, around which other things must swivel, rather than attaching so much of your happiness to an idea of future gratification.
  • If circumstances in your life are causing you unhappiness, sit down with a pen and paper and work out what the problems are and what steps you can take to eliminate the problems. Do not ruminate – take action.
  • Bad moods are largely influenced by the capricious whim of neurochemistry, but you can take steps to recognise them and snap out of them. If a crappy mood or thought floats into the ether of your mind, cut it off. Blank it. Think of something else. Don’t indulge it. Life is too short to dwell on unproductive useless negativity.
  • Longitudinal studies suggest that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve over life: we’re very happy as innocent growing-up sprogs, then we get slowly less happy until we hit a peak (around aged 45 for women and 49 for men) – coinciding with a mid-life crisis – after which we begin to get happier and more satisfied with life again.
  • We can more easily dismiss criticisms from other people than self-criticism and we think that the latter is always correct. False. The more intelligent and competent you are, the more likely you are to inaccurately and unproductively criticise and underestimate yourself. Idiots are the opposite, and are the ones most likely to think of themselves as competent for the big jobs and the materialistic nirvanas promised to them by personal development charlatans
  • Not everyone will love and adore you. Some people will detest you, and they will be multiplied if you become successful. Don’t waste your time trying to make everyone like you.
  • Don’t fake positivity. Find levers that allow you to trigger it authentically: “What is going right for me right now?” “What can I celebrate?”
  • Anger and conflict can be healthy – some negativity is necessary. Disgust, loathing and contempt are not useful. Check your negative thoughts dispassionately against reality: often they do not hold up
  • It is not true that marriage causes more happiness and better health compared to a meaningful (unmarried) relationship; relationship quality, rather than the institution of marriage, is what matters.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Be outgoing. Get out of your head. When out and about, don’t overthink things too much. Meet new people and socialise; it redounds to your happiness.
  • If the past brings you pain, let go of it. It’s gone. Start afresh.
  • Balance in everything, but deluded optimism and positivity are often better than realistic pessimism and negativity – the former will overall bring you more success, health, and happiness, and open up more opportunities to you that a negative outlook would have closed off. (This doesn’t mean the “Law of Attraction” is anything other than the complete BS that it is.)
  • If, however, the costs of an endeavour are very high, unbridled optimism is not the best strategy.
  • We are wired in such a way that losing stings more than winning brings pleasure. But some suffering is inevitable; it the flipside of having a mind capable of intense joy and love.
  • Be friends with happy people. Remove parasites from your life. Who you surround yourself with is crucial to your sense of well-being, your life satisfaction, and success in personal endeavours.

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