I received an email from my father that contained a link to a 2004 lecture by Dan Gilbert, Harvard Professor of Psychology and author of the New York Times bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness. I knew nothing about Gilbert before viewing this 22-minute lecture, but I get what he was saying. I’ve lived it; I plan to read his book. However, my purpose here is not to sell his book or his theory to anyone (I don’t think he needs my help), but rather to reflect - again - on what happiness is to me.
Perhaps it’s easier to start with what happiness is not. It’s not wealth or, more simply, money. I have had (past tense) many dollars at my disposal - it didn’t make me happy. Although I have never been “independently wealthy,” I have traveled down that road far enough to know that it is not, in and of itself, the key to happiness. Furthermore, I have heard enough stories of those who have come into large sums of money - inherited, won and even earned - and it has served to complicate their lives to the point of misery.
Fame, like wealth, does not appear to be the magic formula either. The list of tragedy is endless. Marilyn Monroe, Hunter S. Thompson, James Dean and countless others whose fame made them so damn happy it proved fatal. And power in all its various manifestations does not appear to guarantee happiness either. With great power comes great responsibility and that often brings a great deal of stress. Often the expectations are so exceedingly tall that failure becomes the only option.
Yet for a very long time I felt that one or any combination of these things would make me happy. Indeed, my happiness was totally dependant on external conditions. Certainly these conditions could be created and often they just happen, but unless realized somehow, I could not be happy. It's how I’m built - or so I thought. Until very recently and for well over 40 years of my life, sustained happiness had eluded me. I thought I was somehow cursed or at the very least, defective.
For the past two plus years, I have not had a bad day. Not one. I have been happy. I’m not totally sure why, though I have some pretty good ideas. It would appear that in my quest for happiness, I have indeed stumbled onto happiness. In his lecture, Gilbert presents a number of statistics from studies that show how happiness can be “manufactured,” that we as humans are the only species that can rationalize happiness. And… we can rationalize it away as well.
My happiness comes from the inside - truly. It comes from a sense of accomplishment and usefulness. I am happy because of the things I do; I don’t do them to be happy. There is a huge difference. I’ve written about sincerity before and I believe one’s motives play a significant role. I could do all the things to get the stuff that I used to think would make me happy. Indeed, I did do many of those things - but my motives were to get to the end, to grab the brass ring and be done; to only focus on the external condition no matter what it took to get there - so long as it did not require too much effort. There was no sincerity.
Some say that charitable acts are all based in selfishness. People are selfless only because of the return or benefit they gain from it. Inasmuch as this return takes the form of tax shelters or write-offs or profits of some kind, perhaps it is so. Give a little, save a lot. But when the pay-off is solely the positive feeling it gives the giver for helping out his fellow man - is that still selfish? It’s the ultimate trump for those who say there is no true charity. They say there is always a carrot, that nobody does anything unless there is something in it for them. This is a cheap argument, and not fair. It discounts the sincerity - sincerity that must be present for the happiness to come.
I cannot do anything beneficial for others or myself simply because I know I’ll get the “feel-good” or any other kind of payoff. I can’t, in part, because I know I won’t. Insincere motives cheapen the whole affair. It nullifies the payoff before it even has a chance to happen. Even the term "payoff" smacks of insincerity. Any positive benefit is superficial and fleeting at best. It only mimics happiness. The true happiness is a bonus, a side effect if you will. It can’t be planned for or expected, but can be counted on all the same. It is a paradigm that works like nothing else ever has. It’s like magic.