Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflect on Your Life...and Be Satisfied

...Reflect on your Life
Time isn't Real
How Much Time Can you Kill?...

I promise this blogpost isn't going to be corny (okay, not too much).  It isn't even about stuff that happened to me this summer and the cheesy lessons I learned from it (cf., my last post).  Instead, it is about things I learned (which just so happened to be during the summer) second-hand through the interwebs.

The topic: the science of happiness.

It turns out that researchers know a great deal about what doesn't make us happy, including money (at least above the magical 75K/year that basically protects you from the misery and uncertainty of poverty, but see here), lots of possessions, life achievements or other objective measures of success and status (although it turns out that movie stars who win academy awards (or scientists who win Nobel prizes) live longer than those who were simply nominated, so there may be some psychological payoff to professional recognition).

There is also much that researchers know about what does make us happy.  There is, first of all, the unsettling fact that some people are simply born happier than others; so yeah, there is a genetic component to all of it that you can't do a goddamn thing about.  There is also social contactmarriage (although this works better for men than women), as well as pets.

Then there is the biochemical component, which is also to a great degree biologically determined.  However, this turns out to be something you can do something about through the use of drugs (namely, SSRIs, as well as certain supplements) that can increase the amount of serotonin (happy brain chemicals) that sticks around in your neural synapses and gives you a nice biochemical boost. (Coffee and other stimulants, plus sunshine and a range of other things also make people, especially women, somewhat less prone to depression.)

The good news is that there are things you can do to change biological destiny short of drugs--things that can actually change your brain nonetheless.  Turns out that how good we feel has much to do with how we reflect on our lives from one moment to the next.  

This is the essence of cognitive therapy, which I read about in a recent issue of the Stanford alumni magazine (my mom keeps these around for me to read whenever I visit).  I learned that a psychologist, a Stanford alumnus, had discovered through decades of practice that actively monitoring and logically countering the unrealistic negative automatic thoughts that we have on a daily basis was actually more effective than drugs in helping people with mild to even the most severe depression.  And it helped people immediately.  His book is literally a classic in the self-help genre:  Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, just fyi.

What the book comes down to is deliberately, painstakingly recalibrating one's processing of daily experiences so that our interpretations of events has a (1) neutral, (2) realistic, and/or (3) positive spin.  Further, this recalibration is continuous until it becomes automatic.  At its core, the book suggests that we should be calmer about everything.  It also suggests we should be grateful, focus our energy outward, and not act like an entitled jerk.

It was easy to recall stories of extremely happy people with a habit of doing this.

One was featured in a recent episode of This American Life, a syndicated National Public Radio show.  The person in question, Emir Kamenica, is a brilliant young economist who began his journey as a poor son of refugees from the 1990s Bosnian War.  He tells his story as one of unbelievable good fortune, where he and his family had been brought to the U.S. where he was enrolled in a under-performing public school that doomed its pupils to failure.  The only thing that saved him--sending him to Harvard and ultimately University of Chicago where he now teaches economics--was a student teacher who had come to believe he was brilliant because of an essay assignment that he had plagiarized from memory.  On the strength of his plagiarized essay, he recalled, she pulled strings to get him into a fancy private school tuition-free, setting him on the path to success.

The radio show producers then tracked down the teacher, and her story turned out to be at odds with the one told by her former student.  She explained that her pupil's success had nothing to do with the plagiarized story--that all of his teachers had discerned his brilliance and plotted to get him moved long before the story in question (which she barely remembered). She also averred that he would have succeeded regardless of where he had gone to school.  When confronted with this alternative version of events, the man refused to believe it, choosing instead to believe that his success was based on good fortune and the kindness of strangers (here, the substitute teacher).

The TAL host observed that his attitude was probably at the heart of the economist's extraordinary happiness.  Emir was grateful for everything that he had received in life.  He felt that merit had little to do with his success, and this conviction made him very, very happy.  He says that his current life is far more wonderful than he ever even imagined it could be when he was a child.

The second story is a PBS documentary from Bill Moyers that showcased two American families that have fallen on hard times in the Milwaukee area over the past two decades.  Both families had lost the single breadwinner unionized job that had sustained them in the 1980s.  With such jobs now in short supply, both parents in each family had to go into paid work--substituting two low-wage jobs (with few or no benefits) for the now-extinct union jobs.

Over two decades, both families struggled mightily, but, while the first couple divorced (the husband even leaving his family), the second couple persevered through it all.  What struck me was a scene in a church (the husband was also an ordained minister who led a small congregation on the weekends, in addition to his regular paid work).  In this scene in church, the man preached emphatically that you might lose your job, your health care, even your home, but you had to thank the Lord anyway. 

This is profound, it really is.  It is not to say you should minimize life's problems or live in denial.  It's saying the harder your life, the more grateful you have to be for the things that are going right.

By the end of the documentary, the second family was no less poor than the first family, but they were much much happier. and they were together.  This is at least partly because they continually gave thanks to God for the many things that they did have.

This story has lessons for secular folk as well--whatever happens in your life, you must be grateful for your good fortune, for everyone is fortunate in life, one way or another.

For inspiration...

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