One thing I’ve noticed about people over many years, is that the ones who seem happiest, seem happiest no matter what happens to them, good or bad. I’ve seen severe injury and devastating failure happen to them, and terrible tragedy of many kinds. They persistently focus on the good, and on others instead of themselves. They also remain humble and energetic in the face of success. These people handle both failure and success well. They respond to good luck and misfortune equally with positive action to make the most of each, learn the most from each, and be grateful for what they have. These are not people who fake a smile to appear like everything’s great. When they smile at you, you know it’s genuine.
Other people I’ve known over many years, who are easily frustrated, complain about life no matter what happens to them, good or bad. If nothing bad happens, they invent excuses to snap at others and seek sympathy at the same time. A little trouble generates a lot of bitterness. A little success breeds a lot of gloating and laziness. They handle both failure and success poorly. They don’t benefit from experience. When these people put on a smile, it is usually transparently forced from external expectation.
These observations led me to thinking about the relationship between happiness and an active mind. I think there is a strong correlation. Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, is adamant about happiness from activity: “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action” (Puck, Volumes 15-16). I think that goes for both mental and physical action. Leave it to Aristotle to put it most simply: “Happiness is a state of activity.”
Active minds process incoming events and data more effectively. That in itself should lead to healthier brain-chemical reactions. It is so simple, it becomes a matter of statistical predictability: “if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world” (Shawn Achor. “The Happy Secret to Better Work” Ted Talk. February, 2012).
Some old sages, Martha Washington for example, say it’s pure disposition: “for I have also learnt, from experience, that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us, in our minds, wheresoever we go” (Letter to Mercy Warren 1789).
Self-help shelves are loaded with books to make you happy. You can read the rest of your life on how to be happy and die with 10,000 books yet to read. But if it’s all a matter of inherited brain-configuration, it begs the question: Is the “happiness” segment of the self-help industry wrong? If it’s inherited, and it’s not working well, can you fix it? Marcus Aurelius thought it was quite an easy proposition: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
In my opinion you can change habits of thought and behavior if you want to. It may be harder if you feel you were born with difficulty experiencing satisfaction or fulfillment in any circumstances. If your default responses are either gloating or lashing out, you have a harder road to travel to find anything rewarding in this life. That’s a wall, and you have to find a way to break through it. I believe it is a wall between a more passive mind versus a more active mind. In this case, I certainly advocate taking the hard road to improve your chances of happiness. The root of the remedy may be in developing a more active-minded approach to everything.
Update (1/8/2017)—Here is a good article citing recent studies on the disposition and benefits of the mental attitude of happiness:
EXERPTS FROM THE ARTICLE:
“Life circumstances have little to do with happiness because much happiness is under your control—the product of your habits and your outlook on life. Happiness is synthetic—you either create it, or you don’t.
“When it comes to making yourself happy, you need to learn what works for you. Once you discover this, everything else tends to fall into place.
“A critical skill set that happy people tend to have in common is emotional intelligence (EQ).
“1. They don’t obsess over things they can’t control … there’s a big difference between understanding these larger forces and worrying about them. Happy people are ready and informed, but they don’t allow themselves to fret over things that are beyond their control.
“2. They choose their battles wisely. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged and unhappy … you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.
“4. They heed their moral compass. Crossing moral boundaries in the name of success is a sure-fire path to unhappiness.
“5. They exercise during the week.
“6. They have a growth mindset … (they) believe that they can improve with effort. This makes them happier because they are better at handling difficulties. They outperform (others), they embrace challenges as opportunities to learn something new.
“8. They lend a hand. Taking the time to help your colleagues not only makes them happy, but it also makes you happy … In a Harvard study, employees who helped others were 10 times more likely to be focused at work and 40% more likely to get a promotion. The same study showed that people who consistently provided social support were the most likely to be happy during times of high stress.
“A University of Chicago study of peak performance found that people who were able to reach an intense state of focus … reaped massive benefits … (state of mind in which you find yourself completely engrossed in a project or task, and you lose awareness of the passage of time and other external distractions). ”
Watching a lot of TV makes this more difficult to achieve, as focus of any kind is one of the first casualties of excessive TV viewing.
In closing, I like FDR’s take on the subject:
Read more from my book
Call of the Active Mind
©Copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016