Friday, October 1, 2010

Happiness is a consequence

It's the early 1940's. A train rattles its way northward through southern Poland along tracks barely able to hold the weight of the "passengers" above. The mass of flesh mashed into the cattle car contained a young Psychlogist named Viktor Frankl. As suddenly as each member of this transport was plucked from whatever amount of freedom they enjoyed before, all hope of their fate faded when a passenger caught a glimpse of their destination..."Auschwitz".

Viktor Frankl was admitted to the concentration camp, and during his imprisonment, every aspect of his life was controlled. He was told when to eat. When to Sleep (or more often when not to), when to go to the bathroom. His name had been reduced to a number, yet even in this environment, he maintained control of one thing. His ability to choose how he reacted to these physical horrors.

I know that you must be thinking that I chose the wrong title for this post - What does a Nazi concentration camp have to do with Happiness? Well, the very thing that kept Viktor Frankl alive is capable of keeping us happy. You see, happiness actually has very little to do with your life situation. The way you react to your life situation is a far greater factor in determining whether you will have happiness or not. I use a working definition of happiness that may be different than what you are used to. Happiness usually conjures up images of smiling faces, uplifting personalities, and joyful occasions. But I believe that happiness represents something more enduring - A result of some key behaviors.

The first behavior that I believe produces happiness in great measure is self-control. We all need to have self-control in order to live within our society. Dr. Stephen Marmer said that a key component of maturity which comes as a result of self-control is what he describes as capacitance. This means the ability or capacity to endure discomforts, and challenging life situations. If you have children, you have no doubt experienced a child's lack of capacitance. For example, when a young child is tired, they may whine excessively over having to walk back to the car from dinner. Self-control is a major value that parents are required to teach children.

Another key element to happiness is a strong value system. What this really means is that you intuitively know what decision needs to be made without having to ponder the implications. For example, Dennis Prager often describes how broken our value system is with a simple question. "If a stranger and your beloved pet dog were both drowning, and you could only rescue one of them, which would you rescue - you know nothing about the stranger." If you have a strong value system you will know exactly what to do. Strong value systems are created when you think deeply about moral issues often. When you have this strong value system, your self-control will be even more effective at producing happiness, because you will know which obligations you have in order to be true to your values. If you have the self-control to fulfill your obligations, you will be living in alignment with your values.

Finally, gratitude is an essential component of happiness. People who cannot feel grateful to the worker at the coffee shop for making their drink limit their ability to feel happiness because they live with an expectation that they are entitled to the drink which the worker is producing. Such an expectation can cause frustration and anger if the worker fails to mix in the correct ingredients. Robert Emmons writes in his book "Thanks!" about a concept called "Glad Dependence". This idea can be very powerful in your life. The more complex that the world becomes, the more we depend upon others in order to design and maintain the things that improve our lives. For example, I am typing on a keyboard such that when a key is pressed, and electrical contact is made which sends a signal through a maze of technology that I do not fully understand, the result is data being displayed on this page and ultimately in front of you. I am grateful to the creative people who originally thought of this idea, and those who have developed and improved it throughout the years. Although gratitude is a human trait and available to all, those with a religious background tend to have deeper understanding of the importance of gratitude. It will help your happiness to seek out the institutions in your society that inculcate gratitude. Attendance of a Church, Temple, Synagogue or Mosque would likely improve your ability to feel a deeper sense of gratitude. I do not actively practice in any religion so I ache for a secular institution that promotes behavior such as saying grace before a meal.

In conclusion, my greatest hope for you is to improve your self-control, strengthen your values, and feel a heartfelt sense of gratitude. If you do these things, it is far more likely that happiness will result than if you are distracted by any other method to obtain happiness.