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Purpose in life, what you want, goals, commitment, intention, mission statement, etc.


Scientific analysis of morality

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

People have asked moral questions about the conduct of science, which has led to things like rules for how experiments should be conducted among other things. And psychologists have studied morality, beginning most notably with Lawrence Kohlberg who studied the structure of moral decision-making and came up with a hierarchical model with six stages of moral development based on reasoning about justice.

Recently psychologists who study happiness have come up with a few things related to morality that are interesting. I talked recently about the analysis of conservative and liberal morality undertaken by positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Another psychologist touched on the issue indirectly in a presentation at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2004. Dan Gilbert of Harvard University is an entertaining and informative speaker and author who recently published the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, a delightful read in which he explains that we’re not always very good at predicting what is actually going to make us happy.

In the video of the TED conference presentation below, professor Gilbert talks about some aspects of what really makes people happy, including what he calls “synthetic happiness.” A lot of it is up to us. Being in a frame of mind where you are second-guessing an earlier decision is not conducive to happiness; sometimes it’s better for choices to be bounded. On the other hand, the environmental circumstances people find themselves in are not nearly as important as most people assume, because we’re quite good at adapting to both good and bad circumstances. Think about it: so many people make a lot of effort to make money, get a nicer house, car, clothes, furniture, electronic gadgets, etc. And some people strain so much in pursuit of such things that they’re willing to fudge something, to bend the rules – perhaps even enough to regret it later if they’re really honest with themselves. Dr. Gilbert quotes Adam Smith as having expressed a “turgid truth” in his description of pursuing such situations:

“Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others; but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules of either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.”

Having that thing you wanted so much is probably not going to make you nearly as happy in the long run as you thought anyway. So if in order to get it you need to cheat or otherwise do something that makes you feel not quite as good about yourself later, why do it? There may be other, even better reasons not to do it, but I thought the fact that Gilbert’s studies and conclusions had shed some light on this reason was interesting.

Three strategies for being happier at work or school

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Are you like the guy in the commercial who has a parrot who repeats “Not another day.” “Can’t take this.”? If you don’t like your job, or school, or whatever you spend most of your day doing, there are several actions you can take other than complaining.

Making a big change

One possibility is to find a new job. This may take courage. Also, if you’re considering a different kind of work (or even a different work environment), it might be better to try out your new idea first by getting some experience with that new kind of work through volunteering, or by getting a part-time job without quitting your old job. If nothing along these lines is practical, find out whatever you can about the new work situation first before taking the leap. You don’t want to find out the hard way that the new situation is even worse!

Making a small change

What if it’s not a reasonable option to change jobs, or you really don’t want to for some reason? In that case you might look for ways you can transform your work situation so it gives you more satisfaction. People are happier in their work if they can be fully engaged, if they’re using their personal strengths, and if they feel like they’re making a contribution. There may be some changes you can make – or request to have made – that allow you to do these things more. If you’re bored, if you’re not able to use your abilities very fully, try taking on something more challenging, either by requesting it or by just voluntarily doing it even if you don’t have to. You may find that work becomes more fulfilling, and side benefits may include more interesting and higher-paying jobs in the future.

If you can figure out a way to do your work more efficiently and free up some of the time you saved as a result, you might be able to do something else worthwhile, either for your employer or for yourself.

Making an extracurricular change

Another option is to approach your happiness at work from the other side: Doing things outside of work that make you happier may cause some of that positive frame of mind to spill over into your work life. At the very least, it should increase your overall happiness. Just like a good vacation can rejuvenate you, a hobby or some activity you enjoy can put you in a better mood not only when you’re actually doing it, but afterward. Especially if you haven’t figured out a way yet to make your work more satisfying, make room in your life for some activity you really like.

For me the last few years that’s mainly been ballroom dance (broadly defined, including West Coast Swing, Argentine Tango, and especially Latin). It’s great because it’s good exercise (I’m a bit over 6′ tall but I went from a 35″ waist to 32″ and got more toned), there’s a social element that’s even friendlier than in most shared activities, it involves music, encourages creativity, and is a lot of fun. It’s also good for your brain: it facilitates mind-body coordination, cultivates bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and gives your gray matter a workout through learning new dance figures and details of technique. I’ll write more about this in a future post. I’ve even participated during this time in large regional, national, and international DanceSport competitions, working my way up through 6 levels to Pre-champ Latin finalist.

As a teenager I really got into chess (and other strategy games) and played in tournaments. Next I took up guitar, and got good enough to briefly consider a career as a musician (they do have very high job satisfaction). In each case these activities were challenging and rewarding, a learning experience and fun. They allowed me to immerse myself and be fully engaged, experiencing sometimes what psychologists call “flow.”

Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths

Harvard psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar encourages people to begin the process of finding the right work for themselves by asking three crucial questions: What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” Looking at the answers and finding areas of overlap may help. He recommends taking more time than just jotting down what comes to mind. In terms of what we find meaningful, for instance, he suggests: “We may need to spend time reflecting, thinking deeply to recall those moments in our lives when we felt a sense of true purpose.”

While this exercise is intended to guide a person in making a major career decision, it can be applied to the all three strategies above for increasing happiness. Extracurricular activities that people find meaningful, for example, can be very rewarding and nourishing.

Dr. Happiness and the Indiana Jones of positive psychology

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

“Dr. Happiness” is regarded as the world’s leading psychological researcher of human happiness. He’s also been called the “Jedi Master of Happiness.” His real name is Ed Diener, and he’s a professor at the University of Illinois. I said a little more about him when I talked about his Life Satisfaction Scale.

He’s written a book for the general public together with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, a psychologist known for his ability to collect hard-to-get data. He studies subjective well-being in far flung places like Greenland, India, Israel, Spain, and Kenya, working with remote groups of people traditionally overlooked by researchers. Because of this he’s also acquired a nickname, the “Indiana Jones of positive psychology.”

Their book came out just a few days ago, but it’s already gotten quite a bit of attention, including reviews. There’s even one on Oprah.com.

It’s called Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Psychological wealth is “your true net worth, and includes your attitudes toward life, social support, spiritual development, material resources, health, and the activities in which you engage.”

The book is being widely praised:

“This is the most authoritative and informative book about happiness ever written. That’s not surprising, given that its authors are the world’s leading happiness researcher and his psychologist-son, whose vocation is coaching people toward happier lives.” -David G. Myers, Hope College, author, The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy

“A great gift from the leading professional scientist of happiness in the world and his son, the ‘Indiana Jones’ of positive psychology.” -Martin E. P. Seligman, University of Pennsylvania and author, Authentic Happiness

“Want the key to happiness and success in life, choose the right advisor. On the subject of happiness, students, researchers, businesses, and governments have been turning to Ed Diener. Now, in this powerful, ground-breaking book, we have the opportunity to receive the coveted advice of Dr. Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener. This book is a must read if you want a practical, enjoyable, and uplifting science-based guide to achieving real psychological wealth.” -David J. Pollay, President, The Momentum Project, Syndicated Columnist

“The collaboration between the foremost authority on happiness research and the “Indiana Jones” of psychology makes for a great mix of interesting examples and solid research. I have never seen a book that does such a good job offering useful practical advice while basing this advice on completely sound empirical research.” -Richard E. Lucas, Michigan State University

“This is a happiness book by the world authority, the pre-eminent scholar in the field along with an in-the-trenches coach who teaches and adapts this material every day for practical use with his clients. These folks know happiness from the inside out. The authors separate the wheat from the chaff, and serve up a meal replete with tasty morsels of practical advice on how to live. A joy to read!” -Michael B. Frisch, Baylor University, author, Quality of Life Therapy

In the phone interview I mentioned in my last post (where I mostly talked about professor Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book on happiness), Ed Diener talked about some of the same things that are in his book.

True or False:

1. I’d be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds, or moved to a new house.

2. Happiness is genetic. You can’t change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.

3. Success brings happiness.

Well, it’s clear that environmental factors can have an affect on how tall you are. (Have our genes suddenly become almost 10% different from our – shorter – grandparents’ generation?) And there is a genetic component to happiness. Also, money can make some difference, especially at levels of poverty where basic needs aren’t met. But for the rest of us money doesn’t have nearly the impact that people seem to assume. And reaching the other goals where you get something turns out not to make us anywhere as happy as we expect.

Basically, all 3 are false.

Popular book by top happiness researcher

So what does make a real difference?

First and foremost seems to be relationships. Close, supportive social relationships. We need people who we care about.

Second is attitudinal: being grateful, attending to good things/experiences and savoring them (vs. ruminating on the negative). Positive attitudes toward life in general.

Happiness is a process, not a destination.

Here’s the book: Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. I’ll be talking more about its contents in the future.