Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Happiness dot com



Beach in Brighton

In August , during a short trip to Hongkong, I read the book “Hector And the Search of Happiness” by Francois Lelord and pass it on to a friend whom I had recently caught up after losing touch for over two decades. The book is a delightful read, its writing is simplistic yet profound as it  gives a fair description of  human conditions and their behaviour. Hector is a psychiatrist and he treats patients who are not really ill but they are generally unhappy because they are dissatisfied with their lives. He sets out on a journey to find out about what happiness means. As he travels from Paris to China to Africa to the United States, through the people he meets, he makes up a list of his observations and theories about happiness .I guess what the author has propounded is nothing new but something we often overlook and need to be reminded about.

We want to be happy so we do everything possible to steer ourselves to happiness. We human beings are the seekers for happiness or stickers for happiness.  How do we define happiness?  I think happiness is an elusive term. In broad terms, happiness means bliss and contentment.  The antonym of happiness is sadness. But one can be not  unhappy nor sad so I feel if we can be neither unhappy nor sad, we should be happy.

If you start off a day feeling on top of the world and then some unpleasant incidents at work somehow tip you off balance, will you let the incident ruin your day or will  you brush it off  as you are fully aware that all these hitches are part and parcel of your daily life? Perhaps if one is a happy person or one is neither unhappy nor sad , one will not dwell into such incidents however if one is an unhappy person, the incidents may add on to the list of things which make the person unhappy. Could it be that a person is otherwise a happy person if he or she is not a perfectionist or less of a perfectionist? We describe people as the happy go lucky type if they seem to take things in their stride and hardly get anxious about anything and they are a contrast from those who appear to be anxious and worrisome all the time.  In a nutshell, people who have perfectionist tendencies would be the worrying type and they probably feel so goal oriented that they lose their perspectives. Perfectionists see the goal and nothing else and they are so concerned about meeting the goal that they cannot enjoy the process. They can be highly critical and only spot mistakes and  flaws and they expect nothing less than perfection so even “almost perfect” is seen as failure.

Beach Street, Penang
There are some people who are not perfectionists but they like to be competent and excel in whatever they set out to do as they experience joy when executing their tasks well. These people are high achievers who also strive for perfection but in pursuing their goals, they will be happy when what they have accomplished may be only close to perfection. Those who have perfectionist tendencies must realise that  we shall do better if we can see  how  pointless it is  to beat ourselves up much more and wallow in negative feelings when we have not achieved our goals.


Just like the word “happiness”, I find the word “perfection” another elusive term. A perfectionist will demand perfection in all things and it would mean uncompromising and will demand the best humanly possible efforts in doing things properly. Anything less than perfection is not good for a perfectionist. But what exactly is perfection? There is always room for improving and perfecting a piece of work and scaling to greater heights so what may seem perfect or good enough in the present may no longer be so in the future. I believe we will find joy if we continue to strive for accomplishments though they are not necessarily perfections whatever perfections may mean to us.Can we not chase after goals which we believe will make us happy without getting ourselves all wound up trying to achieve these goals? 

Sometimes we can be deluded about what actually makes us happy or the reasons for our unhappiness.  Happiness seems like a big word yet we wish everyone happiness on the commencement of a brand new year or on their birthdays. So we should not attach too much significance to the term. Of course we want to wish everyone happiness as  it is something everyone hopes for. How wonderful if we could think about nothing and we just carry on being happy or at least not unhappy.Needless to say, we must identify a few pleasures in life that make us happy otherwise our lives will be miserable as we go about our daily grinds.

As the metaphor goes, a glass can be half full or half empty. Let us say A thinks that a glass which is half filled with liquid  is half full while B  thinks  that the glass is half empty. Does that make B a less happy person than A or A is just a positive thinking person? Maybe.

Given a set of circumstances, it would be interesting to take a survey and note how everyone will view the situation from their own point of view. It is all a matter of perception from one’s personal experience. How we see things depend on our awareness and sensitivity but not everyone shares the same degree of  awareness and sensitivity towards a situation or a crisis. We tend to be attracted to people whom we find sharing similar outlook and humour so that we can form the synergy necessary to carry on with our lives. But ultimately we are all alone as much as we want to share our thoughts and views about the affairs and happenings in our daily experiences.

One’s perception can be a delusion to another person if the latter does not see what the former sees. However if we are open minded enough, we may just catch a glimpse of  another person’s perception and vaguely understand how it can be viewed in a different light because most matters are indefinable. Sometimes we may find that we are all talking about the same thing but in different words or we might seem to speaking about the same thing but we actually do not mean the same thing.

Quite often we try to describe what we experience but the others are not us hence they can never really know what we actually experience. So we are all alone in what we are experiencing as we all possess separate minds and unless we can get into each other’s minds we can never tell what we are experiencing are like what everyone else is  experiencing. As human beings we  experience love and loss throughout our lives but we will not really know the extent of joy or sadness each of us really feel. We empathize and understand each other’s sadness and happiness by measuring against our personal experience in the past . So we assume another person's sense of happiness based on our own experience and we also want to avoid unhappiness by trying to plan our future.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist wrote in his book “ Stumbling On Happiness” that how faulty our human memory is and we tend to imagine our future based on our current state of mind and he also wrote that our perception of happiness could be distorted.

Some people have moved from one job or a place to another thinking that there is a wider horizon and perhaps for improved earnings or greater control over the direction of their career path or their children’s future.  We all like to think that when we get there, we will be happy. We worry about the future. According to Daniel Gilbert, the Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” (page 4  “Stumbling On Happiness”) .  Apparently a particular part of the brain known as the frontal lobe which sits at the front of our heads empowers healthy human adults with the capacity to consider the future. So we have the ability to conjure our imaginary tomorrows. However according to Professor Gilbert, we could be imagining the future based on now.

When I was in primary school, one of the common topics for essays writing  was :
“ What do you want to be when you grow up?” It sounded like a trick question but it obviously was not. Maybe the teachers wanted their students to start thinking about their future hence the title of the essay. As a child, we only had our parents’ and teachers’ professions to emulate, the scope of our imaginary tomorrows might have been limited. How can a child imagine what he or she wants to be when he grows up? We get a chuckle if a child says he wants to be a fireman or one of those characters he watches on television and we will not take him seriously.

We cannot help thinking about the future. During our senior year at the middle school, my class  put up an amateurish mime based on the common theme: “ Where do we go from here? What are our dreams?  What do we want to achieve ?”  Now that I am a parent, I still do not have the answers. I do not think we must have the answers because the answers may be beyond us and I believe that we might not be able to get the answers right away or we may never even know the answers in our lifetimes.  Nonetheless we have to carrying on living and make the best of our lives and be meditative in order to strike a balance which I find a tall order in the modern world.

I feel compelled to quote the following words from the famous commencement speech by Steve Jobs, a visionary and an icon.

“Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

In his speech, Jobs also said, 

"Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

The full text of Seve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address can be found at the following links:-