"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness Re-Examined

"The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. 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 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."

-- Adam Smith --
("The Theory of Moral Sentiments")

Would you really be happy if you won the lottery? What if, instead, you had an horrific accident and were rendered parapalegic? Faced with these two "permanent situations" is it possible that we could really over-rate the difference between these two seemingly diametrically opposed outcomes?

It turns out that we do, according to research by psychiatrist, Dan Gilbert. Surprisingly, one year after an inarguably life-changing event, both lottery winners and parapalegics report the exact same level of happiness with their lives. By virtue of our anatomy alone, Gilbert explains in the attached video, humans have an unbelievable capacity to synthesize happiness. The trouble is, few of us (a) know it, or (b) know how to tap into it.

This is perhaps not so surprising, given that in our consumer society we are taught (incorrectly) that attaining happiness lies in the acquisition of exterior things, and that permanent happiness can be found through such acquisition. Gilbert looks at the the thought processes that goes into acquiring goods and the phenomenon of buyer's remorse in order to demonstrate the innate potential we all have for being either happy - or profoundly unhappy.

"Some things are better than others," Gilbert observes. "We should have perferences that lead us into one future over another."

"But," he cautions, "when those preferences drive us too hard or too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk."
"When our ambition is bounded," he notes, "it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we are prudent, we are caution, we are thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we are reckless and we are cowardly."
"Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown," Gilbert concludes, "because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity (i.e., happiness) we are constantly chasing when we choose experience."

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