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three rules of happiness

Happiness is a slippery word. We know what we mean by it when we use it, often in the negative- “So and so’s not happy” we say and everyone knows what we mean by it. Or, if asked by the waiter at the end of the meal “Were you happy with your meal?” we know exactly what is meant- especially if there was a curly hair in the boeuf bourguignon.

We're not so clear about more open ended usages. The word tends to get stretched out and over applied. People talk of ‘searching for happiness’, which conjures up images of looking for a lost child or maybe the gold at the end of the rainbow. There is much talk of some nations being ‘happier’ than others – but when you actually see how the survey was compiled you begin to doubt its utility.

You hear people say, at the end of a doomed relationship ‘you know I was never really happy’.

You hear people intone, ‘I just want to be happy. I deserve a little happiness.’

What they mean, often, is simply a reprieve of ill fortune, a let up in the bad luck or illness that has buffeted them. But when this let up happens they often still describe themselves as ‘unhappy’.

First Rule: happiness is a decision, first and foremost. By making this decision, even if it seems a tad over optimistic, you are laying claim to happiness as your right rather than something special. Travel the world and visit the poor places and you'll see happy faces everywhere. Ever seen rich people picking up their cars at valet parking? Miserable faces rule. You don't need anything to be happy. Even with poor health you can find happiness where you may not have expected to find it. You just need to decide.

Second Rule: everyone has a ‘main problem’- when it is solved, the problem lower down the list gets promoted and becomes the new ‘main problem.’ Such people go through their lives worrying about their ‘big’ problems. As they actually solve a lot of them you are left with the spectacle of someone worrying in old age about very trivial problems- a draught, food being late, a routine upset- these are the ‘main problems’ of someone who was rather successful at solving real problems during their life. What they lacked, crucially, was awareness of what was going on. They lacked what Adam Smith termed: the impartial spectator.

We know Adam Smith primarily from his theories in economics, but he also wrote on philosophy. He noted that in moral philosophy the key move is not to identify immutable rules- variations on the Mosaic code but with knobs on so to speak, but to take the more sophisticated route and look at how to improve one’s behaviour before devising a rule that ‘tells us what to do’. Mostly we know what to do- the problem is we don’t do it. We either allow ourselves to get carried away by others or we drown out the inner voice that tells us what we ought to do. Or, very often, we simply don’t put in place the external conditions needed to do the right thing. For example, if you know you fall over and hurt yourself when drunk, only drink at home in an empty room.

How do we improve? By simply using Adam Smith’s impartial spectator- that part of you that does not judge but simply notes ‘ah, you have just forgotten the keys again’, for example. No berating is necessary, indeed that seems to stop the magic from working. Because awareness is all you need. Once you are aware in a non-judgemental way of a problem it will fix itself, by which I mean YOU will fix it but not in the manner of an irritated parent lecturing a child for the nth time. The reason it works is that when you berate yourself you actually abolish the impact, you ‘punish’ yourself in order to be let off. But when you simply observe a defect and move on, cognitive dissonance works to solve the problem. Cognitive dissonance is powerful stuff- we are consistency loving creatures and when something deeply inconsistent is brought into our attention but with no absolving emotion attached we adjust to shift that bad behaviour from our lives.

Now, to get back to happiness, we can see that the impartial spectator, or observing self, needs to be used to improve one’s life. Using it, sharpens it. In traditional philosophy sharpening the clarity and force of the observing self  was called ‘polishing the mirror’. You can see why: the observing self mirrors what we do and shows up what we do for our own inspection. As long as we pay a bit of attention, as long as we are not in too much of a rush. Which brings us to the next rule.

Third Rule: Being in a bad rush is usually a bad idea.

There are good rushes- rushing for a train with a friend when it doesn’t matter if you miss it, rushing to get shopping done before a party- but mainly when we rush it’s neither fun, productive or inducing of anything we might term happiness. So to even get in the zone of examining happiness we need to cease being in a rush.

So what is it we are really talking about here?

Contentment? Flourishing as a human? Personal growth?

Or is it the absence of pain, noise, irritation?

Is happiness therefore better defined as our normal everyday human state which pertains as long as we don’t mess our lives up or clutter them too much.

I think this is true. Happiness is not something you get- like a new car or a cocaine high, it's something you have been given as part of the package of being human. We’re not so much better than dogs in this regard- and in many cases decidedly worse- since dogs are basically happy. Happiness is the default dog setting unless bad things happen repeatedly and that default setting gets reset.

Happiness is a decision. You may not be instantly happy having taken that decision. There may be all kinds of things in your life stopping you from feeling happy right here and now. But soon enough you will feel moments of happiness breaking through. Moments of euphoria may elude you, maybe it will simply be moments of contentment and deep pleasure but, like the sun behind clouds they will appear. And as you observe yourself better and better, solutions will impose themselves providing better and better glimpses of happiness.

But first comes the decision: I have decided in my life that I am happy.

Once that decision is made you will find yourself making yourself happy in whatever situation you find yourself. And we humans are very creative- we are actually pretty good at making something out of nothing. Once you have decided to be happy as your default setting you will find happy places to occupy wherever you are. You’ll make the best of things whatever they may be.


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