The How of Happy

I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks lately. Yeah, yeah, so sue me. They show a lot of them in our groups. But this most recent one I got from SuperBetter, the game designed by Jane McGonigal that I mentioned several entries ago. It is all about the science of happiness. Yes, happiness can be scientific. Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, tells us why and how.

So happiness all comes down to choice. Not only does it come down to choice, but it also comes down to us being stuck, essentially, with the choice we make. When we are left in a situation where there is uncertainty in the choice, we tend to think about it so much that we make ourselves miserable. Here, I’ll use an example (sorry, this example assumes a male, because that’s what I am; I imagine it is easily reversible for women). Say a guy talks to a woman. While talking to her, he says that he has feelings for her, and asks if she would like to go out. Now, if she says yes, happiness will probably result. If she says no, there will be disappointment, but ultimately happiness will probably result. But if she gives him an answer and then gives him the option of changing her mind later, the guy will be miserable because he’ll constantly be wondering if his choice was the right one.

Not a perfect example, I’ll grant you. But it seems that happiness comes down to two things – choice and our ability to change that choice. There’s a well-known quote that I’d like to use here, from a man named Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Anyone familiar with AA and other 12-step programs will be familiar with this, the Serenity Prayer. This is a quote that leads to happiness. When you accept that you cannot change some things, no matter how horrible they might be – in DBT, we call this ‘radical acceptance’ – then you will, in the long run, be happier than if you try to obsess about changing something you just can’t change.

Happiness is possible to synthesize, it turns out. We just need to be shown how to do it. It won’t be easy, I imagine – there are things I know I can’t change that I still want to change anyway. But accepting some things won’t change – like accepting that I have depression, which will never go away – can help us to move on, and be happier with the things we can change. That acceptance is a key ingredient to happiness, it seems. So I’m going to try it out.

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