Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Do I Want? What Do I Need? Why Do I Want It? What's In It For Me?

John Tierney:

As the investigation of happiness proceeded, Dr. Seligman began seeing certain limitations of the concept. Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?

And why did some people keep joylessly playing bridge? Dr. Seligman, an avid player himself, kept noticing them at tournaments. They never smiled, not even when they won. They didn’t play to make money or make friends.

They didn’t savor that feeling of total engagement in a task that psychologists call flow. They didn’t take aesthetic satisfaction in playing a hand cleverly and “winning pretty.” They were quite willing to win ugly, sometimes even when that meant cheating.

“They wanted to win for its own sake, even if it brought no positive emotion,” says Dr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were like hedge fund managers who just want to accumulate money and toys for their own sake. Watching them play, seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

...So what should be measured instead? The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

...In his 2008 book, “Gross National Happiness,” Dr. Brooks argues that what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of “earned success” — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.

Hmm. I like to think of it being about contentment rather than happiness. I'm content even while I'm not cheerful or energetic or getting shit done. I've done things that I know have mattered and created value in other people's lives, and I'm glad for it. But at the same time, things like writing and making music are essential to my contentment (and happiness), and I enjoy them regardless of whether anyone else appreciates the result. It certainly enhances the enjoyment to have other people get something from it. But I'm also fine with being useless in the Taoist sense of the concept -- useless to the wider world. Part of my contentment is in being able to just stop and do nothing important at all without feeling existential angst about it.