I want to share a mental model that I use to evaluate advice about happiness and to help me see the world more clearly.
Maybe it’s a bit ironic for me to be saying this, but beware of listening to anyone’s advice without testing it for yourself first, whether it is practically or through your own mental models.
There are very few happiness ‘principles’ that can actually hold true for all individuals at all times within all contexts. That, combined with the proliferation of information out there, makes it hard to know what advice is useful and what should be avoided.
So as you consider what advice you want to take, I’ll share one of my frameworks: the paradoxes of happiness.
The reason there are a million articles about happiness is that it is complicated. So complicated that it’s really hard to wrap our arms around what happiness is, let alone how to achieve it for ourselves and for the world.
I use the Zen concept of the paradox helpful to elucidate understanding here; this is a teaching method which is often used to help students to examine topics from different angles, jarring you just enough so that your brain is forced to move into a new place or understanding. This is a technique also used in therapy, where the therapist endeavors to help the patient understand that while they are perfect as they are, they also do sometimes need to change.
A paradox, by nature, must have two contrasting statements, and it is that interplay between the two opposites that catches us by surprise, forcing us into new perspectives, and reminding us that opposing statements can be true. As so much of happiness is contextual and individualized, we must recognize that seemingly paradoxical statements can simultaneously hold true, as well-being in and of itself often exists paradoxically.
- Relationships are extremely important to well-being, except for those times when they harm well-being severely.
- Membership in society is critical to individual flourishing, except for those times that it severely hampers it.
I have observed that there are three major paradoxes that arise repeatedly in the study of well-being, within which I am including a variety of approaches to the topic: religion, philosophy, science, personal experience, and self-help.
THE FIRST PARADOX: TIMING
Happiness is in the moment and it is in the long term.
Happiness, as many people think of it, is ephemeral – it is a burst, a moment of positive emotion, which inevitably fades away. However, philosophers like Aristotle have argued that there is a deeper, more meaningful, and more fulfilling form of happiness, known as eudaimonia, which has been defined as “living a complete human life, or the realization of valued human potentials.” These are such different concepts that we obviously need to distinguish between them.
Happiness in the moment is often very different from happiness in the long term. Long term happiness often requires sacrificing short term happiness, but short term happiness, if neglected, can lead to long-term suffering.
Studies have found that asking an individual whether or not they are happy with their lives is actually influenced by their current mood, and the time frame in which an individual looks at their happiness has a strong impact on their judgment. Many of us make foolish choices in the moment in an attempt to maximize our present happiness, and many others of us make foolish choices in the moment in an attempt to secure our happiness in the future.
THE SECOND PARADOX: CONTENT
Happiness is simple and complex.
It is complex: What is happiness? Can we be relied upon to define it for ourselves? Under what circumstances are we wrong about our happiness? Is there a universal definition of happiness? Do all people experience happiness the same way?
And yet, it is simple: you just know it when you feel it. The most frequently used method for finding out if someone is happy is to ask them; science is reliant upon the self-report mechanism because it is a reliable report of well-being. In this way, it is quite simple: we instinctively know if we are happy or are not.
But if it was purely a simple topic, would thousands of thinkers, artists, philosophers, religions, psychologists and lay people have devoted their lives to attempting to understand it?
THE THIRD PARADOX: OUR NATURE
Happiness comes from satisfying your own needs and from choosing to serve the needs of others.
We are wired to experience and pursue both self-interest and self-transcendence.
Humans not only evolved at an individual level, but also at a group level, making us social creatures that can cooperate and understand what others are thinking and feeling. This has led to a delicate daily dance of prioritizing ourselves and prioritizing the groups within which we claim membership. The two are so intertwined (and perhaps, enabling of one another) that living a good life means accounting for both and sometimes prioritizing one over another.
To serve others, you must serve yourself first: for you must have enough well-being to be able to effectively give. But to serve yourself, you must serve others.
HOW TO USE THE PARADOXES
The First Use
The first use of the paradox is to help you to see and understand your own world, and your own reality, more clearly.
Paradoxes are a reminder that the world is complex, and that there is no one size fits all solution. We should all be mindful of this when we speak about concepts as personal, complicated, and universal as happiness. We are multi-faceted individuals who have wide-ranging histories, beliefs, relationships, contexts, visions, hopes, fears, dreams, and ideas about ourselves and the world, which, layered on top of these paradoxes, makes it a mighty tricky activity to dole out any sort of meaningful wisdom.
They also remind us that we sometimes need to work a bit to understand the true nature of things. Our default reactions and understandings of the world are almost never complete. Paradoxes help us to turn our assumptions upside down, confront us with the unexpected, help us to consider a different viewpoint, and ultimately, wake us up to a new message we might need in that moment.
The Second Use
Don’t hesitate to use these paradoxes to evaluate any advice you are given, to ensure you are adopting recommendations that are wise and supportive of your goal of true happiness.
Ask yourself if the advice accounts for these paradoxes. Does it consider them in what it offers? Does it target one side specifically and wisely, or does it only address one side without consideration to the other?
One example of this is the self-care movement, which exclusively emphasizes the ‘happiness is about my needs’ part of the third paradox, neglecting the ‘needs of others’ side. Therefore, to me, it is not a complete piece of wisdom to apply in my life.
When you are considering changing your life to optimize for greater happiness, it might be wise to ask thoughtful questions of the guidance you’re being given. Asking questions can help us to shift more elegantly between these paradoxical sides of ourselves and our word, bringing new insights to the forefront – insights that might actually be the way to a more meaningful, happier life.
For example, if you are considering implementing a new exercise and diet routine, ask yourself how it will impact your happiness in the moment, and how it will impact your happiness in the long term. What trade-offs are you willing to make? What is your historical experience with managing these two sides of the First Paradox? Perhaps you find it really tough to stay focused on the long-term when the short-term is hard. How might you design a program that helps you to address both valid sides of reality?
Use these paradoxes in your own life to guide your decisions. And let me know if you come across any other ones!
This post was previously published on The New Happy and is republished here with permission from the author.
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