It’s really quite amazing: if you just ask someone, anyone, if they want to be happy, almost assuredly, to a person, they’ll tell you, “Of course!”
Yet when you try to offer them a path to happiness, they become suspicious, and sometimes confrontational. They seem much more eager to try to punch holes in the plan, to blow up the path, rather than focus their attention on what the path may be and how they might adapt it, or even any part of it, to their own life.
Is it that they don’t really want to be happy? Or is it that they just feel like they should be able to figure it out for themselves? Or that they have trouble taking advice from someone else on this matter? Or is it that they just have trouble believing there COULD be a path at all?
I believe it is a combination of all the latter points – that is, I believe they really DO want to be happy, even if their arguments sometimes trend toward denigrating the very idea of the worthiness of the pursuit of happiness in the first place. In fact, one of the most common complaints I hear regarding the worthiness of pursuing happiness is the fear that such a goal frees one of all morality, would turn us all into blatantly selfish, everyone-for-themselves louts and civilization would spiral into decay.
Well, the good news is, this fear is unfounded.
Practical Perspectivism is quite clear on the notion that sustainable happiness comes from within our own selves – and this in turn means that we don’t need to take anything away from others to achieve it. There is no real reason for unfettered material selfishness at all.
For the bulk of humanity, we don’t feel happier when we harm others, when we steal from them or cheat them. In fact, pursuing a strictly amoral lifestyle, for most people, rarely produces happiness at all. It tends to leave them feeling empty, far from the happiness that lives inside each of us.
But the Perspectivist will certainly also admit (and agree with the Positive Psychologists and other happiness gurus) that there are many circumstances, environments, and activities we can engage in that make it EASIER to find, and maintain, that happy place within ourselves. And THOSE things tend to be standardly moral: community building, gratitude dispensing, giving and sharing of ones material things as well as of their time and heart. Doing these things does help put us in a calmer mindset and enhances our self-esteem. And it is from this sort of place that it is easiest to find happiness within your self.
But all these things do not guarantee happiness on their own or in combination.
As for the trouble many people have in believing that there could be a reliable path to happiness, well, this is a bit more understandable. I mean, if there were, shouldn’t we all know about it already? Well, there is (are, really), but what people have trouble with most is believing it.
So what does it take to believe you can be happy? This really shouldn’t be so hard. Most of us, at some point or another in our lives, maybe even more often than not, have experienced the wonderful feeling brought on by being present in the moment at hand and being glad of it, feeling that peace and joyfulness. So we know what it is. We know it exists, and that it elevates us.
Ok, perhaps it isn’t really that people have a problem with believing they can be happy after all. Maybe it is, instead, believing that we have any control over it, any choice in the matter. Perhaps we are stuck in an old mindset that has us looking at our external world instead of internally for our happiness — we think it is the things going on around us that keep us from being happy. But that really isn’t true.
Sure, there’s a good deal of research telling us about the things found in most happy people: family, close friends, a well developed sense of gratitude, meaningful involvement…but what isn’t clear is whether these things are merely associations, or are they cause and effect? Could it be that people who have figured out how to be happy, who have pointed their internal compass in this powerful direction – whether or not they have realized specifically that’s what they’ve done – simply manage to maintain close family ties rather than shattering them? That they realize the bounty they have, whether meager or grand, and simply are grateful for that? That their internal happiness is magnetic, something people want to be around and so they are more likely to have close friends?
Likewise, there is ample research that tells us happy people live longer, healthier lives. This does seem to be more cause and effect: happiness generally, more often than not, encourages one to take better care of themselves. At least, we know unhappiness leads to a more self-destructive lifestyle. And we know that the human internal physiologic milieu in happy people suppresses infections, lowers blood pressure, minimizes acid destruction of the GI tract compared to that in stressed individuals.
Now, what if the Perspectivist is right? What if the tenets of Practical Perspectivism: that we choose all we do, that our choice is primarily limited by our imagination, that we are internally responsible for our own happiness – is truly the way of things? What if this is so? Wouldn’t you want to act on it?
And what if it’s not, but you act as if it were anyway? What’s the downside? Is there even one? Let’s see: You start living by your own choices. Now this doesn’t mean saying screw the world, giving up all your current life…no, it means choosing a perspective that allows you to keep doing those things you are doing recognizing the importance of those things you might otherwise want to ditch and recognizing how they are part of a whole structure of your life!
For example: When I was finishing my pre-med undergraduate career at Hunter College in NYC, I was maintaining a straight A average going into the last semester. My scores really wouldn’t count to my medical school applications in a meaningful way, but I couldn’t let them slip too much just the same. It was springtime and the weather was turning beautiful when, one evening while I was studying for midterms, some friends invited me out for dinner and drinks. I started to say I really wanted to go with them but couldn’t because I had to study…and then I realized – or shifted my perspective – and said while I would really like to go with them, what I really wanted to do more was to stay home and study given that I was so close to graduating as a straight A student.
The shift in perspective – choosing a different perspective – made all the difference in the world to my studying that evening and the rest of the year. Instead of bemoaning my choice, instead of being morose and perhaps compromising my studying, I was energized and eager and happy about my choice. And indeed, for what its worth, I finished out the year with A’s.
I chose to stay home and study, and I chose to be happy about it. No one forced either path or emotion upon me. Control of our own lives is an important component of well-being. Practical Perspectivism can help to attain such control.