Pursuit of happiness

by whitewirestudio

I have been thinking a lot about happiness lately. I have been on this kick for about a year now, and while we just took a big move recently—meaning I quit my cushy job and we left an apartment and city that we both loved—it has certainly heightened the thinking.

We just took a weekend trip back to Chicago for various events and reasons, but especially for a lot of eating and drinking (Iowa City has proven to be nice, but the food simply stands no chance—and I’m not talking about the obvious fancy shmancy downtown joints). Of course, along with eating and drinking comes a lot of good talks with good friends. Considering this was our first time back to the city since the move, a lot of it revolved around, well, the move. Which means I got to say, repeatedly, that I am officially happier since leaving Chicago. This is surprising to both Heath and I, for while I was optimistic, I had a sort of undying devotion to that old town and couldn’t see how it could do me any harm. It was a great trip back. And I undoubtedly had a great time living there. But in the past couple months, I found out that I actually needed to leave it. I was becoming a sour sally every day that I did the same routine and found it very easy to push the blame on others around me. Sure, it certainly wasn’t all bad, but overall I didn’t enjoy the work I was doing and didn’t have the space to really articulate what I did want to do—to others or to myself. Which means it was a lot of internal/external grumbles without a lot of solutions. My father has always said, “you aren’t supposed to enjoy work, that’s why they call it work” which, no respect to dad, but is pretty much the worst advice ever.

The day I was going to give my old job notice of me leaving, I sat on the train and felt both amazed and sad at how this felt empowering. I went to school non-stop from five years old until I was 21, then I spent a couple summer months super concerned that I would not get a job, and then I got a job. And now I was going to quit that job. It was the first time in my life that I did not have an official life plan of sorts. It felt strange to not have to check with anyone before making such a decision, and it felt even stranger that I, a very generally anxious individual about most things, was not very stressed out about it. I was about to gain full responsibility for my own happiness—or so it felt.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that both Heath and I would be in the same position today if we did not come to IC. While the jury’s out if this is the right decision for him, I feel pretty damn lucky to have the privilege to take some space to discover what I really want. When I got here, I made lists (I do love a good list) that numbered out what makes me happy and what doesn’t. It sounds absurd, and I did feel a bit silly doing it, but it’s something I have never done. And as long as I was starting from scratch, I figured these are things I should know about myself. During this exercise, I found how difficult it was for me to define happiness. We are so tied up in what’s already been defined and given to us (either by society at large or our smaller social circles) as pleasing, successful, correct—in opposition with what is displeasing, unsuccessful, and incorrect. Relaxing on a beach, watching tv, having a steady well-paying job, getting married and having babies once you find a committed partner are all things that fit into the first category while the displeasure of actually doing the work at this steady well-paying job, the lifestyle of not “settling down,” not wanting a marriage + babies before you’re 30, and perhaps having a different idea of what relaxes you is in the latter group. Obviously these things vary wildly, but the point being that it was so challenging for me to separate what I think makes—or should make—me happy versus what does make me happy in actuality.

While working through this, I came across the very fitting TED talk from Daniel Kahneman (via bobulate) entitled The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory, where he discusses the confusion found when defining the differences between our “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.”

And my talk today will be mostly about these cognitive traps. This applies to laypeople thinking about their own happiness, and it applies to scholars thinking about happiness, because it turns out we’re just as messed up as anybody else is. The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things. I think there is one particular meaning to which we might restrict it but, by and large, this is something that we’ll have to give up and we’ll have to adopt the more complicated view of what well-being is. The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory: basically it’s between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they’re both lumped in the notion of happiness. And the third is the focusing illusion, and it’s the unfortunate fact that we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance. I mean, this is a real cognitive trap. There’s just no way of getting it right.

Now, I’d like to start with an example of somebody who had a question and answer session after one of my lectures reported a story. [unclear …] He said he’d been listening to the symphony and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.

and also…

We actually don’t choose between experiences. we choose between memories of experiences. And, even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this, you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self, and you can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.

(transcript copied from dotsub.)

All of this stuff is super interesting to me. But as I mentioned before, it’s at once exciting to think about (in a poof, blow your mind sort of way) but also really upsetting. We know so many things like style and rhetoric can be co-opted and confused into a misleading fashion, but to think that we can deceive ourselves into something as pure as what happiness is to us… is truly disheartening. Especially when he says, “The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory: basically it’s between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life.” We can persuade ourselves that any experience, small or large—a relationship, a job, a pet, a child, a house, a trip, school, a party, anything—was a happy and right one just because we have convinced ourselves one way or another based on what we know should make us happy.

Unfortunately, the only thing I can can offer up right now, is the advice to make lists. For me, so far so good. And while I wouldn’t trade any past experiences (on any level) of mine in, I am happy and lucky to currently be able to have the time and space to try to tear down at least one layer of what’s blocking my clear view at happiness.