Happiness, many people assume, is for the boring and selfish – a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people. Consider the scene in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, when Alvy asks a happy couple how they account for their happiness, and the woman answers, “I am very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and the man agrees, “I’m exactly the same way.”
In fact, however, studies show — and experience bears out — that happiness doesn’t make people complacent or self-centered.
Rather, happier people are more interested in the problems of other people, and in the problems of the world. They’re more likely to volunteer, to give away money, to be more curious, to want to learn a new skill, to persist in problem-solving, to help others, and to be friendly. They’re more resilient, productive, and healthier. They make better team members, and better leaders. By contrast, happy people tend to become defensive, isolated, and preoccupied with out own problems.
In fact, one of the main aims for my Happier at Home project was to boost my happiness, so I could behave myself better.
Some people are argue, “It’s better to be interesting than happy.” But that’s a false choice.
It’s true that if you’re trying to tell an interesting story, unhappiness makes a much easier subject. There’s more conflict, more drama. Unhappy circumstances hold our attention (in part, because of the negativity bias). But real life is different.
I often think of Simone Weil’s observation, adapted for unhappiness and happiness: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
I’m not arguing that a happy life should be free from all negative emotions — not at all. I think there’s much value in bad emotions.
But I do think that to be as happy as we can be, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, is a worthy aim.
Do you agree? If you’re intrigued by this subject, check out the chapter on “Neighborhood” in Happier at Home.
Want to volunteer as a Super-Fan? From time to time, I’ll send you a little extra something, or ask for your help — nothing too onerous, I promise. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: evilcabeza, Flickr
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