Nathaniel Branden on Happiness

noelfi­gart post­ed this to a com­mu­ni­ty ear­li­er. I was just going to post a link. Then I was just going to add a cou­ple of excerpt­ed lines. I kept find­ing more lines that need­ed to be there, though, so final­ly, I chose to post the whole damned thing and high­light a few bits. I’ll cut-tag it, though.

Reflec­tions on Happiness
by Nathaniel Bran­den, Ph.D (

Dur­ing the past three years, I have found myself think­ing a good deal about the sub­ject of hap­pi­ness, and about the idea of not mere­ly desir­ing hap­pi­ness but mak­ing it a con­scious pur­pose. This was an idea that first hit me as I approached my six­ty-first birth­day, and I would like to share some of the impor­tant things I’ve learned. My most impor­tant teacher in this area has been my wife of fif­teen years, Dev­ers, who is the most con­sis­tent­ly hap­py human being I have ever known. What I iden­ti­fied about how she achieves this is part of the sto­ry I wish to tell. 

There is a ten­den­cy for most peo­ple to explain feel­ings of hap­pi­ness or unhap­pi­ness in terms of the exter­nal events of their lives. They explain hap­pi­ness by point­ing to the pos­i­tives; they explain unhap­pi­ness by point­ing to the neg­a­tives. The impli­ca­tion is that events deter­mine whether or not they are hap­py. I have always sus­pect­ed that our own atti­tudes have far more to do with how hap­py we are than any exter­nal cir­cum­stances. Today, research sup­ports this view. 

Take a per­son who is basi­cal­ly dis­posed to be hap­py, mean­ing that he is hap­py a sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater amount of the time than he is unhap­py, and let some mis­for­tune befall him—the loss of a job, or a mar­riage, or being hit by some phys­i­cal disability—and for some peri­od of time he will suf­fer. But check with him a few weeks or months or a year lat­er (depend­ing on the sever­i­ty of the prob­lem) and he will be hap­py again. 

In con­trast, take a per­son who is basi­cal­ly dis­posed to be unhap­py, who is unhap­py a sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater amount of the time than he is hap­py, and let some­thing won­der­ful hap­pen to him—getting a pro­mo­tion, inher­it­ing a lot of mon­ey, falling in love—and for a while he will be hap­py. But check with him a lit­tle lat­er down the line and very like­ly he will be unhap­py again. 

Research also tells us that the best pre­dic­tors of a per­son­’s dis­po­si­tion to be hap­py are (1) self-esteem and (2) the belief that we our­selves, rather than exter­nal forces, are the most sig­nif­i­cant shapers of our des­tiny.

I have always thought of myself as essen­tial­ly a hap­py per­son and have man­aged to be hap­py under some fair­ly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. How­ev­er, I have known peri­ods of strug­gle and suf­fer­ing, as we all have, and at times I felt there was some error I was mak­ing and that not all of the pain was necessary. 

I began to think more about Dev­ers’ psy­chol­o­gy. When I met her I thought that I had nev­er met any­one for whom joy was a more nat­ur­al state. Yet her life had not been easy. Wid­owed at twen­ty-four, she was left to raise two small chil­dren with very lit­tle mon­ey and no one to help her. When we met, she had been sin­gle for almost six­teen years, had achieved suc­cess in a num­ber of jobs, and nev­er spoke of past strug­gles with any hint of self-pity. I saw her hit by dis­ap­point­ing expe­ri­ences from time to time, saw her sad or mut­ed for a few hours (rarely longer than a day), then saw her bounce back to her nat­ur­al state of joy with­out any evi­dence of denial or repres­sion. Her hap­pi­ness was real — and larg­er than any adversity. 

When I would ask her about her resilience, she would say, “I’m com­mit­ted to being hap­py.” And she added, “That takes self-dis­ci­pline.” She almost nev­er went to sleep at night with­out tak­ing time to review every­thing good in her life; those were typ­i­cal­ly her last thoughts of the day. I thought that this was impor­tant.

Then I thought of some­thing I had noticed about myself. And that was, as I some­times joked, that with every decade my child­hood kept get­ting hap­pi­er. If you asked me at twen­ty or at six­ty to describe my ear­ly years, the report would not have been dif­fer­ent about the key facts, but the empha­sis would have been dif­fer­ent. At twen­ty, the neg­a­tives in my child­hood were fore­ground in my mind the the pos­i­tives were back­ground; at six­ty, the reverse was true. As I grew old­er, my per­spec­tive and sense of what was impor­tant about those ear­ly years changed. 

The more I stud­ied and thought about oth­er hap­py peo­ple I encoun­tered, the more clear it became that hap­py peo­ple process their expe­ri­ences so that, as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, pos­i­tives are held in the fore­ground of con­scious­ness and neg­a­tives are con­signed to the back­ground. This is essen­tial to under­stand­ing them.

But then I was stopped by this thought: None of these ideas are entire­ly new to me; at some lev­el they are famil­iar; why have I not imple­ment­ed them bet­ter through­out my life? Once asked, I knew the answer: Some­how long ago, I had decid­ed that if I did not spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time focused on the neg­a­tives in my life, the dis­ap­point­ments and set­backs, I was being eva­sive, irre­spon­si­ble toward real­i­ty, not seri­ous enough about my life. Express­ing this thought in words for the first time, I saw how absurd it was. It would be rea­son­able only if there were cor­rec­tive actions I could be tak­ing that I was avoid­ing tak­ing. But if I was tak­ing every action pos­si­ble, then a fur­ther focus on neg­a­tives had no mer­it what­so­ev­er.

If some­thing is wrong, the ques­tion to ask is: Is there an action I can take to improve or cor­rect the sit­u­a­tion? If there is, take it. If there isn’t, I do my best not to tor­ment myself about what is beyond my con­trol. Admit­ted­ly this last is not always easy.

The past two-and-half years of my life have been the most con­sis­tent­ly hap­py I have ever known, even though it has been a time of con­sid­er­able exter­nal stress. I find that I deal with prob­lems more quick­ly than in the past and I recov­er more quick­ly from disappointments. 

I can sum­ma­rize the key idea here as fol­lows: Begin each day with two ques­tions: What’s good in my life?—and What needs to be done? The first ques­tion keeps us focused on the pos­i­tives. The sec­ond reminds us that our life and well-being are our own respon­si­bil­i­ty.

The world has rarely treat­ed hap­pi­ness as a state wor­thy of seri­ous respect. And yet, if we see some­one who, in spite of life’s adver­si­ties, is hap­py a good deal of the time, we should rec­og­nize that we are look­ing at a spir­i­tu­al achievement—and one worth aspir­ing to.

Thank, Noël!

I’ve decid­ed that I must have the book that includes this essay, Tak­ing Respon­si­bil­i­ty: Self-Reliance and the Account­able Life. A Cul­ture of Account­abil­i­ty, also in that book, is well worth your time to read.

Cur­rent Mood: 🙂impressed
Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
Posts created 4255

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top