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 (nathaniel@nathanielbranden.com)

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 a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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