The 40 Percent: Happy, 1

Are you happy? I hope that you are. Sometimes, when someone express a hope for your happiness, it’s because they are mad at you. They say, "I hope you’re happy . . ." when what they mean is, "You ought to be miserably consumed with regret."

I actually do hope you’re happy because the world needs happy people in it. One thing that stands out in the tragic and short life of Elliot Rodger (age 22, who killed 7, including himself, and injured 13, on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California on Fri May 23) is that he was a very unhappy person.

Psychologists estimate that about half of your happiness is simply genetic. Some people are born with a predisposition to be cheery and upbeat, others are more predisposed to be grumpy. About 10 percent of your happiness is circumstantial. Things happen to be going your way, and you’re in a good mood. Things happen not to be going your way, and you're in a bad mood. That leaves forty percent of your overall happiness left. This 40 percent is determined by how well you have learned and cultivated the habits and skills of being happy. I can’t do anything about our genetic predispositions. And I’m not in charge of your circumstances. So what I’m talking about today is the 40 percent of your happiness that is in your power.

Let’s look at the habits that tend to make us unhappy. Like: wanting things.

Once upon a time, back in the days when I was a philosophy professor, one day one of my students, a philosophy major, came to see me. I had discerned from our prior contacts that he was a young man who wanted the finer things in life: he wanted a big house, fast car, tailored clothes -- the trappings of status and comfort. He came to me because he was concerned about how he would get these things. He wasn’t quite seeing how being a philosophy major squared with his material ambitions.

I said to him, “I know a way that you can have everything you want.”

“How?” he wanted to know. He was looking straight at me, fully focused. I don't think he ever gave me that level of attention in class – but right at that moment he was ready to believe philosophers really had discovered the arcane secret guaranteed to bring success and wealth – and that he was about to receive this secret. The dues he had put in – all the hours reading Plato and Descartes (well, all the minutes, anyway) were about to yield their ultimate reward.

“The way to have everything you want,” I said, “is to want just what you have.”

He didn’t buy it. The expression on his face indicated that he was, in fact, abjectly disappointed with my answer. He looked as though he thought he'd fallen for some stupid trick, and couldn't decide if he was more disgusted at me for pulling this dumb hoax on him, or at himself for falling into it.

It's no trick, no hoax. To have all you want, want what you have.

Focusing on what we want and how to get it is a path of unhappiness. Do I want a bigger house, fancier gadgets? Do I want solar panels for my roof, and an all-electric car? Do I want the nation’s elected leadership populated with people who think like I do? Whatever I want, that’s where the source of my suffering will be. That’s even true if the focus of my desire is “happiness.”

Wanting to be happy isn’t a very good way to get it. Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can orient ourselves toward happiness without chasing after it. Turn toward joy and open ourselves to it -- rather than pursuing happiness as a goal-object.

It’s the difference between taking in what’s there and fretting about what isn’t.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Happy."
Next: Part 2: Savannahs to Socks
Photo by Meredith Garmon. No rights reserved.

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