The Art of Happiness

Love thy neighbour as thyself, was a thought he repeated to himself several times, hoping to contain envious feelings he was losing control over.

Why, he thought, does he always get the good things in life? What has he done to deserve it?

The object of envy, he knew, did deserve his success. But it’s one thing to know, and a totally different thing to feel okay about it.

The next few minutes passed with him trying hard to think “positive thoughts”. But none worked as well as he had hoped, until he thought about fundamental objectives as opposed to means objectives.

Fundamental and Means Objectives

In decision making theory, one might come across the terms “fundamental objectives” and “means objectives”. In its essence, means objectives are objectives that help you attain the fundamental ones.

Fundamental objectives, then, are a sort of “umbrella” objective that encompass the means objectives. One way that one might find out what one’s fundamental objectives is to ask onself, what is that important? (or abbreviated, WITI?)

The repeated questioning of our reasons to do anything will lead us to our fundamental objectives. For example,

  • I want to lose weight. WITI?
  • So I can look attractive to the opposite sex. WITI?
  • So I can attract the best potential mate. WITI?
  • So I can have sex with the best potential mate. WITI?
  • Darwin might say, “to produce the best potential offspring so that I may ensure my genes stay within the available genepool of this world.” But for me, I just want good sex. WITI?
  • Because it would make me happy WITI?
  • Because I want to, and there’s no other reson besides it. WITI?

When WITI? reaches an answer that shows that the reson for doing something is an intrinsically good enough reward for doing it (i.e. an answer reaches a “just because”), then one has reached one’s fundamental objective.

Wanting to Be Happy

My uppermost fundamental objective, he thought, is to be happy. Why am I envious of him? Is it because he may be happier than me?

The answer he gave to his own question surprised him.

Actually, just how happy is he? A book he had read a couple of years ago, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton reminded him of a theory of happiness: that happiness derived from being more successful than one’s peers is a very real thing; and that after one reaches a certain standard of living (not very far above the poverty line), one’s happiness depends more on the optimistic/pessimistic disposition of one’s psyche than anything else.

For the first point, he realised that comparing himself to the best would mean that he was seeing himself as one of the best. People generally compare themselves with their peers. It has been found that people who are too far above or below themselves, in terms of the comparison, are out of the consideration group when it comes to “seeing who’s on top”.

A runner who runs a five minute mile (pretty fast), for example, would not compare himself with a person who runs sub-four minute miles, but rather, those who run within “attainable” timings from himself (i.e. if they try hard enough, or if he tries hard enough, their timings could potentially be the same).

As for the standards of living: if one reaches a certain standard of living, happiness stays more or less about the same. Surveys were conducted between inhabitants of developed and those of less developed countries. People who were povertry-stricken were found to be more unhappy in general compared to the rest.

But those who were not under the poverty-line, even if they were earning significantly less than others, were found to have about the same levels of happiness. It was found that people who were better off economically didn’t feel like they were that much better off than those just above the poverty-line; and why? Because they were comparing themselves with their peers!

And so, after taking away the fact that he had the option of comparing himself to the object of envy or not, and that he was, objectively, much better off than those who were poverty-striken, he thought about his disposition.

He had a rather cheerful personality: perhaps more so than the object of his envy.

If my fundamental objective, he thought to himself, is to be happy, and I have a more cheerful disposition — then… I win!.

And he carried the message of “if you want to be happy, think that you’re happy, and you will be!” the rest of his life.

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