The secret to happiness, discovered by a Harvard scientist

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What do you want from life? As you get older and enter the second half of your life, have your priorities changed as well? Are you satisfied with your current lifestyle or do you yearn for a more connected and less distracted lifestyle?

Here are some of the questions you might have as you read the new book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. It’s by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks whose popular standing room classes at Harvard were recently featured in The Wall Street Journal.

Brooks’ basic view of happiness is that, to paraphrase a famous Rolling Stones song, “we can’t get no satisfaction.” He calls this lack of satisfaction “the greatest paradox of human life”. He explains that “we crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, then it disappears.” Brooks witnessed this in his own life, writing:

Time and time again, I fell into the trap of believing that success and its accompaniments would fill me. On my 40th birthday, I made a list of things I hoped to do or achieve. I imagined that if I hit them, I would be satisfied.

Ten years later, when Brooks is about to turn 50, he finds the list and realizes he’s achieved every item on it. He is also struck by another achievement: None of this had brought him the lasting joy he had imagined.. In his words, “every accomplishment thrilled me for a day or a week – maybe a month, never more – and then I reached the next rung on the ladder”. We strike out one item from the list and another takes its place.

Brooks reinforces something we’ve all learned at a certain age. Money and success can’t buy love or happiness or anything of lasting value. Of course, it helps keep a roof over your head, food in the fridge, and a car in the driveway. But as the author points out, “forever chasing money as a source of lasting satisfaction just doesn’t work.” He quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who once said:

Wealth is like sea water; the more we drink, the more thirsty we become.

It’s time to stop chasing happiness.

In an old number of his Behavioral deviation blog, economist Carl Richards makes a reference that Brooks also uses. This is called the “hedonic treadmill”. This is not your ordinary jogging treadmill, but one that works like this: The more we have, the more we want, so the faster we run on the treadmill. We keep running after things, never getting anywhere.

This poses a problem that Richards illustrates from his own life experience:

This endless cycle of fixating on what we don’t have, attaining that thing, not ending up happier, and then fixating on the new thing, is futile. I’ve been on the hedonic treadmill for over 20 years, and frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m sick of putting happiness on an inaccessible pedestal just around the corner, forever out of reach.

But Richards found a way out, a way off the treadmill. He is doing something he simply calls “sitting.” Here’s how it works:

Every time you start thinking about that one thing that will finally make you happy…don’t do anything about it. Instead, sit back and wait for the feeling to pass. And then you go on with your life. I know we all love to exercise, but so far sitting still is much healthier than spending endless hours on the hedonic treadmill.

To get the most out of life, start wanting less.

Brooks believes the real secret to a happy life is “not to increase our holdings – the secret is to manage our desires.” When we are able to live in peace and co-exist with what we already have, we give ourselves a chance to live a more contented life. We escape the exhausting burden of wanting more and more and more and more.

The author tells us that “as we grow older in the West, we generally think we should have a lot to show for our lives – a lot of trophies.” But he points out that according to many Eastern philosophies, we have this backwards. In his words:

As we age, we should not accumulate more to represent ourselves, but rather stripping things down to find our true selves— and thus, find happiness and peace.

This includes being fully present in our own lives, every moment of every day. Brooks discovered that “we can find immense wholeness when we pay attention to smaller and smaller things.” Buddhist author and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains the principle in his book The miracle of mindfulness:

In washing the dishes, one must only wash the dishes, which means that in washing the dishes, one must be fully aware of the fact that one is doing the dishes.

This quote is about more than just washing the dishes. It’s about everything we do in life. If we are thinking about the past or the future at any given time, we are not alive during the period we are in. . And if we can’t pay attention to activities as simple as washing dishes, it tends to spill over to other areas of our lives. We sleepwalk through what should be meaningful experiences, often with the people who matter most to us.

Brooks suggests that we take heed of the guidance found in the classic Taoist text the Tao Te Ching. Written 2,400 years ago, it emphasizes the virtues of naturalness and non-action. By letting go of our lists of goals and our endless quest for more, we might realize that the happiness we seek is already there. As the Tao says:

When there is no desire, all is at peace.

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