When I talk about happiness with people (and I’m a bit of a bore on the subject, I fear), one question that often comes up is: is it really possible for a person to boost happiness through attitude change, without a change in his or her external circumstances?
Sure, Milton wrote, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven,” and Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” but how true is that, day-to-day? If a situation is making me unhappy for some reason, can I just change my mind and, all of a sudden, be happier about it?
Well, I think you often can. Not in every situation, of course, but more than you might think.
Beliefs, attitudes, expectations have a big impact on happiness. Sudies show that while people are born with genetic predispositions toward particular temperaments, their cognitive strategies also influence their happiness.
Here’s a good example. My sister always says, “People succeed in groups.” Now, my sister works in a notoriously competitive, jealous, back-biting industry: she’s a TV writer in Los Angeles.
It happened that a few years ago, a friend of hers scored a major success.
“Do you have the funny feeling?” I asked her. The “funny feeling” is the term the Big Man and I use to describe the uncomfortable feeling you get when a friend or peer has a major accomplishment. You feel happy for that person, but also envious, and also insecure and anxious about your own success.
She answered, “Maybe a little bit, but I remind myself that people succeed in groups. It’s great for him, and it’s also good for me.”
By contrast, I have a friend who describes her brother as having a zero-sum attitude toward good fortune: if something good happens to someone else, he feels like something good is less likely to happen to him. As a result, he can’t be happy for anyone else.
Now, you might argue about whether it’s true that people succeed in groups. I happen to think it is true, but it’s debatable. But whether or not it’s objectively true, it’s an attitude that will make a person much happier. After all, your friend doesn’t get the promotion, or not, depending on whether it makes you happy or unhappy, but your attitude about that promotion will affect your happiness.
I remind myself of this. I’m so competitive and ambitious, with an unattractive grudging streak, that I often suffer from the funny feeling. It help to remind myself that the fact that something good happened to someone else doesn’t mean that it’s less likely that something good will happen to me–in fact, it might make it more likely.
Of course, it would be more admirable for me to be happy for other people’s successes, purely for their own sakes, rather than having to remind myself that there’s some possible benefit for me, but this catchphrase helps when I’m feeling small-minded.
This is one quality I really admire about the Big Man. He is truly magnanimous, and takes genuine pleasure in other people’s good fortune. I’ve realized that this virtue is pretty rare.
Speaking of the Big Man, we’re in Miami now for his office “off-site.” I’m completely mesmerized by the view from our hotel room; it’s a lucky thing I don’t have a view at home. I’d never get any work done.