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Tag Archives: happiness

We value only what we can measure

In all the literature I have read, I know of few statements more profound than the following quote from St Exupery’s Little Prince:

The wise fox

My secret is this. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye

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Is it OK to seek happiness?

Today I’m going to type as I study the scriptures. I’ve been interested recently in the topic of happiness, and I would like to better understand this concept from a scriptural point of view.

Happiness quote
Let’s start with the common assumption that happiness is the ultimate achievement, something to be desired and towards which all our efforts should be directed. In LDS theology, happiness (or joy) is the purpose of our existence:

“Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25)

Also:

“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five, 1842–43, p. 255).

This last quote implies that God wants all of us to be happy, and that his commandments are designed to lead to such happiness.

So, do we really achieve happiness by directly seeking it, or is it a welcome by-product of a life well lived?

As one of our apostles once wisely stated:

“Too much anxious opening of the oven door and the cake falls instead of rising. So it is with us. If we are always selfishly taking our temperatures to see if we are happy, we will not be.” (Neal A. Maxwell, Patience, p.216)

I think Elder Maxwell is not really talking about the conscious search for happiness, but about people who frequently question their current circumstances and want to make sure that they have all the ingredients for happiness, at all times. Such people are always on the less green side of the fence, despite their frequent boisterous somersaults over it. Instead of seeking the happiness of others, they are so concerned with their own that they continually scrutinise their environment and their entourage for potential threats, giving themselves good reasons to feel miserable.

So, without going to such extremes, is it productive and efficient to seek one’s own happiness?

“Now was not this exceeding joy? Behold, this is joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness.” (Alma 27:18)

Here I assume that the words “joy” and “happiness” are used interchangeably, although there is some indication that joy is a form of great happiness (http://lds.org/scriptures/gs/joy.p2?lang=eng&letter=j). Obviously it’s OK to be a seeker of happiness, provided we are penitent and humble as well. Perhaps the key words here are “penitent” and “humble” rather than just “seeker”.

Modern Charlatan

Misleading short-cuts to happiness

Here we see another type of “seeker of happiness”:

“But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Helaman 13:38)

In LDS theology, God is the architect of our eternal happiness, the full potential of which we can only briefly and faintly taste while in this mortal state. Things get complicated by the many ersatz produced by Satan, the ultimate charlatan. He grabs hold of many pleasures and packages them up as alluring short-cuts to happiness. We fall for them so easily, because happiness isn’t obtained without effort, and effort is not as attractive as immediate gratification. Just as the economists like to say about investments: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!”.

Anorexic person

No, health is not about how you look

We can compare happiness with health. I assume that everyone wants good health, although my experience of human diversity (a nice word for weirdness) tells me that some people relish in their perceived ill health. Let’s stick with the assumption that good health is generally desired and sometimes actively sought. The number of companies and people who try to sell their products and services in the name of health certainly seems to support that assumption. However, how is health defined, and who defines it? Is health defined by body shape, and if it is, what shape is that? Is it defined by Body Mass Index (BMI)? Is it defined by the absence of disease?

I maintain that happiness is like health, in this regard. It is a subjective experience that is not easily obtained. Counterfeits exist that pretend to lead to it but actually distract from the steps that really produce it. It’s fine to seek for happiness or for health, as long as you know what it is you are really trying to achieve, and you’re willing to make the sacrifices that lead to it.

 

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Celebrity meets Reality

NYC signing September 1,2009 Nintendo Store - NYC

Justin Bieber: Not worthy of idolatry

Today I’m writing about reality TV and the celebrity phenomenon. These are both related concepts in my view, and are both more popular now than they have ever been. I’m not particularly opposed to reality TV shows, I do enjoy some of them, but there are some sub-genres that I detest, particularly the voyeurism and the over-dramatic types.

However, my biggest beef is with the celebrity concept. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of having role-models, admiring admirable people who can inspire us to do and be better. Today’s celebrities, though, rarely display any admirable qualities. The world (at least the Western world) seems to be absolutely obsessed with the fame, influence, power and wealth associated with stardom. The main criterion for being considered a celebrity seems to be to possess or have done something so unique and noteworthy that it becomes the envy, admiration or pet-peeve of enough people to become a matter of international importance. It has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with personal virtues and qualities, unless these are somehow extraordinary and extravagant.

Of course, most of us have dreamed, some time in our lives, about being famous, and wondered what it would be like. I think that part of the general public’s attraction to shows like “the X factor” or “America’s got talent” lies in their secret dream to be on that stage, receiving that standing ovation, and being admired by millions of avid TV watchers. There seems to be some kind of vicarious experience happening when we watch these shows. They often have a story of rags-to-riches, or nobody-to-celebrity, somehow giving the illusion that these participants’ amazing gifts have suddenly been discovered by the world, and that their life is about to change forever for the better. Obviously that is appealing. I’m sure that some of the pleasure derived from watching these shows also comes from appreciating fresh artistic expression, although much of it seems to be unoriginal. Finally, there is also the large portion of the show that is designed to ridicule and insult those who do not satisfy the judges’ and the crowd’s insatiable thirst for goose-bumpy entertainment.

These shows obviously mix the concepts of celebrity and reality TV. They are based on the premise that regular people like you and I can be plucked up from the crowd, as if by the invisible hand of some whimsical deity, and be endowed with the all-coveted Mantle of Celebrity. I can see the appeal in that, even though I know the whole premise is flawed, because this magical Mantle always fails to confer happiness, and often even prevents it. These young singers, dancers and other performers who receive ephemeral international recognition are mere puppets in the hands of the rich getting richer, and most eventually break under the pressure of the media, the fans and the self-destructive lifestyle offered to them.

What I really don’t understand is the groupies. The Justin Bieber fans who talk, think and dream only of one inaccessible young barely pubescent boy as if he were their boyfriend, those who go to the concerts and scream and faint and tattoo their idol’s full name on their public and private body parts as if nothing else in the world mattered more than a baby-faced, helmet-haired, voice-autotuned adolescent. What goes on in people’s minds that leads them to obsess so much over completely trivial things? I really don’t understand. I think I may have idolised a few people when I was a little boy, but never to that degree, and I certainly don’t idolise anyone today.

Perhaps I’m different. Although I deeply respect people, I don’t tend to respect titles, positions and authority for its own sake, and I have got into trouble for this in the (not-so-distant) past. I feel that people’s character, not their position, should attract respect and admiration. Character is what you do with what you have when you think no one is watching, it’s your integrity, the thread that runs through the tapestry of your life, the foundation of your ultimate destination as a human being. I don’t believe anyone deserves to be admired, especially not me, any more than a person should be hated. You may admire someone’s actions and ideals, and you may equally abhor them, and that is how I try to look at people.

I think this is the only way to fully understand that every living human being has the exact same intrinsic worth, no matter what they do or say.

 

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Is happiness really a choice?

About 10 years ago, I picked up a copy of “7 habits of highly successful people” by Stephen R. Covey. I loved the book, and, though I didn’t strictly implement all of its 7 habits, it changed my “paradigm” and helped me adopt a healthier, more proactive world-view.  One of its most powerful messages was a passage from Victor Frankl‘s book, which I interpreted as saying:

“Happiness is a choice. If you’re unhappy, it’s your fault.”

Since then, I have personally lived by that motto, and have considered myself mostly free from excessive worry, guilt or stress, putting on a happy face regardless of my circumstances. After all, I often reason, there’s so much in life to be happy about, why get caught up in the misery of a moment?

There have been moments when I have wondered whether my habit of smothering my negative feelings was really beneficial to me, but generally I didn’t pay much attention to these thoughts.

Only today have I realised that this belief has been harmful to me and, more importantly, to my relationship with the people that matter most in my life.

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Sources of self-worth

This is a transcription of a journal entry written on 13th July 2009

During the last few days I have been pondering about something I want to change in my life. I’ve become keenly aware of an important motivational factor and source of self-worth on which I’ve been relying since I was very young. I refer to my desire to be seen in a good light by others, to receive praise, recognition, adulation etc. I have been aware of this for a long time, but only now do I begin to see that this has no place in my life.

One of my earliest memories of self-awareness and introspection is when I was 4 or maybe 5, and I wished I could be popular like the singers and actors on TV, or wishing I could fly like Superman, so that I could impress my peers. I remember singing all the time, imagining people around me admiring and praising me. Sometimes, my extended family would praise me, and this often enough that, to this day, I still sing mostly to impress people.

I also remember telling jokes all the time at school. I didn’t do it to make people happy or to comfort or cheer them up. I did it mainly because it made me feel good that people thought I had a good sense of humour.

Throughout my entire life I have struggled with this inner battle with what I thought was simply pride. I talked to myself constantly (inwardly) about my need to be humble, to do things for the right reasons etc. Cognitively I know that, by focusing on praise and recognition when I perform anything artistic, I am missing out on the pleasure and happiness of the performance itself, of the full expression of my inner feelings through my performance, and, especially, the expression of my gratitude to my Heavenly Father for my gifts.

Nowhere in my life is this issue brought more keenly and frequently to my attention than each Sunday morning at Church, where I join the congregation in singing “hymns of praise” to my God. I very rarely pay any attention to the words of the hymns! I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to impress others with my voice, and… I hate it! I hate that part of me that seeks to receive praise instead of giving it. Sometimes I have the opportunity to play the organ or the piano to accompany the congregation, and the temptation to play to impress is much lower. I’m better able to focus on providing worshipful, dignified music in order to bring a good spirit to the meeting. When I sing, however, I’m not yet able to do that, and I look forward to the day when I can overcome this weakness.

I’ve also noticed that I seek sources of self-worth in the wrong places. This may actually be a more correct description of the problem I described above, which I used to simply call pride.

I realised this recently, over a period of time of about a year, while working with the online community of Moodle (an online learning platform). I am often joking around in my conversations with other developers (an echo of my school years), trying to attract (or extract!) praise from my colleagues etc.

In a recent conversation with one of these co-workers, Penny Leach, I discussed my frequent feelings of inadequacy, my impressions of being a “fraud” in the midst of so many talented and knowledgeable people, a feeling with which she identified.

My reasoning leads to a conclusion which motivates my desire to change: I DON’T NEED praise from men or women to know my worth! I am a son of God, with all his divine attributes within me! I know my origins, my purpose, my destination, so why do I need affirmation of my mortal worth from other mortals, when I have confirmation of my eternal worth from God himself?

I am convinced that, with constant reminders of this concept, I can slowly let go of the habits and attitudes that have made me unduly dependent on the wrong sources of self-worth. I will be able to sing praises to God without worrying that others can hear me or not (and like what they hear!). I will do things only for the right reasons, not just partially for some of the right reasons.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2010 in Musings

 

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A true love story

People often ask me how I met Anne-Marie, my wife since September 2000. They are curious because I am French and she is Australian. They would like to know who was visiting which country when we met. In this rather lengthy blog entry, I hope to elucidate these questions and entertain, surprise and move you. Our story is unique, as all true love stories are.

Background information

The truth is, I was living in France, and she was living in Australia. I had just returned from a 2-year mission in England for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and I was still in the mindset of a missionary, trying to meet new people and inform them of what I believe to be true.

Marriage is the number 1 priority of returned missionaries. Why? There are many reasons, but one of them is that we believe in the divine origin and destiny of the human race, and that this destiny can only be achieved as family units, with a father and mother “sealed” for time and eternity, becoming one with each other and with God. This describes a process and an ultimate goal, not a state achieved all at once. You can find a very concise description of our beliefs on marriage and families in the Proclamation to the world on the Family. There is also a wikipedia article on the topic.

With this important background information, you are ready to learn how I met, proposed to and married Anne-Marie.

First Meeting

I was living at my parents’ place in Plouzané, France since my return from England in December 1999. The transition from missionary life to “normal” life was difficult. I had spent every day of my life for 2 entire years working for the welfare of other people, without any material rewards for myself, and often with limited success. This was tremendously energising for me, I felt useful and I felt worthwhile. Returning to normal life, I had to start caring for my own material needs. I had to find a job, consider furthering my education, spend time with my family in ways which I had learned to avoid for 2 years (movies, music, computer games etc…), make friends with the hope of finding a young woman who could love me despite my faults and who would have the same beliefs, standards and long-term objectives as I had…

It was rather overwhelming. However, on the 30th of January 2000, I was spending some time on ICQ, chatting to some new friends I had made, introducing them to my beliefs, when Anne-Marie popped up on my screen saying “Hi” (or something along these lines…). She had found me by searching for someone with similar interests. I replied rather abruptly: “Fine, but what are you doing on my contact list?”.

She said she was just looking for someone to chat with. We then went on to discover things about each other, where we were from, what our interests were etc… Soon later we each discovered that the other was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That definitely gave us much more common ground!

After this, day after day we would spend more time chatting. She was going through a tough time with her family, and was struggling with intense feelings of worthlessness. I had met many women during my mission who felt awful about themselves, mainly due to the way they were treated by men in their lives. I had learned to care deeply for them, and most importantly, I had learned to listen. I really wanted to help Anne-Marie to be happier, and I believed that it was in my power to help her. I didn’t have any intentions of flirting with her, it was entirely altruistic.

After about a week of rather intense discussions, we had started to send emails to each other because of the difficulty of finding each other online at the same time (there were either 6 or 7 hours time difference between France and Australia). I realised that my feelings for Anne-Marie were becoming quite strong. Many of my thoughts throughout the day would revolve around her and how I could help her. I decided that I was beginning to love her with more than a brotherly love, and that I needed to find out how she felt about me.

Our chats and letters became more personal after that. We would share more intimate feelings with each other, while still remaining in a sort of brother-sister type of relationship. Throughout the second week I became more and more engrossed in this relationship, and I thought about it all the time. I started to wonder if events could work out between us in a way that we could eventually marry. I did not believe that there was only one person on earth who was destined to be my soulmate, but I believed that our Heavenly Father puts us in each other’s paths for good reasons, and that He can inspire us to create beautiful and everlasting relationships if we seek them.

Consequently, two short weeks after we had met, and after I had assured myself that she trusted and loved me, and after I had prayed to my Heavenly Father and felt that He approved of my decision, I proposed to Anne-Marie on ICQ. I knew that she was preparing to serve her own mission for the Church, and I told her that I was willing to wait the necessary 18 months before her return. She accepted, and the cascade of emotions that had been building up for the last 2 weeks reached a height which I had never felt before in my life. I was floating on air, with a strange feeling of un-reality, as if what I was living was not completely true, simply because it seemed to fantastic.

The part that shocks most people in this meeting story, is that by that time (Valentine’s day 2000), I hadn’t seen a single photo of Anne-Marie. I didn’t know what she looked like. I had sent her photos of me, but she had no means of scanning hers. Of course I was very eager to know anything new about her, but her physical appearance was not what I was most eager to discover. I just knew, without any doubt, that what I was doing was right. There is nothing more exciting, more exhilarating than to do something completely extraordinary, knowing that it is the right thing to do.

In my next blog entry I will describe the decisions we made on that 14th of February 2000, and the few very difficult months that followed until we could finally meet in person in July.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2009 in Life

 

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On comfort zones and happiness

Today I had a very enriching discussion with a good friend of mine, Penny Leach. We talked about culture, social molds, addiction and happiness. The central theme behind my comments was the conundrum of pleasure-seeking vs happiness-seeking.

I am convinced that everyone seeks to be happy, but we all have trouble discerning between pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is more attractive because it is instant and produces intense feelings. It is not a bad thing, and life would be rather dreary without the pleasures of the 5 senses. Happiness, however, is different in some very important aspects:

Pleasure Happiness
Short-lasting Long-lasting
Is best obtained through selfish means Is only obtained through selfless means
Cannot be shared Can be shared
Does not accumulate over time Builds up over time

There are other distinctions that are more difficult to put into words. There is no doubt that our experience of pleasure can contribute to our happiness, just as our enjoyment of good food can contribute to our health. However, when the means become the end, when the search for pleasure becomes more important than our search for happiness, we are bound to be frustrated. We binge on pleasure until we realise we have only satisfied our taste buds without nourishing the soul.

Happiness is something we plan for in the long term. We make sacrifices for it. We even experience discomfort and pain for it. Strangely, pain and happiness are not opposites. Our attitude during trials and other negative experiences determines whether or not we are digging up a deep capacity for happiness, or digging ourselves in a ditch of self-pity and bitterness.

On the other hand if we do all in our power to avoid challenges, seeking instead for pleasure and positive experiences, we miss out on mind-changing experiences that would deepen our character and increase our capacity for happiness.

This is where we come to comfort zones.

Human nature is full of paradox and dualism. We seek for familiarity and build up habits, stereotypes, schemas, even relationships in order to get that “homely” feeling. At the same time, we crave change, improvement, progression. It is natural for us, as for water, to follow the easiest course possible. This is because change is uncomfortable.

You can experience this uncomfortable effect with a simple experiment. Simply do something for a few hours that you have never done before and that involves thinking differently than before. This could mean learning to play chess, sudoku or something else that requires mental concentration and organisation. I can guarantee that, after the initial excitement of learning something new, your brain will eventually start to “hurt” because you’ve just stepped out of a comfort zone. When you go to sleep that night, you’re likely to sleep poorly while your brain reorganises neural pathways to make room for your new ways of looking at things.

You can also experience this with habits and stereotypes. Changing a habit is difficult and annoyingly frustrating. Discovering that your stereotype of a typical French man is completely false is also uncomfortable, and you will automatically resist evidence against your pre-conceived ideas.

When you discover that something in your life is not contributing to your happiness, but is instead hampering it, you are put in a difficult situation. In any case you will pass through an uncomfortable time. You can either (restlessly) sleep on it a few nights until you’ve forgotten why you came to that conclusion, or you can decide to change. The main difference is that, with the first choice, you won’t just be back where you started, you’ll be even further back. It will take much longer next time to realise that your behaviour or way of thinking is detrimental to you or to others.

If, however, you decide to change, you will go through a period of intense discomfort. That period may be very short, or it can take a long time, but it is always just a period, and it will eventually end if you persist. The end result is that you will have changed through your own choice and efforts, not as a by-product of your environment. Even if your “new you” isn’t necessarily “better” by other people’s standards, you have learned to change yourself.

Happiness comes to people who control how they change, are changing constantly, and help others do the same.

 
 

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