Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Over the past few days, we've been talking about the basics of the philosophy of happiness. Although, we've been drawing heavily from the work of Bruce Di Marsico and others, we've also been endeavoring to look at the philosophy from a core systems perspective defining it in a manner that is free (to the extent that something can be free) of jargon and phrases that have become ambiguous or meaningless through overuse.

Today, I'm going to talk about the definition of happiness.

Here's what we've covered to date via Back to Basics and Even More Basic.
The Option Method, created by Bruce DiMarsico and popularized by others, is a philosophy and a corresponding set of methods that exists independently of any branded or trademarked processes or organizations. The foundational theory on which all the rest is built is that:
our emotions are mutable, voluntary responses (not immutable, involuntary reactions) to internal and external stimuli
In other words, our emotions are a choice, specifically, our happiness is a choice.

Being mutable and voluntary, the simplest way to change our emotional response to any situation is to simply decide to change it (as both Bruce and others have said, "[The method] is the second best way to become happy, the first is to simply decide to be happy.") However, for those who find it difficult to simply decide to be happy, Bruce developed his Option Method.

I've outlined our modified form of the method below.

  1. Our relative happiness is a not a direct reaction to stimuli, but instead a reaction to our beliefs regarding stimuli.
  2. The degree to which a belief influences our happiness is proportional to the magnitude and direction of the charge that we apply to that belief. Strongly charged positive beliefs yield big, happy reactions. Strongly charged negative beliefs yield big, unhappy reactions.
  3. By uncovering, exploring and changing the most strongly charged beliefs (the ones that fuel the greatest happiness or greatest unhappiness) in regard to a set of stimuli, we can change our emotional responses to that set of stimuli.
  4. All beliefs are logical, rational and mutable and can therefore be analyzed, understood and changed.
  5. As we become clear on the logic and assumptions that drive our beliefs, we uncover gaps and missteps in our logic and faults in our assumptions. Seeing them, we can change them thereby changing our beliefs.
  6. By changing our beliefs, we change how we respond.
Based on this, the step-by-step approach to changing an unhappy response is to:
  1. Identify the response that you want to change
  2. Identify situations in which you respond that way
  3. Isolate the specific stimuli that lead to that response
  4. Identify the beliefs that you engage in regard to those stimuli
  5. Isolate the beliefs with the greatest charge (the ones that most fuel your unhappiness)
  6. Break down that belief into its underlying logic and set of assumptions looking for gaps in logic or faults in assumption
  7. Upon seeing those gaps and/or faults, decide to keep them, change them or discard them
In my experience, one of the things that people get hung up on is the word happiness. For many people, happiness is flaky and lacks depth, it's ephemeral and fleeting, it's not something to aspire to per se.

I think we could use a new word, but I'm not sure what that word would be at this point. For now, let's say that happiness is a proxy for a large set of emotions and feelings that we would consider to be positive: satisfied, contented, peaceful, at ease, comfortable, joyous, feeling great, open, accepting, calm, nirvana, etc. You name it.
One could say that everything we do, even our unhappiness, we do to become happy.
At first, this may not seem to make sense, but think about it. Let's say that you want to lose 50 pounds. Your belief is that weighing less is good for you: you'll be healthier, you'll run faster, you'll be more attractive, you'll be able to find more clothes that fit, whatever... Because you value the benefits of losing weight, your beliefs about them are positively charged (happiness fueling).

However, at this point, you have none of those benefits. So, in order to motivate yourself, you get unhappy about your weight. You find beliefs that fuel your unhappiness: you're unhealthy, you're in poor physical condition, people find you unattractive, nothing fits, etc. You engage unhappiness in order to get to a place where you can be happy.

This basic pattern of using unhappiness as a motivator to get to happiness is pervasive. We do it with pretty much everything. You get unhappy with the prospects of not having a job (fear) to motivate yourself to study and stay in school. You get unhappy with your job to motivate yourself to look for a new one. You get unhappy with your child's behavior in order to discipline and correct him. We us unhappiness to motivate ourselves and others.

Everything We Do is a Means to Happiness
Now, here's the catch. What we perceive as our end goal (being thinner, having a great job, making a lot of money, raising wonderful children) is really just a means to an end; our end goal is simply to be happier. Ultimately, everything else is just a means to that end.

So, the astute among you are asking, "Well, if I'm doing all this stuff just to become happier and I know that I can become happy at any time, why go through all this unhappiness just to become happy?"

Good question.

In the light of happiness being a choice, the reason that we still do all this unhappiness is that most of us believe that, without unhappiness, we'd never change. We'd never find a new job. We'd never lose the weight. We'd never leave our mismatched mate. We wouldn't properly raise our children. We'd just cycle in our current situations.

However, each of us can identify things we do (or have done) simply because we like to do them. It might be cooking or writing or golfing or skiing or playing music or dining with friends. There are any number of things that we do that are motivated purely from the joy of doing them.

And yet, any one of them can drift into the unhappiness-motivated realm. The joy of cooking can be replaced by having to feed so many people. The freedom of golfing can be replaced by not making par. A passion for work can be replaced by keeping your job.

In fact for many of us, this is what we call 'growing up'. As children we engage everything motivated by the joy of what we engage; as we mature we replace the happy motivations with should and have to, with dissatisfaction and criticism, with fear and worry about losing what we have.

Afraid to be Happy
I often find in talking with people about the philosophy, that they get quite resistant to the idea that one can just choose to be happy. However, as I dig into their resistance, it often turns out that they don't disagree with the concept that happiness is a choice; they disagree with the concept that happiness is a good idea. There seems to be a fundamental belief shared by many that the world would fall apart if everyone just did what they wanted because they felt like it; they believe that we need unhappiness to function as a society.

One can find lots of evidence for this in our systems of justice and our systems of child rearing and many corporate systems of management. We use the threat of punishment and consequences as a way to keep everyone in line.

I would argue, that if people weren't unhappy in the first place, you wouldn't see drug abuse or crime or bad behavior or poor employee performance. Our unhappiness is with what we have combined with our sense of helplessness and dissatisfaction with who we are, is what leads to all these behaviors we want to avoid.

In other cases, we're afraid to become "too" happy, because we don't want to be disappointed if whatever it is we're happy about fails or doesn't come through.

This is largely tied to the assumption that it's the stimuli (the objects of our happiness) that are making us happy, not our beliefs about them.

Do You Want to be Happy?
So the question that precedes all the rest is, "Do you want to be happy?"

Of course, the answer is easy to discern. If you're unhappy, the answer is 'No!' and if you're happy, it's 'Yes!'

So, as you apply the method to becoming happier, a good starting point is recognizing that you're actually unhappy on purpose. It's never the case that you want to be happy, but don't know why you're not; it's all there waiting for you to explore it.

Instead, the useful starting assumption is that you 'want' to be unhappy, that you're being unhappy for a good reason, and that you are looking into changing that. A good first step is to decide to be happy about your unhappiness and enthusiastically dive into exploring it.

In the next installment I'm going to talk about the role of specificity and the juxtaposition of happiness and optimism.

Happy Tuesday!


  1. I want to quote some words from Bruce Di Marsico on points relative to "Choice" and "Happiness" where he diverges quite a bit from Bears (and the above).

    1) On Happiness as "positive" emotions:

    One of the definitions Bruce uses, in Definitions of Happiness is "Happiness is feeling however you want to feel, and not believing that anything makes that wrong."

    He talked about how, if someone is crying after the death of a loved one, how do you know it's unhappy? Only if they let you know somehow. Maybe they wish they were not crying. Maybe they feel as if they are emotionally cold, and wish they were crying more. Maybe they are feeling exactly the way they want to feel.

    In summary, Bruce does not make the distinction between positive and negative emotions, but between wanted and unwanted emotions.

    2) On choosing to be happy

    From How Unhappiness Happens

    "People don’t choose to be unhappy; people don’t choose to be happy. I use “choose” only to say something else: unhappiness doesn’t happen to you. You’re creating it. You’re doing it.

    I’m using the word choice in a way it was never used before. I’m using it because I’m at a loss for words, because I don’t really want to say people want to be unhappy, because they universally describe unhappiness as a feeling they don’t want. "

    He then goes on to clarify that unhappiness is created because it is believed to be necessary for happiness. When the belief that unhappiness is necessary is investigated, and falls away, it is no longer created.

    In other words, unhappiness is a choice in the sense that it is an action that somebody is ultimately free not to do, but not in the sense of "I think I'll choose vanilla instead of chocolate ice cream."

  2. It would seem Bruce was struggling or searching for a way to speak to the issue of authenticity. example: "I don't really want to say people want, or choose to be unhappy".....(why not, isn't it the truth?) don't people experience exactly the emotional response by choosing the beliefs they hold? If one wants a different flavor of experience, simply choose a different meaning or charge to the stimuli to which one is referring with the shade of belief they are putting on themselves, and 'seeing' their world with. bw

  3. I am grateful for an opportunity to try to clarify, because Bruce and Bears are very different on this point. They start from the same premise, as you said, "people experience exactly the emotional response by choosing the beliefs they hold."

    For Bruce, unhappiness is a choice from the point-of-view of the outside observer, not from the point-of view of the unhappy person. When the Option Method helps someone realize that they do indeed have a choice, that is perfectly simultaneous with no more unhappiness! So from the point-of view of the unhappy person, unhappiness is a choice only retrospectively.

    He also spoke of how people would use the idea of "happiness is a choice" to become more unhappy about being unhappy, because, after all, shouldn't they be able just to choose happiness?

    For him, the Option Method is to help people find out that there is a choice with regards to a specific unhappiness. Choice, in Bruce's language, is a insight into one's own freedom, not an action.

  4. This fine distinction is actually quite useful. The very first thing that occurred to me while reading Teflon's first piece was that while his description of the process is clear & accurate, the trigger for a person to actually start down the 7-step path (in the 2nd piece) of changing an unhappy response is to first recognize that they have a choice in the matter, and second, to want to exercise that choice. If one is missing either of those two pieces of the puzzle, they typically don't move further.

    Tef: I love your exposition so far.
    Ari: thanks for clarifying this particular point especially.

  5. Ari,
    Thank you for your great contributions and insights. I find the distinction you've called out to be really helpful.

    I was struggling a bit with positive and negative as I use them in the manner an engineer would use them (representing polarity or direction), but many use them to connote good or bad. So, I'd love to find words that haven't been hijacked by the soft sciences ;)

    I agree with you and Bruce (I'm assuming that as you present what Bruce said that you're also agreeing with him), it's about directionality; are the beliefs moving you towards wanted emotions or towards unwanted motions.

    From a systems perspective, in the context of the stimulus->belief->response (SBR) model, saying that happiness is a choice is a bit of an oxymoron. More accurately we would say that belief is a choice, a choice that can drive happiness or unhappiness indirectly. This is certainly more accessible to someone who steadfastly believes that happiness is not a choice.

    I believe that Bruce would say something on the order of: happiness is a choice and the best way to become happy is simply to decide to be happy. However, for people who don't believe that happiness is a choice or simply can't figure out how to do it, there's Option. In Option, beliefs are a choice and happiness is a desire (or not). The recognition of happiness being a choice is something that comes after the fact. For most of us, it's a post-Option phenomenon, hence, not a great opening line.

    Really great stuff guys! Thank you!


  6. Happiness, or unhappiness is in the eye of the beholder.

    When one chooses to converse, to share their 'make-believe' assessment/judgement of another, there is also a choice of method in what and how we convey the notion. The gift of a question, given to another, silently implies the giver as not knowing, AND, that it is not their business the quality or name anyone gives to the emotional experience of the other. Isn't it always about choice? bw


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