Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Brother Can You Paradigm: Choosing Happiness III

Paradigms are conceptual frameworks or models that we use to understand complex and abstract subjects that are difficult or impossible to comprehend directly.

Any one topic may be modeled using multiple paradigms. For example, one can understand the activity and state of the human heart in terms of its physiology (shape and movement), its chemistry, its electrical activity, or the sound it produces.

In some cases, two paradigms can be used to model one another; you could explain how electricity works using the water flow as your paradigm or you could explain water flow using electricity.

Paradigms are powerful, so powerful that people often lose sight of the fact that they're not the thing, they're just a model of the thing. Further, each paradigm represents a model, not the model.

Human Behavior
An area where we often forget that we're talking about models is when we try to understand ourselves, our feelings and behaviors. For example, we often talk about the mind as though the mind exists. The mind is not a reality, it's just a model, a paradigm used to represent any number of complex physiological processes and their effects. The distinction so many of us draw between mind and body is an artificial one that originated in the 1600's with the likes of French philosopher René Descartes. It's not real; it's just a way of thinking about ourselves.

Nonetheless, we often talk about whether medical symptoms are real or psychosomatic, saying things like, "You know, there's really nothing wrong with him; it's all in his head." or "They did a blood workup and his depression is real."


This confusion of model and reality is reinforced by many professionals specializing in psychology and human behavior. Most professionals were trained and certified to offer services within a specific paradigm. Their expertise is in the paradigm, not in being human. The problem is this: if all you've got is a hammer, then every problem looks pretty much like a nail.

Happy Any Time You Want
Over the last couple of days, we've been talking about choosing happiness. The basic assertion is that anyone who wants to can learn how to become sincerely happy at any time and in any situation. The qualifiers are:
  • we're using happiness as a proxy for all positive emotion (joy, exuberance, well-being, serenity),
  • being able to choose happiness doesn't make being happy compulsory,
  • being happy may have all sorts of unexpected side-effects, and
  • if you find happiness a drag, you can always choose to be unhappy again.

Yesterday, I mentioned that today we'd jump into how to choose happiness. To do that, we're going to explore some alternative paradigms.

Happiness as a Skill
Most of us model emotion as an automatic response to external stimuli. Someone slaps you across the face, you get angry. Sitting by a roaring fire with a warm cup of tea leaves you feeling cozy. A child wanders carelessly towards a torrent of traffic and you feel panic. Something happens and your emotions kick in. It's all hardwired.

The notion of emotions as involuntary responses to external (and internal) stimuli is a paradigm, a conceptual model developed and promoted by some schools of psychology. It's not true, it's just a way of thinking.

What if we replaced the automatic response paradigm with a learned skill paradigm. For example, we could think about stimulus and emotional response as a game of catch. You and your mom stand in the yard with your baseball gloves and a ball. Your mom tosses the ball your way and... it hits clocks you on the forehead... or you bat it away with the glove... or you turn and run away... or you follow the ball with the glove and catch it.

As you learn to catch the ball, you may experience all the above. If your first experience is being clocked on the head, then you might determine that learning to catch the ball is going to be hard, perhaps something you don't want to attempt. If your first experience is catch the ball, the satisfaction and sense of victory may be so strong that multiple head-clockings leave you completely undeterred. In either case, if you keep at it, you'll eventually become good at catching the ball.

For some, catching a ball may come quickly (naturally) and for others it may take time. Quickly or slowly say nothing of your potential to catch a ball, they simply represent your starting place.

Similarly, each of us starts out predisposed to respond one way or another to a given situation, some with panic, some with delight, some with exuberance, some with disdain. Responding in panic doesn't mean that you're someone who panics. Your initial response says nothing about your potential to respond differently.

Think about situations in which you respond emotionally, responses that you'd like to change. If you were to model emotional response as a skill to be learned (like playing catch), how would you go about changing your response? Would you look to others to see how they manage situations? Would you set up practice sessions?

The Art of Decision
Most of us think about decision as something that happens in the moment, again just a paradigm. What if you were to model decision as a continuous process rather than a discrete action?

I talked yesterday about the point of decision for an alcoholic who "suddenly" finds himself sitting at a bar after circling the block seven times. The decision occurred continuously over a period of time, gaining momentum until he finally "decided" to walk through the doorway.

Modeling the decision to be happy as a continuous process rather than a discrete action changes everything. As it might seem impossible for the alcoholic to stop himself as the glass levitates from the bar to his lips, it can seem impossible to choose happiness when, totally wiped out after a shit-storm of a day, you stumble down the stairs to answer the door only to find a cop with your kid in tow.

What if you were to model the decision to be happy as a series of micro-decisions that occur throughout the day? How would you go about implementing the process? What would you do to increase your awareness of those times when the decisions are "really" being made? Would you send yourself regular reminders to check in and see how you're doing? Perhaps you could where a t-shirt that says, "Ask me how happy I am?"

The Well-Duh Factor
A guy walks into his doctor's office saying, "Hey doc, I've got a problem that I'm hoping you can help me with."

He reaches into his backpack, pulls out a ball-pean hammer, smacks his thumb with it and says, "Doc, it hurts every time I do this! What can I do?"

Sometimes the decision to be happy involves deciding not to do those things that we know lead to unhappiness.

Iris' favorite Well, duh! is pizza. One night at a pizza shop near Harvard Square, Iris remarked, "I love pizza, but don't you hate how your mouth gets blisters the next day?"

After a moment waiting for the punchline, I realized that she was just making a comment based on experience she assumed was common to others. I responded, "Well, no, I don't. I've never had blisters in my mouth the day after eating pizza."

Seems that pizza is a haven for allergens that affect Iris' mouth and digestive track. Still, every once in a while, when it looks really good, she'll eat a slice or two. Without fail, Iris will struggle a bit the next day trying to figure why she feels so lousy and then reaffirming her commitment to avoiding pizza.

Everyone does Well duh! from time to time. Some are big, some are little and some are hard too see, but if you pay attention you can avoid the things that lead to unhappiness and you can actively lay the groundwork to be happier. Decide not to fill your head with the evening news just before going to bed. Decide to go with a glass of water instead of glass of cola. Decide to do leave work on time and head to the gym. There are hundreds of little decisions that you can make that help you avoid Well-duh!.

We Do It Because It Works
Another way to overcome unhappiness is to flip it around recognizing that we each get unhappy as a way to take care of ourselves. We do unhappiness for good reasons. In this model, you would drop the notion that you really want to be happy, but can't, and instead decide that you really want to be unhappy. (Go with me a minute, it's just a paradigm shift.)

Once you decide that you're actively and intentionally being unhappy you pull back the curtains hiding all the reasons why unhappiness is working for you. There are plenty of them. If you ever wrecked your pop's car or broke your mom's best china using it as a makeshift cymbal, then you know that being visibly unhappy (remorseful and inconsolable) before sentencing is passed can be a really good idea. Walking into a funeral singing zippity-doo-dah can have adverse effects. We're often taught as kids to use anger as a motivation to win or to use fear as a motivation to try harder.

We use unhappiness all the time to motivate ourselves and others. A great way to become happier is to acknowledge the good reasons we have for being unhappy and then to decide if unhappiness is the best way to accomplish our goals. Sometimes it will be and sometimes not. By flipping the paradigm from looking for all the reasons to be happy, to understanding how it serves us to be unhappy, we can become happy.

Just Do It
Of course, you can always just decide to be happy, begin acting in a manner consistent with being happy and watch your emotions race to catch up. It works.

Big Bites
OK, over the last couple of days I've definitely bitten off more than I can chew; there's so much to cover and talk about. We'll continue, but for now I'll conclude with a quick summary.
  1. Our theory is: one can decide to be sincerely happy at any time in any situation.
  2. The corollary is: if you can decide to be happy, then anyone else can decide to be happy; each of us is responsible for her own happiness.
  3. Not knowing how to choose happiness says nothing about one's potential to do so.
  4. Being able to choose happiness does not mandate choosing happiness.
  5. The notion that the mind and body are somehow distinct is simply a model; it's not true. It doesn't matter whether you get to happiness bio-chemically, spiritually or by thinking and deciding.
  6. We do both happiness and unhappiness for good reasons. Understanding those reasons can be useful.
  7. One way to begin choosing happiness is to change our paradigms for understand ourselves, our actions and our emotions.
    • Viewing happiness as a skill, not as an involuntary response. Happiness can be studied, learned and practiced.
    • Viewing decision as a continuous process or series of micro decisions rather than a single, discrete action. You can decide to be happy by making thousands of micro-decisions throughout the day.
    • Viewing happiness holistically and conducting regular happiness maintenance.
    • Viewing unhappiness as an industrious activity with clearly defined motivations and goals

Gosh, there's so much more to explore here. Thank you if you've read this far. I'd love to hear your thoughts via comments or posts!

Happy Wednesday!


  1. Nice post, Tef. And the title is inspired! :-)

    Lately I've been taking a few minutes every morning to sit in a chair with my cup of coffee and just focus deliberately on my intention that day to embrace whatever the Universe gifts me with, to take whatever cosmic play-doh comes my way and make it up happy. Sometimes I'll even play out a few scenarios in my head and step into them with gratitude. It's a little happiness workout to start my day.

    It's been helping. I haven't by any means completely quelled the "Oh Shit" impulse (lot of muscle memory there) but I'm definitely building the "Yes, thank you" muscle. And it's driving home again for me that it's never the external situation/stimulus that's the real issue. It's the assessments and judgments (and corresponding responses) that I activate in the moment that determine my experience.

    Activating some love for you in this moment (and really enjoying that experience)--


  2. Kristoofus,

    Thanks, man! I love the idea of a happiness workout, getting up in the morning and running through some happiness stretching and calisthenics. How perfect!

    Wouldn't be fun to conduct happiness bootcamp? Perhaps incorporate it into the on-boarding process for new employees or new family members? You know, require anyone who dates one of your kids to first pass happiness bootcamp training?

    I feel happier just thinking about it.

    Love, Tef

  3. Happiness bootcamp sounds like an awesome idea. In fact, I would be excited about coming up with exercises to quantify the strength of our happiness muscle. Say, outline a scenario that is typically considered difficult or 'bad', and ask for ways to make it up 'happy'. Or provide a challenging task, like firing an employee or disciplining a child, and come up with ways to do it while staying happy (or at least peaceful) inwardly, and outwardly.

    Actually, come to think of it, I have done a similar exercise, way back, in one of my Landmark classes, which really reinforced the element of choice. This exercise basically presented a scenario, and asked us to imagine our responses if we were somebody else - like our father, mother, boss, McGyver, that downcast donkey in Winnie the Pooh (can't recall his name), etc. Then there was something afterwards that really brought home the point that we could choose any of those responses - pessimistic/ optimistic/ audacious/ confident, etc.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hey Tef, Kristoofus, et al,

    Wondering if you feel as I do, that while choosing happiness can be on a continuum (of frequency and ease), there is a significant inflection point where one begins to value being happy over being unhappy? Common wisdom says there are various personality types that are predisposed differently in how happy they 'naturally' are (before exposure to the study of beliefs), but I'm talking about people who actively work on becoming happy - is there a cognitive switch they have turned on that others who don't haven't? For me, it was the crucible of the playroom where I saw happiness producing such great (short-term and long-term) benefits, and since then, identifying the happy/loving response has been relatively effort-less. Anything similar in your experience?

  6. Sree, I think you nailed it with "inflection point". There are times where after working repeatedly on a new skill or activity everything clicks and you suddenly accelerate to a new "level". After that point, everything that seemed hard before no longer does.

    Iris has found this with her running as she's stepped from one plateau to the next. It's a metamorphosis of sorts. For example, since she ran eleven miles two days in a row, she's become a completely different runner. Six miles will never seem a long distance to her.

    And yet, six miles used to appear impossible.

    I've found the same with music. You work and work and work on something that seems undoable only occasionally getting it, and then one day, you cross some threshold and it's yours. It never seems difficult again.

    I like Kristoofus' metaphor of muscle memory in regard to happiness. When muscle memory finally takes hold, everything changes. Even if you get out of shape, getting back into shape becomes much easier.

    I think that personality types could be characterized in terms of the predisposition of your happiness muscles. Just a starting place that can be changed with training, sometimes in the crucible, sometimes in the rehearsal studio and sometimes in the gym.


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...