Asking yourself whether you’re happy–good idea or not?

The other night, the Big Man and I had dinner with a man we know slightly. He asked me what I was working on, so the conversation turned to happiness (the Big Man considers himself a bit of a martyr to this topic).

Our dinner companion listened politely while I described the Happiness Project, then ventured that he subscribed to John Stuart Mill’s view—and he gave a fair approximation of the Mill quote, I was impressed—“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

One of the problems of thinking about happiness all the time is that I’ve developed…shall we say…decided views. I wanted to pound the table and yell, “No, no, NO!” Instead, I managed to nod and say in a mild voice, “Yes, a lot of people take that view, it’s a large strand in thinking about happiness. I can’t say that I agree.” (Not hard to guess that I don’t agree; according to Mill’s view, a project about trying to be happier would inevitably be doomed to failure.)

I know, if it’s John Stuart Mill vs. Gretchen Rubin, why listen to me?

But in my experience at least, thinking about my happiness has made me far happier than I was before I gave it much consideration.

Now, Mill may have been referring to the state of “flow” identified by researcher Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi. In flow, it’s true, people are completely absorbed, so focused on their tasks that they forget themselves, at the perfect balance of challenge and skill. Cultivating “flow” is a key aspect of happiness.

But I think that Mill meant, or people generally believe, that thinking about your happiness keeps you self-centered; you’re not thinking about other people, work, or anything other than your own satisfaction. Or perhaps Mill meant that happiness comes as a consequence of pursuing other goals, like love and work, and shouldn’t be a goal in itself.

But being happy requires tremendous discipline and mindfulness, and those don’t happen accidentally. Of course, it’s not enough just to want to be happy; you must make the effort to take the next steps toward happiness, by acting with more love, finding work you enjoy, etc.

Despite what some people seem to think, happiness isn’t selfish. Although we’re happier if we’re happy, of course, we have a duty to others to be happy (I can’t even let myself get started here on the duty to be happy).

Also, we enhance happiness by articulating it: reminiscing about happy times, describing happy experiences to others, savoring pleasures, all increase happiness. Studies show that depressed people have as many pleasant experiences as other people, but they don’t remember them as well. By ignoring your happiness, you diminish it.

Plus, how often do you reach a goal by not thinking about it?

And in any event, are you happy if you don’t know it? “No man is happy who does not think himself so.” --Publilius Syrus

At best, I think people who go through life giving no thought to happiness will end up saying, with Colette, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” At worst, they’ll realize that they could’ve done much to improve their lot—if only they’d asked themselves if they were happy.

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