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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

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What Is the Key to Happiness?

I have known such despair that you wouldn't think I could ever be happy,
but I know great joy too. I want to share what I've learned.

Michael David Crawford, Consulting Software Engineer
mdcrawford@gmail.com

Second draft - April 3, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

Happiness is a basic need of the human soul. Once we are provided with such physical necessities of food, water and shelter, we seek happiness. Most people seek happiness throughout their lives, yet many look in the wrong places, only to find despair. Why does the alcoholic drink, or the junkie shoot up, but to try to be happy? Some people are so unhappy, and so hopeless of ever being happy again, that they feel they would rather take their own lives than face living through another day.

I have spent so much of my life in misery, in such dark despair, you wouldn't think I would ever have known true happiness, but I have, and often do. I have struggled for much of my life to understand how to be happy, and want to share some of what I've learned with you. I can't pretend I have the answer - just a few clues at best - but I hope you can help by discussing what you know about happiness after you read this article.

In particular, I will discuss what I've learned from two inspiring books that I've just read: How to Want What You Have by Timothy Miller, and Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I Need Your Help!

This page is a rough draft of an article I plan to submit to the community website Kuro5hin when it's complete.

Kuro5hin articles have to survive a process called "moderation" before they are accepted for publication. New articles are placed in a special members-only area where Kuro5hin members can read and and vote for or against them. If an article is written well enough, the moderators might vote to feature it on the front page, where many more people will read it and participate in the followup discussion.

It's important to me to make front page, however, the Kuro5hin moderators are notoriously picky, so it's important that I do the best job that I can. That's where I need your help: please read this draft, and suggest to me how I can improve it. Do I state my case effectively? Are there any typos or grammar errors?

Note: I'm real unhappy with this opening. I had a hard time writing it at all, and don't feel it's the best I can do. I have to come up with an introduction with enough zing to convince the casual reader to click the "Full Story" link so they can read the rest of the article.

I've long been aware, and it's often been pointed out to me that I write too much. I have a hard time being brief and to the point. I'm pretty sure that the longest article ever published at Kuro5hin is one that I wrote. So particularly valuable would be to point out ways I can write more concisely. Thanks for your help!
-- Mike

PS. It is my wife Bonita's advice that I take longer to work on this than I had originally anticipated. She thinks it's a valuable thing for me to do, but her suggestion is that I spend several months developing it and to read more than the two books I had originally planned to write about. I know I'm finding it much more difficult to write than I had expected.


Sometime last year, someone submitted a K5 article that tried to answer the question of how to find happiness. The article didn't do well in moderation, so I can't link to it here, but one comment struck me as quite profound. I'm sorry that I don't remember who posted it:

Happiness is two good books a week for the rest of my life.

Learning to be happy doesn't have to be complicated, and it's probably best when one can enjoy the simple things. I know my own life and work get to be quite complex at times, so that trying to find satisfaction is like trying to find my way out of a maze. Yet I seem to find the greatest joy from some of the simplest things, like the other day when I celebrated the arrival of Spring after a long cold Winter by practicing my guitar on my front porch.

Really, being happy is just that simple. I'm going to skip to the end and just tell you how to be happy. It's helped me, and if you really understand the following, it will work for you too:

On page 80 of How to Want What You Have, Timothy Miller writes:

A sincere and scholarly religious seeker occasionally experimented with mescaline. While spending an evening in his study amid his books, music, and works of art, rapturously intoxicated, he suddenly figured out the secret of happiness. After recovering from his initial exhiliration, he realized he could not trust himself to remember the secret, so he wrote it on a slip of paper where he would be sure to find it later. Sure enough, he felt groggy the following morning, recalling only dimly that he had discovered something momentous. When he eventually came across the slip of paper, he recalled that he had written the secret of happiness on it, and that he had felt quite certain of its power and correctness at the time he had written it. Hands trembling with anticipation, he unfolded the scrap of paper. He had written, "Think in different patterns".

That's it. Very simple, no? If you really understand it, you can go now, and have no need to read the rest of this article.

Think In Different Patterns

At first it would seem that Miller and Csikszentmihalyi have very different, conflicting ideas about how to find happiness. Miller advocates that one tame the urge to have More: more money, more love, a bigger house, a faster PC. Although the urge for More is basic, genetically programmed human nature, Miller claims that it is the source of our unhappiness. He has learned this by studying the wisdom of the ages. For example Buddha said that our sufferring is caused by our desire, and that to be happy we must renounce it.

Csikszentmihalyi is, on the other hand, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who has done numerous scientific studies of what makes people happy. The experience he calls "flow" happens when people are engaged in certain kinds of goal-directed activities. It would seem that Csikszentmihalyi says that striving is just the thing to do. Interestingly, one of his studies found that most people are the happiest when they're at work and unhappiest during times of leisure. Some of the activities that make some people happiest are very physically or mentally demanding - rock climbing, playing chess, studying mathematics, or in my case, programming computers or writing essays.

Csikszentmihalyi seems to think particularly little of watching television. Very little effort is required of the viewer, so TV is unlikely to stimulate flow.

There is a common thread that runs through both books: happiness is a product of our own minds, and it is ultimately in our own power to possess it, even in the most desperate circumstances. All we have to do is to change how we think.

"All we have to do". That sounds so simple, yet so many find it so difficult to change their patterns of thought. Some who try spend years, even decades in psychotherapy, or reading self-help book after self-help book, yet never know happiness. It can't be that simple, can it?

But really it is.

While most people can't stand to wait for the bus, history is filled with many people who found happiness while confined in squalid prisons. The difference between them and most of us is that they found a way to control their thoughts.

The Experience of Flow

Csikszentmihalyi used the "Experience Sampling Method" to study how his study subjects enjoyed their activities. Each one carried a pager, which was signaled at random intervals about eight times a day. Each time a subject's pager beeped, he or she would answer a short questionnaire about what they were doing, and how much they were enjoying it.

Csikszentmihalyi found that his subjects were the happiest when they were working towards a goal of some sort, one that was evenly matched by the subject's abilities and in which the subject received regular feedback about their progress towards that goal.

Under such conditions, subjects reported being completely absorbed in whatever they were doing. One stops noticing the passage of time, and the task at hand - even a difficult one - has a quality of effortlessness, even when one is working very hard. One loses one's sense of self, instead becoming one with the task.

I was interested to read Flow after hearing about it because I recognized flow as the state of mind I am in when I am the most productive at my computer programming work. Before I encountered the term flow I called it "being in the groove".

When I have that state of mind, I enjoy writing code tremendously, even very difficult code. The most difficult problems become surmountable. It's not that I become such a wizard that hard problems become easy, but they don't intimidate me, and I become creative in finding solutions to the problems I face, as well as tireless in trying new approaches until I get it right.

But when I don't experience flow in my work, the smallest problems become insurmountable, and I become easily distractible. Trying to write code of any sort feels like pushing water uphill.

I've been struggling for years to understand why I'm so productive and happy at times, yet completely unproductive at other times. Flow has helped me to understand.

Csikszentmihalyi discovered a paradox - his study subjects reported that they were happier at work - at their jobs - than when they were at leisure. However, more subjects who were on the job reported that they would rather be doing something else than did the subjects at leisure.

Perhaps it's because many people in industrialized societies are alienated from their work. While a job can provide a framework for inducing flow, it can be hard to feel a direct connection between one's work and one's survival. Such alienation is not a universal experience - farmers in the Italian Alps reported that they would rather work than do just about anything else.

Csikszentmihalyi's recipe for happiness does not stop at finding flow just through one's work. He advocates making goals in all aspects of one's life, so that one can experience flow with friends and family.

We hunger to have meaning in their lives and despair at the prospect that our lives may well be meaningless. Flow suggests that people can give meaning to their lives by setting goals for their time on Earth, and working towards it throughout their lives.

I think that one problem I've had with my programming work is that I don't have the same goals I used to, and have found it difficult to make new goals for my work. I was at a terrible disadvantage when I was a young software engineer, having dropped out of a college physics education in which I had only taken a few programming classes. I wanted to do well for myself, though, and was determined to learn to be the best programmer I possibly could, and so for years I devoted regular effort to perfecting my craft by studying good technical books, and constantly striving to do better on at my work.

But I've been programming for sixteen years now, and have gotten good enough at programming (when I can find my focus) that I don't feel I have to struggle to hone my skills anymore. I keep programming because it is the only way I know to make a living for myself, and somehow that is not a satisfying goal anymore. If I'm going to keep working as a programmer, I need to find a goal for myself, one that I have to work for but which I can expect to reach someday.

Work is starting to go better for me, but I haven't found my new goal yet. What does help is to set a very limited goal when I sit down to work. I decide at the start of each day what I will accomplish that day, and, to avoid getting intimidated, to put out of my mind all the work I have to do to complete my project.

More

Timothy Miller is a psychologist who practices cognitive therapy. In his work he has seen many desperately unhappy people. In most cases, these people were unhappy because their quest to have More led them to ruin their lives:

People have wept bitterly in my office as they prepared to go to prison for taking things that didn't belong to them so they could buy things they didn't need...

I have interviewed murderers while the victim's blood was still wet on their clothing. Typically, murders arise from grudges, jealousy, petty resentments, theft, or drug deals. All of these are forms of greed.

Many people, very likely most people, are not happy, but think they will be once they get more of what they want. More money, a more desirable mate, more friends, a bigger house, a college degree, a promotion on the job, or election to a political office.

It's human nature to want more than what we've got. It's often easy to demonstrate that what one has is so meager that anyone could understand why we are unhappy. The desire for More is programmed into us by evolution as it was our ancestors who actually got More that were more successful at reproduction than those who settled for less.

The problem is, we have no genetic programming that tells us when we have enough, that tells us to rest and to enjoy what we have. It is very common for even extremely wealthy and powerful people to be bitterly unhappy.

While one can see how the hunger for More promotes the success of the species, it does so at the cost of individual happiness. Happiness is always promised tomorrow, but never delivered today. Desire can move people to tremendous achievement, but as long as one is focussed on tomorrow's goal, rather than paying attention to what today has to offer, the striving for more can only bring misery.

Miller quotes the Tibetan Buddhist monk Milarepa:

All worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow. Acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separations; births, in deaths. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping up, and building, and meeting; and, faithful to the commands of an eminent guru, set about realizing the Truth.

It sounds subversive. The prodigious economies of the industrialized nations were built on the striving of individuals who craved More. What would happen if we all became satisfied with what we have? If Steve Jobs didn't crave More, would he go to such length to build companies like Apple, NeXT and Pixar?

Is Steve Jobs happy? From what I hear about how he treats people, I suspect he's not.

One can still work to better oneself while being happy with what one has. Miller says:

When you learn to want what you have, you will start to live in accordance with the old saying that happiness is a way of traveling rather than a destination. When you really understand that, you might still strive for a better life, but you will not do it fanatically, obsessively, or to the point that your ambitions unnecessarily harm yourself, other people, or the planet.

Pain and Sufferring

Miller points out that there is a difference between pain and sufferring. Pain is unavoidable, but whether we suffer is our own choice. We feel pain when we are hurt, but whether the pain makes us suffer depends on how we interpret that pain.

Pain is an immediate physical or emotional reaction to injury or misfortune. But pain can be borne with sadness - it can make us suffer - or we can bear it with good cheer.

Pain that occurs as a result of something pointless or tragic will cause suffering, but pain experienced while working for some greater good will likely be bearable, and may even bring joy, such as that felt by a new mother in giving birth.

Compassion, Attention and Gratitude

Miller's recipe for happiness uses cognitive psychology to change the way we think. Miller says it is based on four principles:

Miller recommends that one apply the methods of cognitive psychology to the constant practice of Compassion, Attention and Gratitude. At first these will be difficult, and will have to be practiced overtly consciously, but as new thought habits take hold, they will come to feel natural.

Miller says:

Compassion is the intention to think and act as if you are no more entitled to get what you want than anyone else is.

He points out that thinking poorly of other people is just another way of thinking that you are more entitled to get what you want than other people are.

Compassion is not easy to practice. It is easy to find examples of offensive people who would seem less deserving than you are.

The cognitive approach to practicing Compassion is to identify habitual thoughts that need to change, to find new thoughts to substitute for the old ones, to continually substitute the new thoughts for the old, and to behave in a way that's consistent with the new thoughts.

Miller says of Attention:

Whatever you feel, feel it completely, without reservation. Whatever you see, see it completely, without reservation. Whatever you touch, touch it completely, without reservation. Whatever you hear, hear it completely, without reservation. Whatever you say, say it completely, without reservation. If you are hot, be completely hot, without reservation. If you are cold, be completely cold, without reservation. In other words, pay Attention!

To Be Continued...

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