One thing I’ve noticed about people over many years, is that the ones who seem happiest, seem happiest no matter what happens to them, good or bad. I’ve seen severe injury and devastating failure happen to them, and terrible tragedy of many kinds. They persistently focus on the good, and on others instead of themselves. They also remain humble and energetic in the face of success. These people handle both failure and success well. They respond to good luck and misfortune equally with positive action to make the most of each, learn the most from each, and be grateful for what they have. These are not people who fake a smile to appear like everything’s great. When they smile at you, you know it’s genuine.
Other people I’ve known over many years, who are easily frustrated, complain about life no matter what happens to them, good or bad. If nothing bad happens, they invent excuses to snap at others and seek sympathy at the same time. A little trouble generates a lot of bitterness. A little success breeds a lot of gloating and laziness. They handle both failure and success poorly. They don’t benefit from experience. When these people put on a smile, it is usually transparently forced from external expectation.
These observations led me to thinking about the relationship between happiness and an active mind. I think there is a strong correlation. Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, is adamant about happiness from activity: “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action” (Puck, Volumes 15-16). I think that goes for both mental and physical action. Leave it to Aristotle to put it most simply: “Happiness is a state of activity.”
Active minds process incoming events and data more effectively. That in itself should lead to healthier brain-chemical reactions. It is so simple, it becomes a matter of statistical predictability: “if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world” (Shawn Achor. “The Happy Secret to Better Work” Ted Talk. February, 2012).
Some old sages, Martha Washington for example, say it’s pure disposition: “for I have also learnt, from experience, that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us, in our minds, wheresoever we go” (Letter to Mercy Warren 1789).
Self-help shelves are loaded with books to make you happy. You can read the rest of your life on how to be happy and die with 10,000 books yet to read. But if it’s all a matter of inherited brain-configuration, it begs the question: Is the “happiness” segment of the self-help industry wrong? If it’s inherited, and it’s not working well, can you fix it? Marcus Aurelius thought it was quite an easy proposition: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
In my opinion you can change habits of thought and behavior if you want to. It may be harder if you feel you were born with difficulty experiencing satisfaction or fulfillment in any circumstances. If your default responses are either gloating or lashing out, you have a harder road to travel to find anything rewarding in this life. That’s a wall, and you have to find a way to break through it. I believe it is a wall between a more passive mind versus a more active mind. In this case, I certainly advocate taking the hard road to improve your chances of happiness. The root of the remedy may be in developing a more active-minded approach to everything.
In closing, I like FDR’s take on the subject: