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In The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, Emma Seppälä argues that happiness is the key to fast tracking our professional and personal success.

She uses the latest research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. She studies the science of happiness. She is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

You were probably taught that getting ahead means doing everything that’s hits you and being focused and being disciplined. All that comes from drive and talents and all that happens along with lots of stress.

Maybe not.

Seppala posits that success means finding happiness and fulfillment. Finding happiness may actually be the most productive thing you can do to thrive professionally. Looking at happiness, but also at resilience, willpower, compassion, mindfulness, positive stress and creativity.


Six Common Myths of Success
By Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track

Theories of success permeate our culture. They are ingrained in us from the time we attend elementary school (“Don’t daydream!,” “Focus!,” “Work harder!”). But while these theories are widely popular, they are, in fact, incredibly flawed. Here are the six major false theories that drive our current notions of success:

1. Never Stop Accomplishing: To achieve more and stay competitive, you’ve got to quickly move from one to-do to another, always keeping an eye on what’s next.

2. You Can’t Have Success Without Stress: Stress is inevitable if you want success. Living in overdrive is the inescapable byproduct of a fast-paced life.

3. Persevere At All Costs: Spend every drop of mental energy you have to stay on task despite distractions and temptations.

4. Focus On Your Own Niche: By focusing narrowly on your field and becoming an expert in it, you’ll know how to best solve its problems.

5. Play To Your Strengths: Align your work with your talents. Do what you do best and stay away from your weaknesses.

6. Look Out For #1: Look out only for yourself and your interests so you can successfully outperform the competition.



What does happiness look like in your brain?

This little video shows molecules of the protein myosin dragging a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex. That produces feelings of happiness.

Or so it said online.

The creator of the animation John Liebler who says it is the motor protein kinesin transporting intracellular material along a microtubule.

I don’t know what it is, but the thought of this little walk happening in my brain makes me smile.

I watch this film at least once a year. I’m sure there are people who think of this film – seen or unseen – as “just another Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy.” I really believe it is far more profound than you would think at a glance. I don’t know that the filmmakers’ intended all of that, but it’s there.

A. O. Scott in The NY Times did a re-review of this existential comedy this past week (watch his video review) and that was enough to send me to the shelf this weekend to watch Groundhog Day again.

I am not crazy in my belief that’s there’s more here than meets the viewing eye. Do a search on “Groundhog Day” and add something like philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, etc. and you’ll get plenty of hits of others who feel the same way.

Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) has said that he gets mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film , and use it in sermons, talks and classes. In Buddhism classes, it is often used to illustrate the cycle of continual rebirth.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s some background: Bill Murray plays a self-centered, cranky TV meteorologist named Phil who gets sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He is joined by his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). He does a going-through-the-motions report. When they try to drive back to Pittsburgh, they are stopped by a blizzard (which he had predicted would miss the area) that shuts down the highways and they are forced to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up at 6 AM and discovers that it is February 2 all over again. The day runs the same as it did before, but no one else seems to be aware of the time loop. And it happens again the next time he wakes up – and the next time and so on (38 times by my count).

He realizes that he can use this to his advantage and begins to learn more about the townsfolk. He ‘s hardly noble. He seduces women, steals money, drives drunk and tries to put the moves on Rita (that last one fails).

But this power he has eventually bores and depresses him. He tries to break the cycle and files mean TV reports, abuses residents, kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. Finally, he attempts suicide, but still ends up waking up to the clock radio playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (Give a listen.)

Each time I re-watch the film, I think about another aspect of it. I keep thinking that some day I am going to teach this film in a course.

One scene has Phil dead in the morgue. Rita and Larry are there to identify his body. Is any of these retakes on the day affecting the others?  They don’t seem to remember the alternates takes, but…

A few years ago, I watched it and it led me to explore other movies and writings that play with time loops. There are a lot of them.

One day Phil is in the bowling alley. He asks two guys drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

Are some of us leading a kind of Groundhog Day existence for real?

Other writers online have gotten far more serious in their explorations of the film than me.

This is from

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked
and from comes some discussions about the film like this:

I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. After watching it for the ninth or tenth time specifically to find where the third act begins, I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.

Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”

Why did the writers use February 2, Groundhog Day, as the setting? I think because it’s such a nothing “holiday.” It has no religious connections, no cards, no gifts and very little tradition. And yet, it’s not just an ordinary day. The first time I saw the film (wow, almost 17 years ago), I thought that he would relive the day for 6 more weeks of winter. Later, I thought about the day and decided there was something about the end of winter, spring and rebirth going on in the story.

In this piece from 2003, the author suggests that we consider the film as a tale of self-improvement which:
“…emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”
Want to have a viewing group (which I would prefer to a reading group these days) and show the film?  Check out the discussion questions on this philosophy site.

The original idea for the story was supposed to have come from the book The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom) by Friedrich Nietzsche. In that book, Nietzsche gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again.

The writer of the original script, Danny Rubin, said that one of the inspirational moments in the creation of the story came after reading Interview With the Vampire which got him thinking about what it would be like to live forever. Rubin and Ramis have both said that they avoided exploring the really dark side of Phil’s time looping in which he could done some horrible things without consequence, like murder.

And, as a capper to this love letter to the film, I have to add that the film is also funny and sweet. Funny is no surprise. Murray and Ramis teamed up for the film Stripes which is a great, silly comedy that I also love, and that has no philosophy or religious themes at all.

The sweetness is all Hollywood. Phil does learn lessons. He befriends many of the townsfolk that he had mocked. He uses his knowledge to try to save lives and help people. And he finally knows how to treat Rita. His final TV report is a beauty that puts everyone in tears. The  next morning he wakes and finds the circle broken.

When the clock clicks over to 6 AM for you in the morning, what kind of day are you planning to make it?

I realize that the study of koans is correctly connected to the study of Buddhism and is serious study. I have been posting some of these small stories and aphorisms that are used to teach and explicate. I never meant them to be an introduction to the study of Buddhism or even meditation. But they might be the introduction to that study for some people.

Similarly, I don’t think that when Gretchen Rubin wrote her book, The Happiness Project:, it was her intent to study koans.

I read online that Rubin was riding a city bus when she had an “epiphany.” “The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.”

She decided to give a year to a happiness project. the subtitle of her book gives you an idea of her approach:  “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”

I first saw the book on the “New Books” shelf at my local library. I flipped through the book and then checked it out because I could tell that her project involved trying some of the wisdom from the past as well as current research, while not ignoring popular culture. It is not approach that will get you attention from “serious” seekers, but it is probably closer to where most people are in their lives.

Some of the things that she decides are worth pursuing are worth pursuing: a source of happiness can be the introducing more novelty and challenge into our lives. Some suggestions are already well know – money can help buy happiness – with a caveat, when that money is spent wisely.

I found ideas that I had already accepted myself. For example, the physical world and the peace and order of it contributes to your inner calm – or  lack thereof.

She also came to believe that small changes often make the biggest differences. Like a little koan.

Rubin posted online that she has looked at some classic koans and some non-Buddhist aphorisms that can be used in your own koan project as small teaching moments.

Two monks were arguing about a flag.
One said, “The flag is moving.”
The other said, “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.

That is a classic koan. I have observed the shimmer of trees and realized that it was not the trees and not the wind. It was my mind.

What do I mean by that? I am not able to tell you.

I have collected some aphorisms myself, including some I think of as “American koans.”  Here are some of the aphorisms Rubin found that might be part of your own happiness, or koan, project.

Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”

Francis Bacon and Heraclitus: “Dry light is ever the best.”

T. S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”

Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

Diana Vreeland: “The eye has to travel.”

Gertrude Stein “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.”

G. K. Chesterton. ‘It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.’”

Mindfulness is a frequent tag on posts from this blog, but what do I mean by that word? It’s a word that probably suggests religion, meditation, attention and certain practices depending on your own experiences.

Mindfulness is certainly central in the teaching of Buddhist meditation. Correct or right mindfulness is the critical factor in the path to liberation and enlightenment.

It is a calm awareness of your body functions, feelings, and consciousness. It is focused attention. It is an open awareness.

In the Āgamas of early Buddhism, there are ten forms of mindfulness. The first five seem religious in nature: the mindfulness of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Saṃgha, of giving, and of the heavens.

But the next five seem to be more accessible to everyone no matter what religious beliefs you have or don’t have. They are the mindfulness of stopping and resting, of discipline, of breathing, of the body and of death.

The words mindful and mindfulness have become so widely used that, like “Zen,” they have lost some of their original meaning. That’s why you’ll find webpages on mindful running and the Zen of golf.

But mindfulness as a practice can be found in work and activities. Maybe it’s a good thing that mindfulness has crossed over to everyday practices.

When I am writing or weeding the garden, I try to be mindful of my breath, the stops, the rests, my body. I won’t claim that it’s a spiritual practice, but it does go beyond the activity itself.

That’s not meant to trivialize the more serious practices of mindfulness.  Listen to Jon Kabat-Zinn lead a session on mindfulness in a talk at the Google campus. He talks about teaching mindfulness to the U.S. Rowing Team. He also makes the interesting observation that they compete sitting down, focused and going backwards.

I’ve seen articles about mindfulness and physics. Is light is a particle or a wave? The conclusion seems to be that it is both, which is a nice example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true. The answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.

Billy Collins‘ poem “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” puts the Buddha in an unlikely place, doing an unlikely thing.

…But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio…

The Buddha’s mindfulness while shoveling snow is what we might commonly say is “throwing yourself into your work” or “being in the moment.”

And mindfulness has moved into psychology where the self-regulated attention involves conscious awareness. This turning inward to one’s current thoughts, feelings, and surroundings is a metacognitive skills for controlling concentration.

Although Buddhist meditation techniques originated as spiritual practices, they have a long history of secular applications.

Further Reading

Feel like you’re stuck on a treadmill? We’ve all heard that metaphor used. The lousy economic situation the past year probably has caused a lot more of that feeling.

Of course, it’s a purely metaphoric treadmill. Or is it?

Ever heard of the hedonic treadmill? I think a lot of us are actually running on that one.

It’s an economic concept, but I think it has more to do with philosophy than economics if you are stuck on it.  And  it affects your happiness.

The hedonic treadmill is a way to describe the tendency of people to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite changes in their fortune.

You make more money. You get more things. But your expectations and your desires also increase because of that.  The result is that there is no permanent gain in your happiness.

We always hear that rich people are no happier than poor people. Winning the lottery won’t solve all your problems.

But it’s a treadmill because not only won’t the money buy happiness, but our pursuit of wealth as a way to reach a happy state  is futile.  You keep working hard just to stay in place.

There’s serious study of  this.  Brickman and Campbell coined the term in an essay, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” back in 1971 and others have studied it.  But it’s simple enough for anyone to understand.

Our situation and income changes and our life goals change. But happiness, for most people,  is a relatively constant state.  That’s what the research shows. Regardless of how good things get,  people always report about the same level of happiness.

In fact, another theory (the Easterlin paradox) states that rich people describe themselves as happier than poor people within a given country, but (once basic biological needs are met) rich countries are not happier overall than poor ones.

What are our options? I’ve written here before about the pursuit of happiness, but to jump off this treadmill there seem to be relatively few options.

In theory, if you make it a practice to constantly try new things, you’re less likely to acclimate, and you will be happier.

A less theoretical approach is to do what we all know is the best way off the treadmill: set as your life goals family, friends and long term projects that give you pleasure regardless of whether they bring in any income.

And watch the others run.

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