01.05.2011

Deeper Rewards

Contentment is found in the present moment rather than chasing passing desires
The modern world says we can have it all now, while the wiser mind finds joy in the seeking and finding, says Eric Harrison

Happiness is overrated. The more intense it is, the better it feels - but it comes at a price. The student who binge drinks or indulges in reckless sex on the weekends is far more likely to have tastes of ecstatic happiness than the student who gets his assignments in regularly on Monday mornings.

The first student will experience pure happiness (and its aftermath), while the second, fighting the usual evils of procrastination and boredom, can only hope for a degree of contentment. It is obvious, however, that the satisfaction that comes from work done well, and the discipline to keep doing it, is a much better long term investment than the pursuit of instant happiness.

Happiness is a characteristic of the young. We need children, birds and puppies to remind us what unalloyed happiness is like. A mother's mind will empathetically mirror her child's delight, but her happiness will not be as pure as his. Happiness needs to be "alloyed" - to be part of a mixture with other good qualities to be strong.

Copper on its own is too soft to be useful, but alloyed with tin it produced bronze for tools and weapons.

Similarly, happiness in an alloy with reason, and with at least a few drops of sadness, fear and love, can produce contentment, which is a far more durable substance.

Happiness, although transient, lives in the present moment, which is its great virtue. We can always enjoy some degree of happiness if we exploit the possibilities inherent in any ordinary day. Wisdom or reason, on the other hand, means knowing what has happened in the past and what could happen in the future. Lion cubs can be fearlessly happy in their ignorance of predators, rogue males, climate and food supply. Their wise watchful mothers, though, carry the memories of what happened to their previous litters. They know the odds for the survival of this latest batch of cubs.

Happiness typically comes from being in the right place and the right time. Good weather, physical energy, leisure and the right state of mind also help a lot. Given that happiness is naturally transient, these factors only need to come together for a few minutes or hours for a great experience. Even a few perfect seconds here and there, and the capacity to enjoy them, is a blessing. There is no reason why most of us can't have flashes of deep happiness within our usual plodding days. The horror of profound depression is that those redeeming moments, and even the memory of what they were like, have utterly vanished from consciousness.

Happiness tends to fall into our laps, like a gift of grace from the gods. Even if we work to maximise it, we often seem to get far more than we deserve. Contentment, however, is not a matter of good fortune or chance. It relates more to character, self control and the achievement of goals. It comes from what we still manage to do against the inertia of our character faults and the innumerable temptations to stray from our intentions.

Contentment takes effort: it comes from what we do. As Anthony Trollope said, "I can conceive of no contentment of which toil is not the immediate parent."

Trollope also said, "As to that leisure evening of life, I must say that I do not want it." I agree with him when I see the advertisements for retirement villages. Endless summer afternoons in soft focus on the bowling green is not my idea of happiness. It takes constant stimulation and mental challenges to maintain the vigour of our brain cells. If we live beyond 85 years and become part of the "old old", about half of us will suffer some degree of dementia.

Some of this is an unavoidable consequence of ageing, but much of it is voluntary. We need to constantly stretch our minds beyond their comfort zone, at whatever age, for good mental health. If individual brain cells are not stimulated, they gradually lose their rich network of family connections and become, to use an appropriate technical term, "depressed". We can't just rest on our laurels and our superannuation and hope to be happy. We are much more likely to shuffle down into a blurry mediocrity or worse.

We can be happy in a flash, according to the media and the advertisers. Food, sex or self righteous anger will all do the trick. Apparently, it also helps to talk fast and loud, and to run and jump, if you still can. Shopping and flaunting their purchases obviously makes the Sex and the City women deliriously happy, far more so than their sexual encounters or their careers.

We invariably associate happiness with big spending and high energy consumption, and we all get sucked along with this ideology. Teenagers with their first credit card commonly mistake credit for capital, and even the world's bankers bought into this childish error. The inclination to regard debt as equity is what caused the Global Financial Crisis. This incontinent lack of self control, and the quasi-religious belief that overspending is sacred and vital for the economy, is what persuaded governments worldwide to bail out the banks. With a tiny fraction of that money, they could have bailed out the earth and staved off global warming. Unfortunately, they had other priorities.

Indulging our impulses can give us flashes of happiness, but self control, the ability to restrain our impulses, is a much clearer marker for a healthy, happy life. There have now been decades of study, going back to the 1950s, on variants of the famous "Marshmallow test". In its classic form, a child is given the option of having one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later if he waits until the interviewer returns. This tests to see if children can delay gratification in return for a greater reward later. Many of these children were studied for years afterwards to see how their levels of self control played out in later life.

The results showed that self control wins hands down over immediate gratification. The "Marshmallow Now" kids had less academic and professional success, were more antisocial, more prone to drug abuse, risky sex and criminal behaviour, and they were fatter. Not surprisingly, the kids capable of delaying gratification were the opposite. They were also more ambitious and positive in their expectations. They could see how success came, not from luck or good fortune, but mostly from their own efforts and their ability to resist the temptation to get sidetracked.

The virtue of hard work and delayed gratification as a recipe for happiness is very unfashionable nowadays.

"Life is short," we are told. "You can have it all now. Just reach out and take what you justly deserve." It now seems very odd to save up until you can pay for something outright, as our grandparents did. And why would you spend years training in a skill or a trade if the bank will loan you a million dollars anyway?

Self control and discipline are the hard currency of contentment, but they can still be taken too far. Delayed gratification is not a goal in itself. Its purpose is that we get a much bigger reward later, and we shouldn't forget that. Contentment is a very rational skill. It comes from doing the right thing to the right degree at the right time. When it is time to work, we work, but when it is time to party, we party. Ulysses, alone out of all his crew, had the cunning and dogged determination to make it home to Ithaca. But he also indulged himself for years with the goddess Calypso on the way. You don't pass up a chance like that.

There are simpler routes to contentment than self discipline and effort. The most obvious is to be content with what we've got, and to give up those of our cherished dreams that are frankly impossible. I always wanted to own a house with a big backyard in walking distance from all amenities. That dream is now dead and buried, but it still niggles.

Most of us would like to be richer, healthier, more successful or more skilled than we are. We can also see, in our lucid moments, that for a multiplicity of reasons it is not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever. If we accept this, we can be happy. If we don't, we are likely to be perpetually ill at ease and dissatisfied.

Contentment is about being happy with our lot, with what life has allocated to us, imperfect as it is. It is about accepting that this is as far as we are likely to get, and it is actually more than enough. It can still be hard to truly appreciate this. Most of us now live like gods, in terms of the resources available to us. Most of us have achieved a degree of luxury and safety that would have been unimaginable 50 or a hundred years ago, but habit makes us blind. It seems part of human nature that we tend to hanker after images or memories of perfect happiness and ignore the more humble possibilities at our feet.

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