The Happy Skeptic

These days when we call someone "a skeptic" it has, many times, a pejorative ring. That guy doesn't believe in, or stand for, anything, we're implying. So, it may come as a surprise to many, that Skepticism is a legitimate philosophical school and purportedly a path to happiness.

Pyrrho (360-270 BC) is considered by most to be the first philosopher of Skepticism. After examining the propositions of all the major philosophical theories of his day, and comparing them one against another, he found it impossible to determine which one(s) were true or correct and which ones were false or incorrect. Pyrrho then took it a step farther when he asserted that we cannot really know the inner substance or truth of anything, we can only know its appearance. In other words, he advocated a sort of ancient phenomenological approach. You can know when you're hungry or horny, but you can't know whether the claims made by any philosophies or religions are true or not.

What does all this have to do with happiness? Alot. Basically, Pyrrho contended that the best way to live, the way to be truly happy, is to give up ideas, theories, etc., and simply to suspend judgement and live in a state of "ataraxia," i.e., freedom from worry. Sextus Empiricus, the author of Outlines of Pyrrhoism, the best account of Pyrrho's skeptical philosophy says, " By suspending judgement, by confining oneself to phenomena or objects as they appear, and by asserting nothing definite as to how they really are, one can escape the perplexities of life and attain an imperturbable state of mind."

Pyrrho is like an ancient Greek Bobby McFerrin. "Don't worry, be happy he says." But he goes a bit further than Bobby when he says, "And don't go claiming that certain ideas or belief systems are either true or false." Thus he was the first advocate of "noncognitivism" which tell us that we can't know truth cognitively, so quit asserting, arguing and fighting about it -- whether that disagreement be in the halls of academe, in the pulpit or on the battlefield! His ideal of a peaceful, stress-free life that comes when we give up meaningless judgments is often compared with the ideal life advocated by the Stoics and Epicureans, and even to enlightenment as discussed by certain schools of Buddhism.

Living in a state of "knowledgeable ignorance" is different than just being dumb as a stump. It is based on reasoning and understanding, rather than naivete or limited mental capacity. The true Skeptic says since we really can't know the ultimate truth of anything, let's just quit arguing, live simply, and enjoy life. Sounds like a good plan to me!

Haiti & Happiness

When disaster strikes others, we, at times, begin to feel guilty about our own happiness. Even if we cannot do anything to directly alleviate their suffering, we operate under the erroneous assumption that we should at least suffer along with them. As if adding more suffering to the world is somehow a noble and good thing!

I'm not suggesting that we should be cold, callous and cavalier when faced with the suffering of others. By all means, do whatever you can to ease their pain. And, if you believe it will do any good, pray, send healing energy their way, or sacrifice chickens. It can't hurt anything, except perhaps the chickens.

But the most powerful thing that all of us can do, regardless of our competing beliefs, is encourage and maintain happiness in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. Happiness allows us to access the best within us. It helps keep us healthy, creative, and full of life. And it is in that condition that we truly can be the most help.

It is not disrespectful to be happy when others are sad; it is disrespectful to the Universe not to be. We have so many blessings, the only appropriate and intelligent response is gratitude, joy and appreciation. Increasing the overall level of happiness in the world is always a good thing. It empowers us and others and makes all of us more capable of relieving suffering in whatever small ways we can.

So, don't let your emotions be controlled by external events. Choose happiness. In good times, you may not even have to choose it, it blossoms naturally. But in trying times, in times of trauma, disaster and distress, you must step up to the plate and consciously choose to be happy. Otherwise, you fall victim to a general malaise that sets in when people feel powerless to influence their own lives, powerless to promote positive change.

You always have power -- the power to be happy, and the power to share that happiness with others. You are not able to directly help someone trapped beneath the rubble in Port au Prince, but that does not mean you should sink into despair and turn your back on the people you can help right here, right now.

Tragedy is by definition a terrible thing. We don't need to compound it by victimizing ourselves through abdicating our power. We can make a difference, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. And it all begins within. It all begins with choosing happiness again and again and again. And moving forward with a smile in your eyes.

Does Your Job Make You Happy?

A new survey by The Conference Board just came out, and job satisfaction here in the U.S. is at an all-time low. Less than half, a mere 45%, of workers say that they are satisfied with their jobs. In 1987 when The Conference Board began their survey 61% of workers expressed job satisfaction. In the ensuing 22 years, what's happened?

Well, perhaps the number one factor is the continuing economic recession. While you might think that most people would be happy just to have a job, that's not the case. Because so many people have been laid off, downsized, or screwed (whatever euphemism you care to use), by there employers, there are even more under-employed workers than there are unemployed. The under-employed are doing jobs for which they are over-qualified, and which hold little challenge, and lower pay. Hence, rampant dissatisfaction.

In the inaugural 1987 survey, nearly 70% of those surveyed said that their work was interesting. This year, barely more than half, 51%, said they found work interesting. No interest = no happiness.

Furthermore all other measures of job satisfaction decreased both from 1987 levels. These include feeling secure in their job (59>47%), liking their co-workers (69>57%), satisfied with their commute (63>56%), and satisfied with their boss (60>51%).

The overall picture is grim -- about half the workers in America don't like what they spend most of their time doing! If you're one of those millions upon millions, what can you do about it?

1) Follow your passion. Don't like what you're doing? Find out what you do like. No, don't find what you "like," find what you love! What gets you completely jazzed? What makes your heart sing? Where does your energy want to go? I'm not saying that you should just walk in tomorrow and quit your job. Listen to the voice of experience: I've done the quit and run routine (numerous times), and it makes for sort of a bumpy landing! No, explore your passion, develop the skills necessary, and keep your eyes open for possibilities to turn passion into profit. I've done that, too, and it can make the transition amazingly smooth. When the time is right to make the leap, you'll know it. And your old, unsatisfying job will be just another line on your resume.

2) Gut it out. For a whole variety of reasons, leaving your job and following your passion may not be feasible right now. So, buck up, Skippy, and do what you need to do at work, and then concentrate the majority of your time and energy on making the rest of your life more fulfilling and exciting. Your job sucks, but your friends and family may be absolutely first rate. You may have a killer hobby (i.e. passion) that brings you untold hours of happiness. You may create an amazing, happy life in which your job is just a small dark corner. And while this may not be ideal, it may be the best you can do ... for now.

3) Be on a constant job hunt. If even strategy number two won't give you the temporary quality of life that you need, devote as much time as possible to finding your next, more fulfilling, job. Make it a game. The Great Freakin' Job Hunt Game! Brainstorm ways in which you can use your present job as a stepping stone to your next position, either inside or outside the company you work for now. Network incessantly. Read the classifieds everyday, search Internet job sites, talk with friends, join your college alumni association -- there are more ways to look for jobs than there are hours in the day. And remember: Reward yourself for incremental steps. Don't wait until you have the perfect position to celebrate -- find joy in every small accomplishment.

4) Make your current job better. Impossible, you say. Not really. If the work itself bores you to tears, can you do it in a new, more interesting way. If not, what else is there about your job that you can change to make yourself happier? Or, what is there about your job, besides the work itself, that you can gain satisfaction from. Can you develop true friendships with some of your co-workers? Can you maximize the perks, so that it softens the pain of the daily grind? Can you find the gallows humor in your grim situation? Can you steal enough pens to start an office supply business online?

5) Appreciate what you've got. Back to a happiness strategy that we've talked about on numerous occasions -- gratitude. At least you've got a job! And you're probably not cleaning turds out of toilets either. And no matter how crappy your job is, you don't have nearly the stress that President Obama has with his. And then look at the rest of your life. My bet is that you've got a lot to be thankful for. If you can't change it right now, accept it, appreciate it, and you will be in a much more powerful position to initiate positive change in the near future.

So, the bad news is that most people aren't satisfied with their work, don't like their jobs. The good news is that they don't have to wallow in dissatisfaction. In this crazy life, change is truly the only constant. And happiness always begins within, with the decision to change your mind, change your behavior, change your life.

Are you one of the folks who can't stand their job? I currently have three openings in my life coaching practice, and your initial consultation is FREE! Just give me a call at 574/532-9288, or email me at to find out more.

The BIG Three

In our search for happiness there are  whole slew of factors that we can take into account -- health, relationships, work, attitude, environment, religion, and many more. But what if you just want the quick and easy, Cliff's Notes version of happiness? Simple: Start with three questions:

1) What do I want to do?
2) Who do I want to do it with?
3) Where do I want to do it?

If you can come up with clear and comprehensive answers to these three questions, you are well on your way to creating a fulfilling, exciting, happy life.

1) What do you want to do? First and foremost, this question gets at your vocation, your calling in life. What makes your heart sing? What sets your soul on fire? It's probably best not to answer this question with a job title or traditional career name. "I want to be an architect," is not enough. What do you really love to do? What actions, activities, behaviors, etc. do you find both challenging and fulfilling? Carry this beyond work and into all of your life. Make your bucket list. What do you want to do before you die? What mountains (literal or metaphorical) do you want to climb? What things would you like to do just for the hell of it? Brainstorm the entire spectrum from the most sublime to the most ridiculous. Then, make sure that you do at least some of the things you love to do each day. And begin to design your life so that you can add more and more of these activities on a day-to-day basis.

2) Who do you want to do it with? Who do you want to spend your minutes, hours and days with? Family (maybe), friends, spouses, partners, lovers, colleagues -- who are the people around whom you feel most energized and alive? If your days are spent filled with people who don't make your preferred companions list, time to get busy re-designing your life to include more and more of the people who are most important to you. And, of course, remember to stay open to the fantastic new people who are just waiting to enter your world!

3) Where do you want to do it? Where in the world do you want to live? In what type of climate, environs, ecosystem, etc. do you feel most supported? In what kind of mini-environment do you want to work? What type of workspace gives you the best opportunity to be all that you can be, and have fun doing it?

By exploring and answering The BIG Three, you are looking at the holy trinity of happiness factors -- work, relationships and environment. Many of us spend more time working than any other single activity in our lives, with the possible exception of sleeping. If you're not happy in your work, you will not have an overall happy life. Period. 

More and more scientific studies and surveys are discovering that relationships are the single most important component of happiness. If you do not have enjoyable, interesting, loving relationships, even if you like your work, you will not be truly happy. 

Finally, environment can impact your happiness, like it or not. If you are stressed by the noise, pollution, dirt, bad weather, etc. in your environment then it's much harder to feel relaxed and happy. Your environment may never be perfect, and attempting to make it so may even be counterproductive, but you can make it better simply by the choices you make. 

So, here's a great way to end 2009 -- do a Happiness Audit. Ask yourself The BIG Three. Write down your answers. Then begin to brainstorm a list of possible actions you can take in 2010 to do more of what you love, spend more time with people you love, and create and discover more environments that you love. Post the list on your refrigerator, above your desk, or in another location where it is readily visible, and add to it whenever a new idea pops into your head. There it is, right before your very eyes -- your simple blueprint to a fantastically happy new year!

Five Happiness Traps

You think you know what it takes to find happiness. Just follow the yellow brick road, right? Not so fast! The road to happiness is riddled with sinkholes, traps, and dead ends according to Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth, authors of What Happy People Know. Specifically they enumerate Five Happiness Traps:

1) Trying to buy happiness
2) Trying to find happiness through pleasure
3) Trying to be happy by resolving the past
4) Trying to be happy by overcoming weakness
5) Trying to force happiness

While they spend much more time explaining trap number one than any of the others, we've already explored it a few times on this blog, so here's a quick and dirty synopsis of each trap. Just enough information so you'll know them when you see them and hopefully avoid them like the H1N1 virus!

1) Trying to buy happiness is a futile and misguided endeavor. As we've explained before, once you rise above the poverty level each increase in income produces a smaller and smaller corresponding  rise in happiness. Still, many of us persist in believing the more money = more happiness equation. Or, as was said back in the 80's, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." What they win, though, is usually a miserable, shallow life! In a large survey 89% of Americans expressed the opinion that the U.S., as a whole, is "far too materialistic." Ironically, approximately the same percentage said they'd really like to have more! As the authors advise, "Financial security is fine. But it's not the path to happiness."

2) Trying to find happiness through pleasure is another dead end street. Sure, everyone wants some pleasure in their life, but maxing out on pleasure does not equal maximum happiness. What happens is that you become accustomed to whatever level of pleasure you experience, and the amount of stimulus it takes to make you happy starts to rise. You end up on what researchers call  "the hedonic treadmill," chasing pleasure faster and faster but with less and less resulting happiness.

3) Trying to be happy by resolving the past is the path of traditional clinical psychology. According to this school of thought remembering and reprocessing past trauma will free you from it, and you will automatically become happier. There are only three problems with his approach -- it takes a long time, it's very costly, and it doesn't work! Mere talk and processing don't produce happiness; action and transcendence do. Moving forward, not moving backwards is the way to be happy. As Baker and Stauth say, "Your powers of intellect and spirit can create new meanings out of old memories."

4) Trying to be happy by overcoming weakness is the standard self-help approach, but this attempt, too, is ill conceived and ineffective. Working with your weaknesses is painful. Working with your strengths is fun. Which would you rather do? Trying to fix weaknesses is reactive; building upon your strengths is proactive. Finally, whatever you focus upon expands. Focusing upon your weaknesses in  fact pours energy into them. Focusing upon your strengths makes you stronger and more powerful, and then you are even more capable of building a joyous,  happy life.

5) Trying to force happiness is totally unnecessary and counterproductive. As the old Zen saying goes, "don't push the river, it flows by itself."Simple physics tells us that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Chase happiness and it runs away; try and force happiness, and it resists. The authors have identified 12 qualities of happiness on which you should put your attention. Develop these qualities, and happiness is the inevitable result. 

But whoa, twelve qualities sounds like a lot! Better leave those for another day. For today, just familiarize yourself with the Five Happiness Traps and don't be seduced by them. Appreciate what you have, enjoy simple pleasures, be present-centered, enjoy your strengths, and let the happiness flow! 

Why Aren't We Happier?

Why aren't we happier? In comparison to the rest of the known universe we've got it pretty damn good. With a cursory glance, you'd think we'd a be happy all the time, all the time... but we're not.

Happiness researchers tell us that on the whole people are no happier now than they were 50 years ago, even though we make alot more money, our homes are way bigger, crime rates are lower, the air is cleaner, and our overall quality of life is better. What gives?

Well, believe it or not, happiness takes work. Mere consumption will never make us happy. As I've reported in previous posts, money only buys happiness if it is buying your way out of poverty. Beyond that, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in, and every increase in income produces a smaller and smaller rise in happiness or well being.

So what does produce happiness? Conscious actions that are well within your control. Here are some of them:

* Flow experiences
* Counting your blessings
* Random acts of kindness
* Forgiveness
* Enjoying small pleasures
* Taking care of your health
* Building strong relationships

1) Flow experiences are those times when you're truly in the zone, when what you're doing is so engaging that you are totally absorbed by it, and you completely lose track of time. Flow is brought on by your willing engagement in creative challenges that inspire you and require you to do your best. Watching football in your Lazy Boy Recliner ain't going to put you in flow! Flow comes from doing what you love to do at the highest level you can possibly do it. It's the ultimate fun.

2) Counting your blessings has nothing to do with resting on your laurels or being smug. It has everything to do with realizing what a great life you have -- full of wonderful people, exciting opportunities, natural beauty, and unlimited grace. The secret is in writing down the things you are grateful for -- at least five a day. Research finds that by noting what you are thankful for, you actually become happier! Are you the high tech type? Then throw away the diary and chart your gratitudes online at

3)  Random acts of kindness are a great way of letting the inherent goodness of life pulse through you. And, lo and behold, doing something nice for somebody else makes you happier, too! Who'd have thunk it? Maybe there really is something to that "it's more blessed to give than receive" stuff. Don't overanalyze it, just do it. Be spontaneous and let the random acts be truly random -- no ulterior motives, no paybacks.

4) Forgiveness is not just some goody two shoes way to be, it's pure common sense. We all fuck up. We all need forgiveness. It's as simple as that. And we all need to forgive others as much as we need them to forgive us. People who forgive, who get over it and let it go, are much happier than people who hang onto old hurts, slights, and animosities. You aren't hurting others by not forgiving, you're hurting yourself. Be big in both heart and mind -- forgive.

5) Enjoying small pleasures it turns out is more critical to your happiness than chasing peak experiences. Sure it's nice to go on an incredible vacation every now and then or have a once in a lifetime adventure, but enjoyment on a day-to-day basis actually adds much more to your overall sense of well being. Small pleasures are all around you, but they are different for everyone. Be a happiness detective and find the mini-moments of happiness that are hidden in your life.

6) Taking care of your health may not actually make you that happy, but it will give you the capacity to enjoy life longer and more fully, and in that way experience more happiness. It's much harder to be happy when you're infirm, sick, run down, or completely out of shape. 

7) Building strong relationships is fun in and of itself. Maintaining those relationships is, for most people, a great source of happiness. You talk and laugh and eat and drink together. You partake in activities that both of you enjoy. You reminisce about the past, plan for the future, and enjoy the present together. For many people, relationships are the number one source of happiness!

Why aren't we happier? Because we don't consciously do these seven things. We float along waiting for the economy to improve, the weather to get better, or our favorite sports team to win, and we don't take responsibility for own happiness. Gregg Easterbrook author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, puts it this way: "It requires some effort to achieve a happy outlook on life, and most people don't make it. Most people take the path of least resistance."

But not you! No reason for you to be a "least resister." You can undertake the effort required to create happier life, a happier you. Get started now. The Lazy Boy Recliner won't even miss you.

Happiness Rituals

Athletes have performance rituals, musicians have pre-performance rituals, churches have ceremonial rituals, so why shouldn't you have Happiness Rituals? Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier, thinks you, me, and all God's children should.  Ben-Shahar defines a Happiness Ritual as any repetitive act that makes you happier -- happier both in the moment and in the long term. So, eating a whole chocolate cake, consuming an entire 12 pack of Bud, or any other sort of over-indulgence is not quite what he has in mind.

What he does have in mind are things like yoga, walking, meditation, journaling, a date with your spouse or partner once a week, etc. Things that may require a bit of effort at first but which produce positive results almost immediately, and on an ongoing basis. To make the activity into a ritual, though, you must do it on a regular basis for at least 30 days. That's how long psychologists tell us it take to create habit. And a Happiness Ritual is nothing more than a consciously chosen happiness habit.

We also have what we might call "unhappiness rituals" or "unhappiness habits," as well. These aren't addictions, but rather actions we continue to do, almost unconsciously, which actually sap, rather than nourish, our happiness. Things like mindlessly surfing the Internet, gossiping, watching way too much TV, and any other activity that we undertake too frequently and that leaves us feeling dulled or drained rather than energized qualifies as an unhappiness ritual.

You can increase your happiness substantially simply by increasing your Happiness Rituals and decreasing your unhappiness rituals. You don't have to change jobs or spouses, you don't have to move to a new house, state or continent, and you certainly don't have to reinvent yourself! You simply need to undertake small, simple acts that make you happy, and give up doing mindless stuff that no longer serves you.

Start small. Choose one, or at the most two, Happiness Rituals to add to your life. Have fun with them, but also take them seriously. Do the act, or acts, regularly for at least a month. Also choose one unhappiness ritual to jettison from your life. Just quit it cold turkey. Don't do it for at least a month and automatically the time you used to waste on it will be filled with something else, hopefully something more positive.

Don't know what to choose? Ask yourself two questions:
* What one thing, if I did it on a regular basis, would most improve my life?
* What one thing I do now, that if I quit doing it, would definitely improve my life?

Answer the questions. Operationalize the answers. And enjoy your new found happiness!