Your Indirect Control over Your Own Happiness

Series: The Concept of Happiness

Our general topic has been happiness. We now get to the essential issue: can you make yourself happy? The answer is yes — but not by a direct process. You cannot guarantee existential success, nor can you predict your future emotions or your exact future circumstances. But you have indirect control over your own happiness. This is sufficient for a happy life, as we shall see in this and subsequent articles.

Serenity as the base for happiness

So far in this series of articles on happiness, I have explained the nature of sustained happiness and shown how you can minimize its antithesis, suffering. Reducing suffering to sadness brings you to a state of serenity. I showed that this is under your volitional control if you are willing to accept reality in full. I argued that serenity is a practical transitional state between suffering and happiness. But it is more than that.

Serenity is the foundation on which you can build happiness.

Serenity is needed as the base because significant achievements that trigger joy do not by themselves guarantee happiness.

Suppose you were an entrepreneur who sold your business for millions of dollars. You would feel joy from that achievement. But you could also feel despair — if the way you achieved it led to the loss of the love of your life. Or guilt — if you succeeded by manipulating the people around you and destroying relationships with people you admired. Or bitter frustration — if you succeeded by permanently destroying your health and there will be very little time to make use of your millions of dollars.

In contrast, if you have your loved ones by your side, your most admired allies also got rich from the deal, and you are ready to start the next chapter in your life, you will feel intense happiness.

In Ayn Rand’s words, “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy, a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction.” Happiness is a conflict-free joy. As I discussed in the previous article, conflict fosters suffering, not happiness.

The bottom line: accepting reality, which is under your volitional control, is necessary (though not sufficient) for you to be happy. This is one of the indirect ways you have control over your happiness.

The relationship of existential success to happiness

In addition to the base of serenity, to be happy you also need ongoing existential success. Joy comes from success — from the achievement of values. The scale of your success doesn’t matter nearly so much as that you see yourself succeeding in at least small ways, day by day, week by week, year by year.

If your regular successes are small, your happiness is in the form of a satisfied well-being. If your regular successes are mid-size, your happiness takes the form of a deep pleasure in being alive. When in addition to these smaller goals, you achieve significant, long-range goals, you experience a state of felicity that involves a kind of earthly bliss.

All of these qualify as a state of happiness. All of them are very good. But of course, if you had a direct choice, wouldn’t you choose bliss over satisfaction?

The problem is, you do not have a direct choice. You do not have direct control over your existential success. For example, a friend of mine expected to close an important deal on September 11, 2001. Because of the attack on the World Trade Center, the meeting didn’t happen. The world events caused the buyers to reconsider, so the deal never closed. This existential “failure” had a significant negative impact on my friend, and yet it was caused by factors outside of his control.

You do not control other people. You do not control the weather. You do not control your present internet service provider. If their service goes down, you lose your access. The number of things you don’t control is endless. And yet, your happiness depends on your achieving real-world existential success.

So, how is happiness possible? You do control some things. You can choose whom you deal with and/or how you deal with them. You can buy or make shelter and clothes to protect you from the weather. You can change your internet provider or get a backup provider.

It is by figuring out what you do have control over, and then exerting that control to achieve your ends, that you gain an indirect control over your existential success, and therefore your happiness.

So let’s cut to the chase. What do you have direct volitional control over and how can that lead to happiness? The absolute basic choice you have is to turn your attention. If you want to be happy, the most basic choice is to orient to values.

The power of the value orientation

By “orient to values,” I mean choose to focus on the values at stake in every moment, not the threats. This involves much more than just looking at a partially-filled glass and calling it half-full rather than half-empty. It involves re-evaluating every threat, feeling, and rule to understand it in terms of values to be gained as opposed to threats to be avoided — and then acting to gain and/or keep your top value in the situation.

There is a entire category of posts on the topic of the value orientation. I concretize the basic point in my article on the golf-course analogy. Let’s see if I can explain the idea briefly.

A threat orientation involves not just a lot of attention on the threats around you. Yes, if you look around you can identify bona fide existential threats out there in the world, such as earthquakes and criminals, which can harm you or thwart you. You can envision threats in 100 years and threats on the other side of the world that could come to impact you. Obviously, if you choose to focus mainly on threats, you will be miserable. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that this causes you to lose track of what your most important values are, and what you need to do to gain them.

When you are stuck in the threat orientation, you become unduly focused on how you feel. You become so focused on not feeling miserable now that you lose track of what would make you happy over the long term. You seek relief, not happiness. So, because you’re miserable, you eat cookies or play video games to feel better even though this leads to mid-range existential failure, not success.

When they start having failures, most people start making rules. No cookies! No video games! Rules are concrete, black-and-white prescriptions for action. You make the rules for action in order to avoid specific bad outcomes. But the effect of making rules is that you focus on some intellectual conclusion about what you should do, instead of what would be most meaningful and productive for you to do. Often, you lose track of why you created the rules in the first place.

The alternative, which I call the value orientation, involves tracing every rule, threat, or feeling that seems to be involved in a decision back to its value base. Threats are threats to values. They are not ends in themselves. The proper way to determine how to deal with threats is to look at them in relation to the values you want to gain.

So, you might carefully enter a burning building (a significant existential threat) to save a loved one. What gives you the courage is your love for the person. It’s the value of your loved one that motivates you to address the threat head on as opposed to avoid it.

With this perspective, you can see why rules get a bad reputation. Rules are routinely broken because they don’t work in principle. It may be bad for you to eat cookies in general, but if you want to get to sleep tonight, you might eat one cookie at dinner to balance out your carbs to ensure you sleep better. That could be a rational decision. Video games might be a poor use of your time in general. But if you want to transition from one work project to another, it might be a great idea to play a video game for a little while to clear your head. Rules, by their nature, block out such alternatives. They sap creativity.

In contrast, a value orientation enhances creativity. When you see the full terrain — the threats, the consequences of breaking rules, the bad feelings you might feel — in the context of the values you want to gain, you can make an intelligent, creative, rational decision about how to move forward.

But it all starts with re-evaluating every threat, feeling, and rule to see exactly how your values are at stake now. This choice to deliberately turn your attention to the value issues is under your direct volitional control.

How the value orientation leads indirectly to happiness

It is going to take another newsletter to fully explain how the value orientation leads indirectly to happiness. It is a bit like hygiene. You wash your hands frequently, not because you necessarily think there are germs on them, but because you don’t want to give germs a start.

But you can see that in the simplest cases, the value orientation can start you on a path to success. If you are in a state of serenity and you turn your attention to values at stake, you will feel a desire to act. For example, last fall I was often frustrated that I couldn’t write due to my fatigue. Once I accepted my state, I would look around the house and see many values there for the getting. I might tidy up my desk or wash the dishes. These small, mundane tasks would bring a spot of satisfaction as I finished, lifting my mood, and reaffirming that there was still much I could do, even though I was not healthy enough to do some things.

But more deeply, the value orientation turns out to be fundamental to three key aspects of productivity:

  • Prioritization
  • Self-Direction
  • Monitoring Progress

That is what we will discuss in the next installment in this series.

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  1. Dan Reeves

    Great post–thank you! I just listened to a short talk with Simon Sinek and he shared a nice concretization for this concept of value vs. threat orientation:

    When downhill skiing, you’re moving fast down a mountain and you’re trying to avoid running into things like trees. Expert skiiers know that it’s important to focus on the path and NOT the trees to accomplish this. If you focus on the trees, you will invariably and subconsciously guide yourself into a tree. Always look for the path forward (your values) and maintain that as your primary focus, instead of the trees (threats).

    • Jean Moroney

      This is a dramatic example of glass half full vs. half empty point. There is another aspect of the value orientation: you use the threat-based motivation to help you identify other deep values at stake. In this case, you don’t want to hit the trees, because you could be injured or killed. The value you are after is life and efficacy. The great skier would not only focus cognitively on the path, but would also be motivated by efficacy and the sense of aliveness.

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