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Happiness: You’re Doing It Wrong [The problem with dieting to get skinny, running to win and blogging for money]

Posted Oct 09 2012 12:29am

“You see my happy shirt?” The little girl’s insistent face pressed nearly up to mine before I noticed her, so enthralled with the book I was reading tonight at the library I was. Truth to be told I didn’t notice her shirt at all, at first, but rather her halo of little cornrow braids with various candy wrappers expertly tied in so that she looked just like a rainbow of Skittles and everyone knows that “Skittles make mouths happy.” So I smiled. What other option did I have?

Proudly she unzipped her jacked and puffed out her twee chest, her toddler breath puffing into my face, reminding me that I still had a shirt to admire. The shirt in question was hot pink with a large smiley face emblazoned on it in black glitter. Her own broad grin echoed that of her shirt. “Well that is the happiest shirt I have ever seen!” I exclaimed both acknowledging and dismissing her in a single breath. Heaven knows I have enough insistent little faces to deal with in my life and for once they were busily reading their own books (which in Jelly Bean’s case entailed putting all the toddler board books into her tiny grocery cart and proclaiming “It’s on sale!” with each new find) so would anyone begrudge me my ten minutes of peace?

“I make dis shirt happy,” she proclaimed.

Then something magical happened. Just as I was about to correct her, as I correct Jelly Bean’s emergent-yet-endearing speech eleventy times a day – “You mean that shirt makes you happy?” – I realized she was right. That shirt didn’t make her happy. Truth: It was nothing more than a gaudy, poorly constructed rag, well worn albeit well loved. Truth: Positively effervescent with the joy of wearing one’s favorite shirt in (presumably) one’s favorite place, she filled that shirt with life. She did make that shirt happy.

The juxtaposition was jarring. At that moment I was deep into  The Lifeboat  (aff), a book about 39 survivors of a shipwreck crammed together in a rescue boat meant to hold half that for over two weeks. It is a beautiful book. Poignant. And asks many important questions about human nature, character, depravity and how thin the lines are between the three. But mostly it’s a book about desperate choices. Harrowing life and death choices. The kind of choices most of us never have to make, or if we do, they’re among the last ones we make.

But of course the genius of the story is that while we aren’t in a lifeboat, deciding who lives and who dies, we do make choices every single day as to how we will live. And ultimately how we will die. One of the most primary, most elemental, yes, most childlike choices we ever learn is the choice to be happy. We’re born knowing how to do this – as demonstrated by my library sprite – but somehow along the way we let ourselves be convinced that our happiness is out of our hands, that happiness is something that happens to us and then we spend the rest of our lives waiting for it to arrive. Preferably in a pink t-shirt and candy wrappers (I’m slow so thankfully the universe takes pity on me and throws me an obvious sign every once in a while).

Last week I watched a powerful documentary, aptly entitled “Happy,”  (see trailer at the bottom of this post, if you’re interested) about how the concept of happiness is defined, sought after and acquired in different cultures. It begins with a rickshaw puller in an Indian slum talking about how happy his life is. As he sweeps his arm around his cardboard-and-tin hut he exults, “We only have a tarp to cover three sides but this allows a cool breeze to go from one end to the other.” Then he adds with a tiny shrug of his bony shoulders, “Of course it’s a bit of a problem in the monsoon season because the rain blows in but I don’t mind the monsoon rains, it keeps my feet from getting burnt in the sun.” His muddy children smile in agreement. But the real wonder of the moment isn’t that he can find happiness in such circumstances but rather, as the movie tellingly flashes through scenes from the US, Europe and Japan, that we who have everything have such a hard time finding it in ours.

I won’t bore you with the statistics or even try and draw any more comparisons between third world subsistence and first world extravagance but as anyone who’s watched the news and had to pop a Xanax knows, there is an epidemic of unhappiness and money is no safe haven. Why this is is varied and complex and the movie does a good job scratching the surface of some of these philosophical questions but there is one answer that is very simple – so simple that we often forget it. As the documentary points out, once a person’s basic needs for shelter, safety, food and love have been met the deciding factor as to how much happiness one has comes down to how we are motivated.

The movie breaks down motivation into two types:

1. Extrinisic motivations are goals “focused on rewards, on praise, on getting stuff”, or any external incentives that make you want to act. The three main types the researchers studied are money (financial success), image (looking right) and status (popularity or acclaim).

2. Intrinsic motivations are goals “inherently satisfying in and of themselves because they satisfy an instrinsic need that all people have” , or an internal drive that makes you want to act on it. The three main types studied are personal growth (being true to “who I really am”), close personal relationships and a desire to help the world become a better place.

That’s a lot of words but it handily explains why the US is 23rd on the list of happiest countries. (Want to know the #1 happiest country, as measured by self-report of the inhabitants? NIGERIA.) What are we told time and time again through media, through movies, and even sometimes through our beloved health and fitness community? That if we work really really hard and get enough money/get beautiful (thin) enough/get famous enough THEN we’ll be happy. Unfortunately with external goals there never is “enough.” Never. Psychologists call it the Hedonic Treadmill meaning that “whatever level of wealth or material goods you have, you’ll adapt to it and you’ll always want more.” (Also known as the reason I own so many dresses. Oops.) They add that “this hedonic adaptation is one of the main enemies of happiness.”

But not only are intrinsic and extrinsic motivations different, moreover they’re “on the exact opposite sides of value systems” so they actively compete against each other for our attention, energy and time.  Because if you’re spending more time working to earn more money, then you’re automatically spending less time cultivating those close personal relationships that buoy you up. Because if you’re always fighting for recognition and acclaim then you’re not serving those around you who need your help and becoming connected to your community. Because if you’re so consumed with perfecting your body then you have no time left to worry about developing who you really are inside. And in the worst case scenario we’re brainwashed to think that our body is who we really are and we are nothing more than shiny hair, white teeth and rock-hard abs… things we have only fleeting and minimal control over. Things that all rot and die when we’re chucked off the lifeboat.

Now I’m not saying everyone should ditch their treadmills and head to the commune. As one of the professors in the movie says, “Anybody who says money doesn’t buy happiness should talk to someone living under a bridge. But anyone who says money does buy happiness should talk to Bill Gates. The fact is, neither of these things are true.” But figuring out what exactly is motivating us may make all the difference between delight and despair. This requires asking yourself some hard questions:

Am I training for that race because I love the feel of running and enjoy mastering the sport? Or because I want to earn dessert and fit into my skinny jeans?

Am I trying to lose weight to avoid negative stigmas and increase my standing and popularity? Or because eating healthy foods makes me feel energized and moving my body in a joyous-sometimes-sweaty way allows me to do other things I love with greater ease?

Am I (gulp) writing all these posts and articles and books because I want everyone else to validate me, to tell me I’m awesome and funny and beautiful? Or because I want to help others, build an open thoughtful community, and keep learning even when it hurts?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations may, on occasion, get us to the same end (the finish line, size 2 pants, our own TV show) but how we feel about reaching our goal will be entirely different. And it’s not about convincing ourselves that one motivation is more worthy than the other and trying to force ourselves to be perfect but rather taking the opportunity to examine what we deeply want and why exactly we want it so badly. People will say that you can be motivated by both types of goals – and that’s true – but if we’re really honest with ourselves, one will become more important than the other. And in a world where time is the only commodity of real import and it’s already scarce, you will eventually have to choose. I’m not saying I’ve got this nailed down (whoo boy do I need priorities check) but tonight is a great first step.

So: Does the shirt make you happy? Or do you make the shirt happy?

(And seriously – does anyone have a happy shirt? I had one when I was pregnant that had a cartoon zombie on the front and said “I eat braiiiinns”. I still giggle everytime I think about it. I mean, we always say the baby is in our tummy, right? Get it?? Okay, I’m lame. Tell me your fave shirt!)

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