Plus: Research that reveals who does it best and why.
Relationship guru Maggie Scarf relates a story about a memorable party she and her husband once gave. As she tells it, a somewhat plastered guest overturned a punch bowl, which landed in the leek soup. Two couples left with the wrong spouses, several noisy quarrels broke out, and Scarf herself seriously considered leaving and staying at the neighbours’ for the night, since none of the guests would have noticed anyway.
After all the guests had finally departed, Scarf and her husband stood and looked at the river of litter and debris that remained. Their gaze met and Scarf opened her mouth to say something like, “I wish I were dead,” or “Can’t we move to Alaska?” But her husband spoke first: “Wasn’t that the best party, ever? Everyone had a wonderful time!”
Scarf recounted this story in a New Republic article about happiness and how one goes about getting it—an article prompted by a conversation with her then-teenage daughter, Susie. Like most parents who have run out of answers, Scarf quoted someone else as final authority. In this case, she took refuge in the words of psychoanalyst and philosopher Viktor Frankl, who said that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.
Susie was not impressed. She said she couldn’t buy into such a point of view because it would be buying into a passive way of life. Scarf countered with another quote, this one from Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“Happiness is like a butterfly, which, if you chase after it, will elude you. If, however, you sit quietly and wait, it will come and light upon your shoulder.”
But Susie wasn't impressed by Hawthorne’s wisdom, either. She suggested that instead of waiting for the butterfly to land on her head, she would pick up a butterfly net and go after it.
While I tend to agree with Susie, Hawthorne does have a point: The root of the word happiness means “chance” or “good luck.” On these terms, the butterfly might land or it might not, and nothing you or I can do will increase the odds of either happening. Even so, I’m unwilling to sit idly by waiting for the best things in life to happen to come my way.
Maybe our fevered pursuit of happiness sometimes sets the wrong goal or employs the wrong tactics. But my own view is that butterflies are more likely to land on our shoulders if we put ourselves in the places where the butterflies happen to be. The chance of happiness favors those who make themselves available to it.
That said, we shouldn’t dismiss too quickly Maggie Scarf’s story about how her reaction to the party and the punch bowl differed from her husband’s. Research cited in the current issue of Scientific American Mind finds that two groups of people can look at the same evidence and come away with remarkably different emotional reactions. In this case, the subjects of the study—some of them young adults aged 18 to 25; the others older adults age 60 and above—were asked to watch videos about skin cancer, which contained disturbing images of scars and scenes of surgery. Special gaze-tracking instruments showed that the older adults focused significantly less on the disturbing images in the videos than younger adults did. Similar studies have corroborated the tendency of older people to focus more on the positive aspects of experiences—and to remember experiences in a more positive light—than younger people.
While this dynamic appears generally to be true when comparing older adults to younger adults, the same diversity of perspective can be found among people of similar ages. Put simply, we tend to see what we’re looking for—or what we want to see.
In terms of the butterfly analogy, we are more likely to find butterflies if we are running around with a net looking for them. (Or, as I like to say, life will always give you sufficient evidence to convict it of whatever you charge it with.)
This is not to suggest that we should try to disguise or deny bad things when they happen: When something terrible happens, it’s terrible. But even in the most difficult situations, we can inevitably find good things to acknowledge, as well. It won’t make the bad things go way, but focusing on the good that remains can give us courage and comfort. Focusing on the good things in our lives is a sure way to increase our experience of happiness.