Interview with Robert Mack – Happiness from the Inside Out

By Robert Mack in Happiness on May 25th, 2009 / No Comments

How is authentic happiness different from synthetic happiness?

Ten years of scientific findings from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions have shown that lasting fulfillment and sustainable happiness cannot be synthesized from the material or the physical world. That is, success in any respect – whether it is financial, professional, romantic, social, physical, or otherwise – does not lead to a happy life.

Successful life circumstances, by and large, will not guarantee that you live happily ever after. In other words, there are no purely “happy circumstances” in this life – no circumstances that serve as a one-stop-shop for creating a happy life.

Winning the lottery, becoming rich and famous, being popular, dressing well, driving nice cars, winning lots of awards, being accomplished, getting married and having kids, and creating a model-perfect body will not make you happy. Even being in optimal good health will not net you a fulfilling life. Philosophers and others have suspected this for a long time, but now we have good data to prove it.

What this means is that real, authentic, lasting happiness can come from only one source: you. It comes from the thoughts you think and the actions you take. Happiness is less a set of circumstances that surround you than a set of conditions that exist within you. And those conditions, to a large extent, are self-generated and self-facilitated.

What do you mean by suggesting that we make happiness “the ultimate currency”?

Today, people measure their worthiness and success as individuals by all kinds of symbols and forms of currency: dollars, awards, diplomas, accomplishments, records sold, races won, number of kids, level of education, opinions of others, number of pounds we weigh, number of pounds we can lift, and so on. But when you measure your life this way, you miss the point of your existence. See, as Aristotle once said, “happiness is the whole aim and end of life, the whole meaning and purpose of human existence.”

So if you want to live a happy life – and we all do – then you have to prioritize your happiness above everything else. You have to make feeling good your dominant intent, your primary focus, and the ultimate currency of your life. You have to measure the success of any activity, relationship, experience, event, entity, or endeavor by the joy that you feel in your heart, not the awards on your mantel, cars in your driveway, rooms in your house, stocks and bonds in your portfolio, numbers in your cell phone, clothes in your closet, or kids in your life.

You have to make bliss your barometer and make pleasure and meaning your measuring stick. You have to make happiness more important than anything else in your life. Interestingly enough, when you do that, success washes up on your shores every single time because:

1) a happy life is a successful life, and
2) a happy life brings successful life outcomes.

What is the “principle of nonattachment”? What do you mean, “detach from specific outcomes”? Does that mean to stop having goals or dreams?

Some of us struggle with happiness because we make our happiness dependent on specific outcomes and sets of circumstances. We think things like “if I can only get married, I’ll be happy” or “if I can only get that car, I’ll stop complaining” or “once I get that new job or promotion, I’ll be set” or even “when I get in shape, everything will be all better.”

The truth of the matter is that according to the scientific data, the happiest people don’t make their happiness dependent on much of anything. Sure, there are circumstances that make happiness an easier and more likely proposition – things like making just enough money to subsist, being psychologically healthy enough to filter and control your thoughts, having a strong social life, not being predisposed to depression, et cetera – but many, if not all, of these conditions and circumstances are within your control.

One of the keys to living an authentically happy life is realizing that few, if any, external circumstances can make you lastingly happier. And once you realize that, you can begin to divorce or detach your happiness from specific results, circumstances, identities, ideas, beliefs, and so on. You can learn to be happy no matter what. By doing so, you can begin to take responsibility for how you feel and take charge of your happiness.

If you could boil it down to just one thing, what’s the key to happiness? What principle seems to trump all others?

More important than any other key or secret to happiness is appreciation. The happiest people, those who operate in the upper decks of their genetic happiness set point or range, are what I call “self-serving selective sifters.” They have this incredible ability to always look for, find, and then affirm the good in life. They find beauty wherever they look. And when they can’t find beauty, by which I mean something to appreciate, they look somewhere else. And they follow through on this principle of appreciation in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds.

But if I single out appreciation, then I also have to single out optimism. See, science is telling us that one of the best predictors of happiness is optimism. Optimism, from a scientific perspective, is more than just turning your gaze to the sunny side of the street or calling the glass half full. Optimism is a way of explaining to yourself and others the causes of good events and bad events in ways that support and empower you and your happiness.

By and large, optimism leads to being a happier individual, and pessimism leads to learned helplessness or apathy and, eventually, if it’s bad enough, depression. What’s more, optimism has been found to predict all kinds of successful life outcomes, including presidential wins, individual and team sport victories, high grades, high income, long-term health, and so on. Optimistic people are a hardier lot, more resilient in the face of adversity, because they work harder, persist longer, take more health precautions, and so on.

Which principle trips people up the most in their search for happiness and success?

Most people don’t understand how incredibly important it is to tell a better-feeling story about their past and about their current situation. A lot of people judge their words and thoughts as positive or negative by how they sound coming out, how they look on paper, or how they are interpreted by others. But these indicators never point to the truth.

Positive thinking isn’t about thinking positive-sounding, positive-looking, or positive-seeming thoughts – it’s only about thinking positive-feeling thoughts. It’s about noticing how a thought feels as you think it, say it, and act it out and then changing your approach accordingly. When you remember that your emotional guidance system is there for a reason – to guide you toward better-feeling thoughts, words, and actions – you begin to trust your feelings a little more. And when those feelings don’t feel good, you stop doing whatever it is that made them feel not so good.

You stop thinking the thoughts, speaking the words, and taking those actions that bring you pain. And you begin appreciating your pain system for its ability to lead you toward better-feeling thoughts, words, and behavior. With practice, you become very good at telling the better-feeling story, and you find that better-feeling stories aren’t about denying “reality,” exaggerating, or telling lies. A story can’t be a better-feeling story unless it’s based in truth and honesty.

So what you’re really doing is telling the best of what has happened, is happening, or you expect to happen in your life. You tell your highest truth about an experience, person, or pursuit – one that’s based in an appreciative, loving, empowering, and supportive perspective.

What would you recommend to people who want to be both happy and successful? What’s the magic formula?

If you want to be happy and successful, just worry about being happy. Take the rat racing and pleasure chasing out of the equation as much as possible. Educate yourself in the art and science of happiness. The first step in becoming happier is learning. You must dedicate as much time to becoming happier as you do to other pursuits. You must commit to disciplining your mind in the same way that you commit to disciplining your body, building a savings account, or creating a new closetful of clothes.

Further, you must learn to become more sensitive to the way things make you feel. Most of all, keep in mind that at the end of the day, happiness is pleasure and meaning.

Once you become happy, success always follows. Today’s science supports this claim: happy people are successful across multiple life arenas – social, physical, mental, financial, professional, romantic, and so on.

What advantages are there to adversity? Why is adversity – what you call “contrast” – necessary for living our best life?

Adversity is absolutely critical to growth and happiness for many reasons. First, adversity provides variety in life. See, from a broader perspective, there really is no bad weather. There may be lots of clouds one day or no clouds at all, the sky may be gray or it may be a brilliant blue, the sun may be shining or it may be raining. But there are pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, good things and bad things about all kinds of weather conditions. The same is true of your life.

Without variety or contrast in life, you would have no options or choices. And without choices or options, there’d be no room for preference. There’d be no room for freedom. And we each have complete freedom of choice in every moment to choose happiness or unhappiness. See, one freedom we have is freedom of action. Freedom of action is our ability to choose one set of circumstances or behaviors over another.

Freedom of action is about creating our environment and the world around us. When people talk about freedom, this is usually the kind of freedom they’re referring to. But there’s another kind of freedom. This second kind of freedom is bigger and better than freedom of action because it’s always accessible and always guaranteed to everyone all the time, no matter what condition or circumstance they find themselves in.

This latter kind of freedom is freedom of thought and freedom of focus. With this kind of freedom, we always have the freedom to choose what we focus on, what we think, and therefore, what and how we feel. Because our thoughts color our feelings, we are always free to choose freedom or bondage, happiness or unhappiness, euphoria or dysphoria. And we have complete and utter control, all day, every day.

Of course, adversity is advantageous for other reasons as well. Adversity helps to weed out weak relationships and strengthen those that remain. Think of the last bad event you experienced. Who was there for you? Who wasn’t? What happened with those people who were there for you? Those relationships softened and deepened. What happened with those people who were not there for you? Those relationships – or at least some of them – disappeared or became less important to you. That’s what adversity does.

Adversity also helps us to uncover character strengths and virtues that may not have been apparent. You’ve heard of mothers who are able to lift cars off the ground when their baby is trapped underneath. Well, the same thing happens with all kinds of adversity. Adversity can bring out the best in people. In fact – and this is a most startling finding from the world of positive psychology – the most common outcome of traumatic life events, contrary to popular belief, is not post-traumatic stress disorder but post-traumatic growth!

Finally, adversity helps us to slow down, take stock, and reevaluate our lives. Adversity reminds us of what is most important in our lives and helps us refocus on those things and reprioritize accordingly.

Optimists weather adversity better than pessimists. And we can learn to be optimistic. Get a good book like Authentic Happiness or Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman or The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich if you want to learn to become more optimistic and, therefore, resilient in your life.

What’s your perspective on relationships? What makes for the happiest relationships? What do the happiest couples do right?

Relationships are the ultimate test of the other seven principles in the book. Relationships are the last hurdle, so to speak. Believe it or not – and much to the dismay of some of my single friends – married people are happier people. However, they are happier before they get married, not because they get married.

Marriage itself does offer a slight, temporary bump in happiness ratings, but the initial bump does not last and the married individuals eventually return to the original happiness baseline ratings that they experienced before being married. So “wedded bliss” does exist but only to the extent that each person was happy before meeting that special someone.

So, in this respect, the happiest relationships are built by the happiest individuals. And happy individuals, as we have learned, make happiness their dominant intent, their top priority, and their ultimate currency above all else. They detach their happiness from specific results or outcomes, find reasons to feel good and things to appreciate, tell better-feeling but truthful stories about their lives and the world, embrace adversity, learn and practice optimism, and so on.

Most importantly, science has found that the happiest couples entertain the largest positive illusions about each other. Positive illusions is the term psychologists use to describe the difference between how Partner A sees Partner B and how Partner B’s friends see Partner B.

The more positively Partner A sees Partner B as compared with how Partner B’s friends see Partner B, the happier the relationship turns out to be. That means that if you want to have the happiest relationship possible, focus on your partner’s strengths and what he or she does well rather than on weaknesses, foibles, and character flaws.

Furthermore, make sure you both aren’t pessimists. In relationships, the only combination of optimists and pessimists that’s sure to end badly is two pessimists. If you both are optimists or if one of you is an optimist and the other a pessimist, things bode well for your relationship.

Finally, with regard to happiness, relationships trump most other predictors of happiness. Relationships do, indeed, matter. However, those relationships need not be of a romantic nature. Friendships offer many of the same psycho-emotional benefits as romantic relationships.

If people could remember only one thing from your book, what would you want them to take home?

Happiness is learnable. It is teachable. But it takes patience, persistence, and the right approach, one that is based in science.

Happiness is also a habit. With practice, you can learn to be happier. Everything is difficult until it’s easy. And happiness is not at all special in this regard. Consistency is key.

For more information visit: Robert Mack: Happiness from the Inside Out

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