Happiness Is an Attitude… Or Is It?

Charles Chu
· 6 min read

One weekday afternoon, tired of writing, I leave the town center of Ubud, Indonesia and make my way to its famous “Ricefield Walk” — a one-hour trek through the beautiful Balinese landscape.

The sky is blue, the air is cool, the ducks quack in the rice fields. I start humming to myself.

It is the perfect day.

Still humming to myself, my foot fails to find a grip in the soft soil below. I slip, feet sliding forward, and land flat on my arse, splattering brown mud all over my legs, arms and shorts.

The day is not so perfect anymore.

On my way home—still covered in mud — my eyes pass over a concrete tile on the sidewalk. Engraved in it is the following message:


I cringe. Then, I laugh.

What a timely reminder.

My mind turns to a fragment from the book I was reading before my afternoon trek — Pico Iyer’s The Open Road.

Iyer is a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama’s, and the book shares some of their many conversations together. In particular, one passage — on the intersection between Buddhist “science of the mind” and recent happiness research — jumped out at me:

“[Recent research suggests] that those who score high on tests for happiness live longer than others, in part because happiness is a function not so much of our circumstances as of our perceptions. People who win the lottery often profess themselves no better off than before — they don’t know who their friends are, they feel uncomfortable in their posh new neighborhoods, they spend all their time with lawyers; yet others, who are suddenly rendered paraplegic, after roughly a year of adjustment confess themselves really no worse off than before. The mind, as Milton puts it at the beginning of Paradise Lost, ‘can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.’”

Much of modern psychology from these old philosophical traditions.

Take CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), for example. David Burns, author of the bestselling Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, gives credit where credit is due:

“[The core principle of cognitive therapy is that] your feelings result from the messages you give yourself. In fact, your thoughts often have much more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.

“This isn’t a new idea. Nearly two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, stated that people are disturbed ‘not by things, but by the views we take of them.’ In the Book of Proverbs (23: 7) in the Old Testament you can find this passage: ‘For as he thinks within himself, so he is.’ And even Shakespeare expressed a similar idea when he said: ‘for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”’(Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).

“Although the idea has been around for ages, most depressed people do not really comprehend it.”

If you’re skeptical like me, you might be thinking: “If these ideas are so useful and have been around for so long, why isn’t everyone happy?”

First, let us look at this “attitude” in practice.

Finishing the Walk

My walk is almost finished.

All that is left is to exit the rice field, take a short troll through Ubud’s city center, and return to the room I’ve rented at the edge of town.

As I walk down the main street, a young girl in a red dress — not more than 7 or 8 years of age — sees my mud-caked shorts. She points a finger at me and giggles. My mind reacts instantly. Oh, I must look so stupid. She’s laughing at me. Darn kid needs an edu- I catch myself mid-thought. Don’t be silly, she’s not mocking you.

I look her in the eyes, smile, point at my butt and do a little butt-wiggle. She wiggles back. I wink. We’re having fun, laughing. I wave goodbye. She waves back.

As I continue my walk, I pass a tan man sitting under the shade of a warung — a local mom and pop restaurant. “Hey boss!” he shouts in a gruff voice. “You wan’ taxi?! Taxi!”

Oh no, I think, not another guy trying to take my mo- Again, I stop myself. This guy is not attacking me. He probably has a wife, kids. Maybe that girl in the red dress was his daughter. He’s wants to make a living.

I smile, point at my muddy shorts, and do another butt-wiggle. He starts to laugh. I’ve gotta take a shower. Maybe next time, friend.

So yes, attitude does affect happiness. Perspective does affect reality.

So why isn’t everyone happy?

Reality Has Rough Edges

What is it so cringe-worthy about statements like “happiness is an attitude” or “love makes the world go round”?

Tell that to the dinosaurs.

For me, at least, I think it is because these statements are so blindly optimistic.

Love is great and all, but love does not import the beans that made my espresso this morning, love does not extract my inflamed appendix from my abdomen, and love, certainly, does not prevent a meteor from striking the Earth and wiping away humanity as we know it.

Let us say I am again making that final walk (arse still covered in mud) through Ubud’s city center. I again walk by the tan man shouting, “Hey boss, taxi?! Taxi!!”

But this time, when I smile and say no, he walks up to me. He sneers, clears his throat, and proceeds to spit in my face. Seeing the mud on my rear, he cackles, and finishes things with a brisk kick to the rear.

Will my “attitude” still protect me then?

A Glass of Jet Fuel

If a waitress tells me the glass of Balinese wine that she brings me is “half empty,” I can, with some effort, convince myself that it is actually “half full.” But if the same waitress brings me a glass of jet fuel and tells me it is wine, I will have a much harder time enjoying my evening drink.

Reframing events is hard.

What’s more, this skill is not acquired overnight. To be able to take a difficult life event and see it in a positive light requires long years of training.

The best metaphor I’ve found on understanding this comes from The Monk and the Philosopher:

“…the pattern of our emotions is determined by the way we perceive reality. Once again, it’s not at all a matter of cutting ourselves off from all human feelings, but of attaining a vast and serene mind which is no longer the plaything of our emotions, which is no longer shaken by adversity or intoxicated by success. If a handful of salt falls into a glass of water, it makes that water undrinkable; but if it falls into a lake it makes hardly any detectable difference.

No Easy Answers

Here’s how I see things.

If you are untrained, weak in will, and blind to the workings of your own mind, you will find it difficult to change your attitude about even the simplest difficulties in life. Your mood will forever be at the whim of whatever “Lady Fortuna” — with all her chaotic randomness — throws at you.

With training, though, you can grow your capacity for happiness, for mental serenity; the glass of water expands into an ocean.

This cannot happen without practice.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, writing many centuries after the birth of Buddhist thought, understood this:

“I’m sure you realize, Lucilius, that no one can live a truly happy life, or even a bearable life, without philosophy; also, that while it is complete wisdom that renders a life happy, even to begin that study makes life bearable. But this realization must be confirmed and fixed more deeply through daily rehearsal. It is more work to follow through on honorable aims than it is to conceive of them. One must persevere and add strength by constant study, until excellent intentions become excellence of mind.” (From Letters on Ethics)

When your arse lands in the mud, practice. When a tan man yells, “Taxi! Taxi!”, practice. When you order wine and your waitress brings jet fuel, practice.

Without practice, we are nothing.

Or, as Seneca says,

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”

And don’t forget to wash your shorts.

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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Rethinking the obvious @ http://thepolymathproject.com

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand