Happiness and the Mango Tree Rains

Posted by on Mar 2, 2011 in Psychology | 6 comments

It rained last night and today – a brief, wet, respite right in the middle of the dry season. Locals have told us that these rains generally come every year, sometimes just for a day, sometimes for two.

“They water the mango trees,” they say, nodding, as if these clouds have arrived specifically to provide the mango trees with the boost to get them through until the monsoon. So Mike and I are calling them the mango tree rains.

The mango tree rains are making more than just the mango trees happy – they have dropped the temperature at least fifteen degrees and that’s always cause for celebration on my end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week – not just because of the mango tree rains but also because I recently agreed to write a distance learning course on wellbeing and resilience as it’s related to the humanitarian field for a university in the UK. This course has ten chapters in it on topics as diverse as childhood attachment and community resilience. I said yes to this project partly because I thought it would force me to learn a fair bit. On that front I haven’t been wrong.

I’m finding the chapter on positive psychology that I’m working on this week particularly interesting.

Positive psychology studies topics as diverse as happiness, optimal human functioning, subjective well-being, and the meaning of life. If you’d like a brief introduction you can go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and download the first article on the list – a Time Magazine Cover Story on The Science of Happiness.

Over lunch yesterday Mike and I were discussing this thing called happiness and one psychologist’s take on it. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  1. Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  2. Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  3. Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important.

“So how would you rate yourself on each of those domains right now?” Mike asked me yesterday.

These sorts of questions always make me look at the ceiling, fidget, and try not to get too hung up on the scores of “well, it depends on…” caveats that are suddenly flooding my brain.

“OK,” I finally said. “High on engagement – I tend to be very involved in whatever I’m doing. A bit lower on meaning at the moment. And fairly high on pleasure.”

“Really?” Mike said, giving every indication of being surprised. “High on pleasure?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, we get to hang out together a lot at the moment. We live in this nice house and all the air conditioners work. And we have a little dog to play with that makes us laugh. And you work five minutes up the road and often get to come home for lunch. And we can walk to dozens of restaurants here and eat out anytime we feel like it. And we live in this cool country that’s pretty interesting. I mean, the pleasure index is going to go down the hotter it gets – that’s unavoidable. But it’s been pretty high this last four months.”

“Huh,” Mike said. “That’s so different than the way I would have looked at it. I was thinking of pleasure being more associated with things like adventure bike rides and hiking, and I’m not doing a lot of that at the moment. And I would have thought your pleasures index would have been lower anyway.”

Oh yeah, I suddenly remembered. I’d spent a good proportion of the last three months battling pregnancy nausea. And I’ve been alternating between happy, neutral, ambivalent, and terrified about said pregnancy. And I’ve been craving bbq sauce on hamburgers and other things hard to procure here. And the hot water heater in our bathroom hates me and tends to turn off about four times during every shower, sometimes refusing to come back on at all.

Perhaps it’s good that these are not the first things to rush to mind when I’m trying to think about how happy I am. Perhaps I am more of a pessimistic optimist than an optimistic pessimist after all.

Or perhaps (thanks again to pregnancy) I have the memory of a goldfish at the moment and I am not a good judge of my own happiness.

Seligman would endorse the first of these possibilities. He argues that “we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences.” For him, studying how we feel moment-to-moment puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. It is the remembered self that provides us the truest reflection.

What do you think? Are we our memories more than the sum total of our moment-to-moment experiences? And how would you rate yourself at present with regards to pleasure, engagement, and meaning?

Related posts:

Monkeys, puppies, and pregnancy yoga
What Would Jesus Do?
Mumps and other re-entry bumps

6 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting breakdown of happiness. I’ve always considered happiness to be more of a function of contentedness. I mean, some people’s lives don’t have as much “meaning” in that they don’t serve some grandiose, change-the-world end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are less happy. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, mostly because I struggle with the concepts of living a life of meaning and, at the same time, not necessarily “changing the world.” (Although I’d like to. Change the world, that is. And live a life full of meaning.)

    • Yeah, I wonder what Seligman would say about that. My guess is that he would say meaning comes from feeling that you’re using your strengths and abilities for some purpose outside yourself” and that purpose doesn’t necessarily have to equate with feeling like you’re “changing the world” in a grand sense but could be something closer to home – like hitting team sales targets, or getting a degree that will take you one step further down your life path, or raising kids you hope will turn into decent other-loving people. I don’t know if that’s what Seligman would say come to think of it, but I guess it’s what I would say :). Hope your studying is going well and feeling both engaging AND meaningful!

  2. I think our memories mean a lot because they express what we take with us from those moment to moment experiences. Your own memories of pleasure, despite the challenges of pregnancy, errant hot water heaters, etc., illustrate that. I wonder if the experiences you listed under ‘pleasure’ don’t actually cross over into the realm of ‘meaning’? I tend to think of things first from an emotional point of view, and then translate them (sometimes faster than others) to my logical side. So I think that nurturing your relationship and being cognizant of the time that you are able to spend being close, as well as appreciating what’s comfortable about your life, and the beauty of where you live, are all important parts of life that have meaning that goes beyond transient, simple pleasure.

    I like eating ice cream. That’s pure pleasure. But eating ice cream with someone I love (and here is the emotional me because I’m suddenly blinded by tears) and being aware of the difference, has meaning. I think the act of recognizing the latter experience comes closer to that which gives us purpose and the impetus to be better and do better in our lives.

    In regards to my own present pleasure, engagement, and meaning — I think I’m doing reasonably well at meaning because I haven’t abandoned my writing or my blog, or the desire to communicate with others from the perspective of love, and trying to understand what it is that we all have in common. I unfortunately have experienced little pleasure lately, some but not much. As for engagement, I enjoy family and friends as much as they are able to within their busy lives. I can’t find employment, but I work a lot at my writing. I long for romance (in the realistic sense) but I can’t find it, and it hasn’t found me, and my main hobbies are crochet and knitting which I still do sometimes with leftover yarn from previous projects. I would definitely like to do a lot better at all these things!

    • I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right. I think there is some simple immediate pleasure often in, say, having Mike home for lunch in the middle of a work day (what a luxury!) but that’s definitely conflated with engagement and meaning too that transcends the immediate moment. As for ice cream… yeah, that’s always pleasure. I must say living in Asia these last eight months has probably helped protect me from myself in that department. And I must not get into the habit of making home made ice cream with 2.5 cups of cream, milk, and eight egg yolks. Not to mention sugar. But, boy, was it good.

      Glad to hear you’re using this time without employment to work on writing. It’s not easy to stay disciplined in the absence of other structures like a job. Hope this week brings more pleasure your way, as well as engagement and meaning!!

  3. That’s interesting. I think I agree with Seligman. Memories mean a lot and probably mean more than all of our actual experiences. Though I’m sure Freud (who I’ve been studying in my Theories class recently) would disagree because he would say those actual experiences impact us subconsciously. And perhaps they do, but consciously, my memories of experiences mean more to me than the actual experiences. Or maybe it depends how much time I spend remembering as opposed to just living in the moment. Consciousness and memory tend to weave together in the present.

    • Yeah, it gets confusing. I also wonder how much present experiences impact the laying down of memories, but there does seem to be a positivity bias with memory – that we recall things (even not fun things) through much rosier colored glasses when we’re looking in the rear view mirror than when they’re right in front of us. As for Freud (he who started out rather brilliantly in his career and then became a bit of a nut job) I think maybe the subconscious has a lot more power over how we interpret immediate experiences than how we recall memory, though it’s not powerless there either.

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