Happiness is not something that simply happens, but rather is created by willful effort. Aristotle and William James both draw our attention to the active role of the individual in having to strive towards their happiness and well-being (Melchert 2002; James 1892/1984). Having the freedom to construct our subjective reality brings up the question of personal responsibility. In order to attain long-lasting results from positive interventions, one must be willing to work diligently to establish beneficial habits and attain a high degree of mastery over their consciousness. In other words, happiness requires conscientious work.
The role of attention and consciousness
There is no such thing as a meaningless thought or action. Everything we have ever seen, heard, thought or felt is encoded in the gray membranes of our neocortex, and this information makes up our consciousness. Reflecting on this stream of consciousness becomes what we call our ‘life’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Despite the brain’s incredible hardware, which has enabled our species to develop the logic of mathematics, construct vast metropolitan cities, and even to transcend the boundaries of our planet, it is not without physical limitations. Our ability to parallel process complex tasks simultaneously is heavily constrained by the physical resources available to us via our brain and central nervous system. We can only experience so much at any given time.
- The things that captivate our attention can be either voluntary or the result of habitual patterns derived from social norms or biological instructions. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), those who tackle the challenge of attaining mastery over their minds do live a happier life, as they learn to determine the content of their consciousness. Gaining control over this process is the most important tool we have in improving the quality our experience.
Establishing good habits and transforming our mind
Aristotle described happiness as the result of actively engaging in habits which cultivate our virtues (Melchert 2002). To him, virtues are not emotions or capacities, but are dynamic in nature. Not only should one maintain the practice of a chosen habit, but in order to truly enjoy the benefits one should relentlessly strive for excellence. Virtues are not rigid features (inherent in one’s character) but they can be learned at any age. This also means that in order to keep the good habits one must practice them continuously.
Over the past two decades, neuroscience has finally been able to prove what William James argued intuitively over a hundred and twenty years ago: our brain remains open to change throughout our lifespan, and has become so complex that it can affect its own physical state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; James 1892/1984). Through the practice of focused attention we can overwrite our predisposed behaviors and learn a whole set of new action tendencies.
However, creating new constructive habits involves assiduous labor (IT IS HARD and sometimes requires tons of sisu!). James instructs that a) great care should be taken to ensure success from the very onset of the resolution b) one should seize every possible opportunity to reinforce the new habit c) not allowing even a single deviation from this practice before the habit is securely established (it is this uninterrupted frequency and accumulation of the maximum number of supportive actions which anchor the newly desired disposition) d) consistency and repetition of practice are the only means by which to make the nervous system function infallibly (James 1892/1984). As a result of this persistent work the aspired tendency eventually becomes ingrained in us.
SNAP!* Would love to hear your success stories on establishing new habits and also offer this space for sharing our struggles with it. Group support (whether virtual or in person) can do miracles : -)
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The anatomy of consciousness. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (pp. 23-42). New York: Harper Perennial.
James, W. (1892/1984). Habit. Principles of psychology: Briefer course (pp. 125-138). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
James, W. (1899/1983). The gospel of relaxation. Talks to teachers on psychology (pp. 117-119). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy (4th ed., pp. 186-195). Boston: McGraw-Hill.