Present and Future

Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a reputable lecturer in Harvard, describes in his book an interesting model of 4 theoretical prototypes of human characters, all in the context of happiness. We all have some kind of combination of the four. So how can you be the “happy” kind?
Here is a short summary of the relevant chapter from the book:

The “competitor in the race for success” is the first character – Such a person is in a non-stop race for success. He learns to focus on a future target instead of the present experience and he is in an endless chase after an evasive future. In many senses our society rewards such a behavior since, naturally, we are being rewarded based on a successful end of our journey rather than on our enjoyment from the journey itself. Is it possible that when we reach our destination, when we achieve our goal, we feel relieved, “free” of the mission, and we interpret it as happiness?

The hedonist – He is a pleasure seeker and does everything possible to fulfill his wishes without giving any thought to the future consequences. Doing something now that brings pleasure is justified until the next issue takes its place. He creates friendly and romantic contacts with enthusiasm, but when it becomes a routine, he rushes to the next contact. The hedonist focuses only on the present.

The nihilist (skeptic about society’s values) – In the context of this book the nihilist is a person that gave up happiness and accepted the belief that life is meaningless. He is chained to the past. Such a person accepts his unhappiness in the present but, furthermore, he expects that life will continue in the same way in the future.

So, who is the happy character? The happy person (the 4th prototype) is the one who knows to enjoy both, the present and the future. It is true that present and future gains can clash – because there are situations that require concession of one for the other – but in many cases it is possible to enjoy both at the same time. Students who enjoy learning, for example, enjoy the learning and exploring stage as well as having a future gain from the fact that their studies will serve their future career. In romantic relationships there are couples who enjoy being together and also enjoy the possibility of allowing each other to grow and develop individually. People who love their work will promote themselves professionally and at the same time will enjoy the journey.

Notwithstanding, permanent happiness is an illusion since sometimes it pays off to renounce present gain/happiness for future significant gain. Routine work in most cases is unavoidable, as well as the time you need to invest in preparations for exams or present savings for the future and others. All of these may be unpleasant but can be of great help in achieving long term happiness. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with living like a hedonist for short periods. Focusing on the pleasures of the moment like relaxing, forgetting ourselves for a while, feeling the sand on the beach and watching TV might be refreshing when it is being done in reasonable dosages.

So, the ‘competitor in the race for success’ deludes himself that after achieving his target he’ll be happy; He does not recognize the importance of the journey (he is a slave of the future). The hedonist deludes himself that only the journey is important (he is a slave of the moment). For the nihilist, who gives up both, the journey and the target, life is meaningless (he is a slave of the past). Achieving sustainable happiness requires enjoyment from the journey as well as having a valuable purpose or target. Happiness is neither about reaching the top of the mountain nor about a climb with no purpose. Happiness is all about the experience of climbing to the summit.

 (From the book “Happier” written by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.)

 We all have some kind of combination of the four characters, but having said that we better check how we can move ourselves toward the last prototype…according to Dr. Ben-Shahar we’ll probably be happier. I’ve once mentioned that someone pointed out that after we pass away our tombstone will tell the year we were born and the year we passed away. In between these years there will be a small hyphen that represents our life. One small line represents our whole life.  I assume that we will all reach this inevitable “target” – therefore, all that is left (in case we adopt the above “happiness theory”) is to enjoy our journey in this tiny hyphen…

Fireworks (31)
Shuka, Thursday, June 11, 2009

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