Happiness 1: You Control Your Own Happiness

Finish the following statement: “I don’t need to be particularly beautiful or widely popular. I don’t need great power or wealth. I don’t need to be the smartest person in the world, nor the very best in my line of work. I don’t need the biggest house, the nicest clothes, or the best car. All I want is to be…?”

Happy! All of us want to be happy; it’s one thing that every single person has in common. Not only is happiness an enjoyable topic to discuss, but the scientific study of happiness is fascinating.

Pop Quiz

In his incredible Ted Talk, Dan Gilbert urges listeners to consider two futures: one in which you win the lottery, the other in which you become paraplegic. He asks the audience to think about which future would make them more happy. “You probably don’t feel you need a moment of thought,” he says.

There is data that compares the happiness of these two groups. What would you expect the data to include? Probably that, one year after these two incidents (either winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic), the lottery winner’s happiness would far outweigh the happiness of the paraplegic. But, Gilbert says, the data says something unexpected. “The fact is, a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy.”

How could this possibly be?

The Pixel Theory

If you are leading a group, give everyone a piece of paper and colored markers or pencils. Pretend that this blank piece of paper represents the happiness of your life. If you were going to paint a picture of happiness within this box, what would it look like? For me, I would want it to be vibrant, exciting, colorful in many ways, full of lots of different things. Take the time to draw this. Don’t focus on specifics (like drawings of where you want to live, how many children you want to have, etc.), just make the drawing abstract. This should be silly and fun! Then share with the group or with a partner. Hopefully discussions will include ridiculous deep statements such as, “I added squiggles and straight lines for adventure and stability.”

There’s an amazing blog called Wait But Why by Tim Urban. His post “Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel” does a great job of explaining one of the simplest and yet most complex ideas in our study: you are in control of your own happiness. If you’re exploring on your own, read the whole thing. If you’re leading a group, check it out together (there are great illustrations!) or skip down towards the end where there’s a vibrantly filled-in box. 

Here’s my favorite quote: “Jack sees his life as a rich picture depicting an epic story and assumes that the key to his happiness lies in the broad components of the image. But this is a mistake, because Jack doesn’t live in the picture’s broad strokes, he lives at all times in a single pixel of the image—a single Today. So while thousands of Jack’s Todays will, to an outsider from far away, begin to look like a complete picture, Jack spends each moment of his actual reality in one unremarkable Today pixel or another. Jack’s error is brushing off his mundane Wednesday and focusing entirely on the big picture, when in fact the mundane Wednesday is the experience of his actual life.”

In other words, we have crazy high expectations for each and every one of our todays. We want all of our todays to look like the pictures we drew: full of many different things, and when they turn out to be just one hue, we assume that we lead an unhappy life, and that today was a “bad” day if it was a dark blue or black day.

The mistake we make is in thinking that we don’t have any control over the color of today’s pixel. Today is just going to “happen” to us, when in reality, we have all sorts of control over practicing happiness. So for the next few weeks in Impact, we’re going to talk about very specific things that you can do to make your pixels (your todays) a little more vibrant AND we will recognize how to accept the fact that all of us have dark blue days. They just makes the picture more beautiful!

This Is Water

This idea that we are often unaware of our situation, that we sometimes walk through life believing that things just “happen” to us, reminds me of one of my favorite videos. “This Is Water” is a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, which some genius then made into a visually-pleasing video. The message is incredible: a real education is one in which you learn to consciously choose how to see and treat other people, life’s situations, and mundane adulthood. Check out this uplifting video. Then watch it again…and again…and again…


What is the message of This Is Water? What does it have to do with happiness?

Is it possible to change the color of today’s pixel?

When was a time when you had a bad attitude about something, but you were able to change your outlook?

Do you believe that you are in control of your own happiness? Why or why not?

Think again about the study of lottery winners and paraplegics. Why do you think both groups are equally happy after one year? 

What are specific things you can do to make tomorrow’s pixel a particularly vibrant one?