Charting happiness (anytime)

June 15, 2008

Through a weird coincidence, the two most recent books I’ve read are Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman and The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.  Both are by scientists (a psychologist and a computer scientist, respectively) and both are about achieving happiness.  The first is a specific how-to guide complete with highly structured quizzes and empirical evidence; the second is a what-worked-for-me series of essays packed with anecdotes.  One is relatively old, recently reprinted; the other is brand new, flashing from every library and bookstore display shelf.

Different as they were, I liked them both.  I was inspired to think hard about the premises behind positive psychology (which sounded initially like a crock), and I was prodded to think about whether I could summon the courage to face M. and S. with happiness when I knew I only had a few months to live.  Finally, I realized that all the ridiculous things I do from day to day, like trying all day to fry a stinkin’ egg on a sidewalk using a pan and a sheet of Plexiglas, are worth it.

Tomorrow we have to repeat an experiment:  M. and I are counting the number of cars of various colors that pass our house during 15-minute periods, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon during “rush hour” on our street.  Our first attempt was dashed when we accidentally left the morning’s results out during a rainstorm.  Lesson learned:  Don’t write valuable data in washable marker.  As we cleaned up the mess and I found myself consciously using techniques from Learned Optimism to help M. overcome his disappointment, I remembered something Pausch wrote about his family’s many experiments and random wagers, and I felt like maybe this random coincidence in books was no accident.


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