Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ethics and Happiness

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife . . . Or so goes Jimmy Soul's recipe for marital contentment. Sort of a re-visioning of Proverbs 31, I suppose -- and just about as popular nowadays (talk about a sexist stance!) Perhaps a bit more substance is required in cooking up a formula for this sometimes elusive state -- happiness, not marital contentment (although they do somehow seem to be related).

A few months ago, I'd had a look at the benefits of 'being happy' (The Glass Is . . .) with a quick overview of The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) and Authentic Happiness (Martin Seligman), the latter author/researcher offering a whack of variables that he feels might underpin this golden fleece of mindsets. Both feel optimism is an important element.

And now, from that hotbed of happiness (Missouri) comes some research from Harvey James, an academic economist (now there's an optimistic group!) that might expand our formula a bit: Ethical people are satisfied people, or to quote Plato, 'the just man is happy, the unjust man, miserable'. Harvey's findings are summed up: 'happiness is derived from doing well (ed note: not sure if he doesn't also mean 'doing good', in the grammatically correct sense) and from meeting psychological rather than material or hedonistic needs. While income, personal characteristics, and societal values play a role in affecting happiness, so do personal ethics. If the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, and if subjective well-being increases when people are just, the efforts to improve the moral behavior of people will also improve overall societal well-being'.

James, true to his researcher's roots, is not about to say that the relationship between ethical behaviour and life satisfaction is a causal one; that is, that doing good / behaving justly causes one to be happier (any more than being happy causes one to do good!) What he is saying is that these two are related, possibly thru' a collection of 'third factors', and that higher levels of intolerance for unethical situations is generally found in people with greater measures of satisfaction with their life states.

A bit of reflection on this relationship suggests that it makes good, intuitive sense. If I notice that the cashier has given me back change for a $20, when it should have been a $10 and I draw her attention to the oversight, we both leave the situation with a sense of well-being (although I'm $10 less well off for the trouble!). If I do a 'cash only' transaction in my work, I'm 'saving' the government's bite; but might find myself checking the mail for months after I file that return, just waiting for the notice of audit. Not a very good use of time or focus -- and easily avoided.

Seligman, in his taxonomy of (happiness-inducing) signature strengths, identifies a very similar element, which he labels integrity, grouping it together under the rubric of courage, along with bravery, perseverance and diligence, and in particular, honesty and genuineness. He defines integrity in his use of the word as 'more than just telling the truth to others; (it means) representing yourself -- your intentions and commitments -- to others and to yourself -- in a sincere fashion, in word and deed'.

Mindfulness teachings may just have scooped Dr. James (sorry, Harvey) on this one by a few millennia. These are couched in the Eight-fold Path (essentially Buddhist guidelines for living life) and more broadly as they address the three Liberating Trainings. These would be meditation / mindfulness practice itself, cultivation of wisdom, and ethical behaviour. The latter, in turn, is comprised of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. And perhaps therein lies the core -- when practicing, amongst all the other benefits that seem to accrue, we feel freed. James speculates that the illusive 'third factor' (relating satisfaction and ethics) may be a 'freedom from guilt or shame'.

As we move from the daily sit back into the world, mindfulness practice then is more than carrying that sense of calm, ground, and centre into the rest of our day. It is choosing the way in which we engage that day: the relationships it brings us in contact with (and how we respect or value those exchanges), the choice points that are often subtly fraught with decisions pitting altruism against personal gain, bringing empathy and compassion into our dealings -- and being mindful in all these choices. All this, secure in the knowledge (now that Harvey's done his math) that we will be more content at the end of that day.

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