Thursday, December 11, 2008


There are probably a million articles about how it’s important to visualize what you want. “See yourself winning that marathon, driving the Mercedes,” etc. In fact, the entire premise of The Secret is based on it. The message I hear again and again is, “Visualize the things you think will make you happy.” What if we skipped that step altogether and just visualized being happy?

I’m reminded of the movie “Peaceful Warrior,” based on Dan Millman’s autobiography “Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” Dan was a gymnast at UC Berkeley, well on his way to winning a national championship. A lot happens in the movie, but basically Dan gets into a car accident and shatters his femur. He gets a metal rod stuck into his leg. His coach thinks he can longer compete in the national championship but Dan perseveres, training on his own with the help of a guy he dubs Socrates – someone who helps him realize the power of being present. Dan competes in the U.S. Trials for the Olympics and wins.

After Dan gets his medal, a teammate comes up to him and says something along the lines of, “Wow! Can you teach me how you did that? I just know I’ll be happy once I win. If I can just get that gold medal my life will be great.”

How often do we think this way? How often do we say, “I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds, I’ll be happy once it’s the weekend, I’ll be happy once I get married.” Why do we think we need things/people/events to make us happy? Why not skip that step altogether and just go straight for happy? Why wait for it?

I think it’s great to visualize what we want. I want to publish a book (eventually) so I’m seeing it in my mind’s eye. However, I don’t believe my happiness is contingent on getting published. I don’t want to continue to put my happiness on the layaway plan. Instead of seeing myself happy X amount of time from now because I achieved X, I see myself happy right now. Not because I bought a new car or my boss gave me a pay increase or because of any outside factor. I visualize myself as happy. Now. I see/believe/feel myself in a state of happiness right now. I cut out the middle part, the illusion.

I dream of a world where people realize life is too short to put off their happiness. I dream of a world where we are happy because we choose to be, not because something happened to us. I dream of a world where everyone is happy a majority of the time. Not only can it happen, it does happen.

I know not only is another world possible, it’s probable.


  1. I'm much more of a materialist, myself. I believe happiness is an emotional state which, like all emotional states, is contingent on what all the little chemicals in our brains are doing, which is contingent on things like past experiences, personality, and environment.

    In other words, sometimes you do need things in order to be happy, and it is often not possible to be happy just by thinking, "I am going to be happy right now for no particular reason." I can imagine that working as long as you have no distractions and there isn't anything making you actively unhappy, but otherwise I should think it would be difficult to pull off.

    I think it's infinitely more sensible to figure out what really does make you happy and then figure out how to get it. It doesn't have to be anything grand - and I think that's where a lot of people make mistakes. Most people would love to be millionaires, but only a few people ever will be, so if having millions is the only thing that will ever make you happy, you will probably spend your life in misery.

    However, if tasty food or good friends make you happy, you're likely to be successful in your pursuit of happiness as long as you aren't desperately poor or something. And I think the simple things are what make people happy anyway - things like good food, good company, loving family and friends, feeling useful, being busy but also having plenty of leisure time, etc.

    Also, I am deeply skeptical of the usefulness of visualization. I mean, it's usually necessary for success simply because you usually won't reach goals you never set in the first place, but it's not even remotely sufficient.

  2. I hear what you're saying but also, aren't you happy when you're not hanging out with your friends? Can't you be happy when you're not eating good food?

    I guess I'm saying yes, people can be happy when they have good friends, good food, etc but happiness is not contingent on the presence of those things. Know what I mean?

    When I moved to Cali I had these bouts of happiness even though I didn't know where I would be living two weeks in advance. I think people can be happy in any moment if they choose. Isn't it your brain, your mind that decides good friends/good food makes you happy? Why not broaden that? Why not say, "I'm happy when the sun shines, when I wake up in the morning, etc?"

    Also, the thing about visualization is it puts something in the forefront of your mind and pushes you to realize it. If you visualize winning the lottery but never buy a ticket it obviously won't work! You have to take steps to meet your goal, of course.

  3. Yes, you can be happy without those things to some extent, but I really think people are much more likely to be happy when they have certain things on a regular basis. You will have moments of happiness whatever your life situation, but you will have way more of them if your life is actually a good one. So, to that extent, yes - your happiness is contingent on the presence of certain external things.

    I think there is a limit to how much you can shape your own brain. Thank goodness. Imagine if you had the power to really reorganize your own brain - you'd end up with a dysfunctional mess, just because human knowledge about the brain is quite limited.

    So, while you can probably learn to broaden the scope of things that make you happy at least a little bit, you cannot actually force yourself to be happy all the time just by thinking "I will be happy all the time." If that actually worked, we'd all starve to death.

    Seriously - imagine the internal monologue inside the mind of a person who can make herself feel whatever she wants to feel at will. "I'm hungry. Should I eat? Why make the effort? I'm happy without food. Yay!" Such a person would have an extremely short life span. If you look at it that way, pain and misery are our allies just as much as pleasure and happiness. You can't divorce happiness from the things that cause it, and I really think you shouldn't.

    Yes, it does sort of suck that your happiness depends on circumstance and on other people, because they can be unreliable. But that's just the way it is.