"One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and speak a few reasonable words." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Happiness and Ice Cream

"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." 
--Thornton Wilder

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Happiness. It seems like such an enigmatic concept. The only real consistent definition of the thing seems to be that it defies definition.

I have found Happiness to be both sought and found, inside of me and in outside circumstances.  Sometimes a chosen attitude, sometimes it just…exists…for seemingly no reason at all.

Yeah. This is totally infuriating to a concrete thinker! I want it to be nailed down, dangit! To heck with all this elusive garbage, I want to define it and hold it in my hand and examine it. I want an equation. Then I want to apply it so I can be happy all the time.  Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is.

My husband is always harping on me because of this tendency. He’s always reminding me that if there were a fool-proof equation for everything, there would be no freedom. And he’s SO right! But that doesn’t make me want it any less.

Freedom of choice is such a pesky thing--like a double-edged sword! It requires the elusiveness which I detest, yet this very elusiveness plays such a huge role in emotions like Happiness.  

If at any time a person doesn’t feel fully in charge of the choices they can make in their life, there’s a definite decline in happiness. If the limitations are imposed from outside, people feel resentful and oppressed, not happy. However, if they feel like they had a fair say in choosing the limitation there is no loss of happiness. This is why democracy works.

But on the other hand, if we’re presented with an over-abundance of choices, we become overwhelmed and confused. Again, not happy.

Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “asked a cross-section of people from six countries (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland) a simple question:

“‘Imagine that you feel like eating ice cream and that you have the choice between two ice-cream parlors. One offers a choice of ten flavors. The other offers a selection of fifty flavors. Which ice-cream parlor would you choose?’

“In only one country, the United States, did a majority (56 %) of respondents prefer the ice-cream parlor with fifty flavors. The Swiss were on the other end of the spectrum. Only 28% preferred the ice-cream parlor with more choices.” (The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner, pg 45).

Okay, so since the USA has lower levels of Happiness compared to Switzerland (according to the World Database of Happiness), we can deduce that at least one indicator of Happiness is choosing to limit choices. 

When presented with the ice-cream-flavor study, a friend of mine observed that if one willingly chose to limit their ice cream choices to just vanilla, infinite flavor opportunities become possible with toppings. That plain old vanilla ice cream can now become anything based on our ever-changing whims. What a concept! Skillfully limiting choices can open up more freedom and therefore, more happiness.  (This concept was addressed in a previous Savvy and Sage post entitled The Freedom Paradox. Click here to read). 

In part, Happiness is freedom of choice…as long as we feel that we have chosen our own limitations.

But lest you start thinking that Happiness can be defined by Freedom, it must not be overlooked that even if we were unable to choose the flavor of ice cream, Happiness could be achieved through attitude alone.  See? I know nothing!

I guess I’ll just have to settle for the advice in my title quote. Whether it’s sought or found, chosen or served up without my choice, I just need to shut up and enjoy my dang ice cream, already! ;)

1 comment:

  1. perfect way to start things...very few people will contest the idea that ice cream and happiness are synonymous!