FROM THE LAW OF ATTRACTION
TO THE LAW OF HAPPINESS
A FEW YEARS ago, a book called The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, took the world by storm with the claim that the real secret to life and happiness lies in a force called the Law of Attraction. In fact, the book’s premise, as you may recall, was that the entire universe is governed by that one principle. Byrne’s claim was that the universe responds to your thoughts and that you attract happiness to yourself by the power of what you think. If you think positive thoughts, the universe responds to your thoughts by bringing positive outcomes to you, and if you think negative thoughts, your outcomes will be negative. People by the millions responded to the idea that this one law was the secret to happiness and all they desired in life. And, as a psychologist and performance coach, I can certainly tell you that people who think positively have much better outcomes than negative thinkers. For sure.
While Byrne’s book deals with concepts that interface with spirituality, it also brings up a lot of questions about how the Law of Attraction interfaces with more traditional views of spirituality, God, and the like. The first book in this series, The Secret Things of God, examined where those principles agreed with traditional faith, where they disagreed, and also what clinical experience and research say about the same issues. It was a really meaningful project for me, personally, and many readers responded as well.
So that brought us to the question of “what next”? What other topics of personal well-being also interface with spirituality and spiritual wisdom? When my editor asked me that question and what I would like to write about, the answer was immediate. “I want to write about happiness,” I said.
“Happiness? Why happiness?” she asked.
I explained that the field of psychology in the last several years has been actively exploring what is referred to as “positive psychology.” A number of years ago, Martin Seligman (then president of the American Psychological Association) and others championed the message that while psychology had made great strides in its studies on the “negative” side of life—such as depression, trauma, anxiety—it had spent relatively little time studying the “up” side of life. Topics such as happiness, well-being, strengths, etc., had not gained the same amount of attention, especially from scientific research. Researchers began to soundly answer that call.
The result has been an enormous amount of empirical studies that have shed substantial light on questions such as: “Where does happiness come from?” “Can people increase their happiness?” “Is it under our control?” And the good news is that research has actually produced a lot of answers. We now know, not just from experience, but also from scientific data, a lot about the sources of happiness and the lifestyles and practices that actually produce overall well-being.
I would have enjoyed writing about this happiness research and how it applies to life, but that has been done already by others. I did not feel the need to add to the list of good books out there. But I was drawn to writing a book on happiness for The Secret Things of God series because of what had happened to me as I was investigating the field of positive psychology.
As the profession was churning out more and more information on the positive side of life, learning was a lot of fun, and the data clearly resonated with my own experience, both professionally and personally. I had seen firsthand the truths that the research was revealing, so I loved what I was studying. But for me, it was much more than that.
It was a spiritual journey as well. As I was reading the research findings, I felt like I was reading the Bible. It was as if someone took the data and laid the Bible right on top of it and the fit was perfect. Basically, over and over, the robust findings of the research were the same as the ancient spiritual wisdom found in the Scriptures. I saw Moses, Solomon, Jesus, and Paul as I read study after study, which were proving that happiness and fulfillment is not found in our circumstances, our bank accounts, our material possessions, or achievements. Instead, what the research revealed was that happiness comes largely from how we live our lives and into which activities we decide to invest our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.
So that is why I wanted to write this book on happiness in a series of books about how faith integrates with life. Just as the Bible has a lot to say about “positive thinking” and the Law of Attraction, it has even more to say about happiness and fulfillment. In fact, one of my favorite words that we hear over and over in the Bible is the Hebrew word shalom, which among other things implies peace, happiness, well-being, wholeness, completeness, and welfare—most of what we mean when we say we want to be “happy.” In short, we can be assured that the Creator has always been interested in our happiness and well-being.
But further, he is also interested that we know how to find shalom:by investing our lives in the ways that he designed life to be lived. And that was where I was so impacted by the research. It was literally proving through science that the path to happiness is the path that God has been telling us to walk for a long time. Happiness comes as a by-product of the “life well lived.” And that is what brought me to the title, The Law of Happiness: I wanted to show the two things that the research has shown me.
Number one, that happiness can be found and there are principles and practices that reveal that. And number two, those principles and practices, the “law of happiness,” are the ones that God has given all along in his “law,” the Scriptures. From the Torah, which means “instruction,” through the rest of the Bible, he has shown us the “law of happiness.” And now science has verified what the Bible has said all along. For me, that was a really cool thing to behold, and I hope it is for you as well—that you further experience how faith and science interact.
So join me as we take a look at what science reveals and what spiritual instruction has shown us about where happiness comes from. Shalom.
© 2011 Henry Cloud
THE SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS
MY CO-HOST ON our radio show, New Life Live!, lit up with enthusiasm when I pulled my minicomputer out before the show one day. “I am so excited,” he exclaimed. “I just got one of those and can’t wait to use it. People tell me that what they can do is incredible!”
“What do you mean ‘can’t wait to use it?’” I asked. “If you have it, why aren’t you using it?”
“Something is wrong with it, and I have an appointment to take it in. I brought it home, and it wouldn’t turn on,” he said, “so, I have to get it fixed.”
“That’s strange,” I said. “It is unusual for them to ship one that won’t even boot up. What did you try?”
“Well, I hit the buttons there on the bottom, and clicked it a bunch, and kept trying over and over, but it never would do anything,” he explained.
“That is so weird,” I said. “But why were you hitting those buttons? Those are the mouse clickers. Did you hit this one up on the corner?”
“What is that? I didn’t see that one,” he said as he peered over my screen.
“Watch this,” I said.
As I hit the power button, the familiar blue screen came up, the sound effects chimed in, and my friend stared in amazement. “What did you do?” he queried.
“I turned it on,” I replied. “It works better when you do that.”
So, what does my colleague’s computer have to do with happiness? Turns out, a lot.
Here is what the scientific research is finding about happiness: we are wired to experience happiness, but we keep hitting the wrong buttons in our efforts to turn our happiness on.
As I mentioned earlier, for more than a hundred years, psychology has often been interested in happiness only in its absence. The interest has focused more on our pain, hurt, depression, and anxiety: “Why do we suffer, and what can the doctor do about it?” And, as research validates, psychology has done quite a good job. We know how to treat depression, anxiety, addictions, and other issues well. The results are promising. And if you are experiencing any of those pains, there is help for you. I strongly encourage you to seek out competent psychological and psychiatric help. In our discussion about happiness, I do not want to seem to ignore the very real pains in life.
But, what about the upside of life? Is there more to life than not being depressed or unhappy? What scientific research has found is that, just like computers are designed to work when properly turned on, humans are wired in such a way that when properly “turned on,” they get happier. Their brains begin to secrete chemicals that make them feel better, their bodies get healthier, they make more money, their relationships improve, their marriages are more fulfilling, they live longer, and their overall sense of well-being and happiness gets better. And what is amazing is that we now have a lot of documentation to show exactly where the power buttons are and how to turn them on.
THE LAW OF HAPPINESS
H umans are wired in such a way that
when properly “turned on,” they get happier.
PUSHING THE WRONG BUTTONS
Unfortunately, we often don’t know where the power buttons are, so we keep pushing the wrong ones, hoping that we are just one click away from happiness. People watch talk shows on TV and think the experts being interviewed have the answers. We think that if we try this or that particular diet or do what this magazine article says or buy the secret that this infomercial is selling us, we will get to the land of happiness. We are just one click away from having it all come together . . . or are we?
We fall prey to thinking things like:
• If I could just make a little more money, then I would be happy.
• If I could just find that special someone and get married, then I would be happy.
• If I could get that promotion, then I would be happy.
• If I could finally own a home, then I would be happy.
• If I could move and live in a different city, then I would be happy.
• If I could get that new model (of whatever), then I would be happy.
• If I just could get my _______ degree, then I would be happy.
• If I could lose twenty pounds, then I would be happy.
• If I were beautiful, then I would be happy.
• If we could move to that neighborhood, then I would be happy.
• If I were rich, then I would be happy.
• If I were famous, then I would be happy.
Research and spiritual wisdom both reveal that while many of these items certainly have value, none can bring much sustainable happiness. And that is what I mean by “pushing the wrong button.” While most of what we need to feel better is readily available to us, we often don’t know where to find the correct buttons, and we continue to look to the wrong buttons and hope they will work.
PATHS TO UNSUSTAINABLE HAPPINESS
There are at least three reasons that the new house, the new job, the new relationship, the bigger bank account, or any of the other things on the list will not make us happy.
Reason Number One: Our External Circumstances
Do Not Have the Inherent Power to
Bring Us Happiness
If you look at the list above, you’ll see that all of these desires—as well as many others—are circumstantial. They are “states” within which we find ourselves, like rich or poor, degreed or not, renting or owning, skinny or fat. These states can change at any given time in our lives. But most of all, they are “outside us.” What has the research into happiness shown us about our circumstances? The answer is surprising, especially since we live in a culture that is obsessed with the list above and others like it. Here is the finding: Circumstances account for only about 10 percent of our happiness.1
It is true that when you get a promotion or that new car you have wanted or most anything else on the list, you will feel a sense of happiness for a little while. But what science has found is that you might think you are going to be a lot happier than you actually are after you get what you want. Circumstantial things or events have the power to make us happier—but only a little bit—and as we shall see in a moment, only for a little while. As my father used to tell me, “Son, money can’t buy happiness. But it can buy you a big red Cadillac to go look for it in.”
In other words, money is not a bad thing, nor are nice houses. But don’t bank on it as the answer to happiness. I do remember when my dad got his first Cadillac—and it was a happy day for him—but as I have come to understand from my professional life and experience, the happiness that he brought to that day from living a certain kind of life was much more powerful than that car ever could be. All the car did was give him a comfortable ride to his various life activities, which were already producing his real and lasting happiness and continued to do so for most of his ninety-four years.
The fact that our circumstances have limited power to make us happy has been documented in the research; but if you think about it for a minute, you already know this from your observations while standing at the check-out counter at any grocery store. Look at the magazine headlines and you will see rich, beautiful, accomplished, famous, slim, and successful people, but with all sorts of unhappiness, from relational turmoil to drug abuse and overdose, and even suicide. If circumstantial things could bring us lasting happiness, we would not be seeing those sad headlines. And the flip side is this: if circumstantial things and events are the sources of happiness, why are there so many happy people who don’t have many of those things going for them? In fact, studies have shown that the happiness levels between rich people and average-income people is not that different. The findings say that once a certain safety and sustenance level has been reached, more money is not going to bring much more happiness.2
Reason Number Two: Circumstantial Happiness
Does Not Last
Psychological research has shown something else about “getting” or “achieving” some external, circumstantial state as the path to happiness: It does not last. It has a short shelf life. So, not only do our circumstances and achievements account for only a small percentage of our happiness, but even what they are able to contribute evaporates pretty quickly. Why?
It seems that there is some sort of “set point” to our level of happiness that we carry around, almost like a thermostat.3 Let’s say your set point from factors other than circumstances is at 70. Then you get that new house, and you jump up to 80 or, for a day, to what feels like 100! This happens, for instance, when people first fall in love with the persons of their dreams. They may even exceed 100 in that initial state. (That explains a lot of crazy behavior.) But whether it is the house, the raise, or the relationship, what research has shown us is that we come back down to the place we were before. We return to our set point. This is called the “hedonic treadmill.” This is why, as common sense will tell you, you can look back at things you thought you would “just die for,” and now they are stored in the garage and you don’t care much for them anymore. Their power has gone away. Compare children on Christmas morning to those same children a few months later when the toys they were so excited to find under the tree lie around no longer used.
I remember when I was in graduate school, working hard to get a doctoral degree. I thought that when I got that degree, life would change. I thought of all the things I could do with it and all the doors that would open up for me. When I got the degree, I remember the initial sense of accomplishment when I went to the hospital to work and they called me “Doctor.” It felt nice . . . for a few days. But the truth is, I haven’t thought about it much since then. I was still me whether I was called Henry or Dr. Cloud, and my happiness had more to do with whether I was practicing the laws of happiness than with the fact I had a degree. The conclusion: The happiness that external things or circumstances bring does not last.
Reason Number Three: When We Are Pursuing
the Things That Don’t Have the Power to Make Us
Happy, We Are Ignoring the Ones That Do
This is the flip side of the first reason about circumstantial answers to happiness. The list does not have the power to make you happy, and as you are focused on those kinds of answers, you will not be focused on the things that actually will make you happy. It is a little like dieting. If all you are eating is junk food, not only is it not helping (and probably hurting), but at the same time you are not getting the nourishment your body needs that would change your whole metabolism. Just like your body needs certain nutrients to make it healthy, your heart, mind, and soul need certain practices to make them happy.
When my two little girls are headed off to play soccer, and all they want for breakfast is pancakes and syrup, they have two problems. What they want to eat is not going to help them play soccer (in fact they will have a big sugar crash in the second half of the game), and if it was left up to them, they would not be eating the good proteins and complex carbs that will sustain them throughout the glucose curve. And the data are in . . . there are happiness “foods” available that will help us in known sets of activities. But if our focus is on the wrong things, we will not be doing the right ones.
THE MATHEMATICAL MAKEUP OF HAPPINESS
A great body of research has shown us what goes into happiness. Here is the math:
As mentioned earlier, at any given moment, circumstances may be contributing about 10 percent or so to your happiness. If life is going well, you get a lift, and if life circumstances are not so great (other than times of great tragedy or trauma, which can bring a season of great pain), you get a little downturn. This is the first 10 percent of why you feel like you do.
The next factor comes from your internal makeup, which is probably composed of genetic, temperament, and constitutional factors. This seems to account for about 50 percent of your happiness level.4 Go to any infant nursery, and you can almost see the different levels at work. Some babies are happy with the world, and others are going to have to work at it a little bit more! Look at children even a little older and you can see their natural dispositions even more. They are all different, and so are we. You do bring some genetic components and factors into life, which contribute to your moods and sense of well-being.
And now for the very good news:
The rest of what goes into your happiness comes from things that are directly under your control: your behaviors, thoughts, and intentional practices in your life. The things you do “on purpose.” What you give your attention to, what you give your energy to, and what goes on inside of you have the power to make you happy. These are factors that you and only you control.5
THE CHALLENGE AND THE WARNING
So, that leaves us all with a decision. Or better yet, an entire lifetime of decisions. Moment by moment, day by day, year by year, decade by decade, choices create a direction. Or deciding on a direction will dictate each choice. And that direction of how we invest our lives is under our control. We all have the choice to invest ourselves in living in ways that produce happiness, or continuing down a road that experience and science has shown will never fulfill us.
But it does bring up a question. If spending all of our time pursuing the 10 percent (as if it is going to be the key to happiness) does not work, then why in the world do we do it? Why do we think that “if I only had . . . then I would be happy?” Take Rachel, for example.
Rachel was single and was convinced that her life would not begin until she was married. She had so many good things going on in her work and other areas of her life, but to her, being married was her holy grail. In her mind, as long as she was not married, she was in a sense waiting for life to begin.
“Why do you think you won’t be happy until you are married?” I asked.
“It has just always been the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “You get out of school, and then you find a mate, settle down, and raise a family. It is my dream and always has been. I will be devastated if I don’t get married.”
“‘Devastated’ is a word I think of when someone goes through a tragedy,” I said. “Would not being married really be a tragedy?”
“Isn’t it a tragedy to have a life with no happiness?” she asked.
You can see her problem. Tragedy equals not having happiness, but happiness comes only from marriage, so no marriage equals no happiness and a tragic life.
“Do you think that every person who is single is miserable?” I asked. “Or do you think there are any happy ones?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess there are some happy ones.”
“I promise there are. So, what do you do with that?” I asked.
She did not have an answer. But it made her look at her life: if other people can be happy and not married, then apparently marriage is not the key to happiness.
I told her that the reality was this: happy single people who get married are happy married people. Unhappy single people who get married become unhappy married people. So her task was not to focus on getting married, but to focus on becoming a happy person in whatever state she found herself. She was surprised to know that the research shows little difference in the happiness between singles and those who are married. Obviously this happiness is coming from something other than their marital status, as many single people are happy too.
As a psychologist, I could have also told her of so many people I have talked to who had it all, marriage included, and yet were still unhappy. They had achieved fame, riches, family, career, and all that people think will bring them the happiness they desire, yet those things had not delivered what the people thought they would.
But we often are tempted to still believe the “if only.” We think that if our outside circumstances would change, we would be happy. Not true, says both the research and the experience of a lot of people who finally found what they were seeking and yet are still searching. So why do we fall prey?
It is human nature, pure and simple. In my view, it’s best explained in the story of the Garden of Eden. And although it was written thousands of years ago, the basic spiritual dynamics are the ones that we live every day and that also govern our pursuit of happiness. The story of these dynamics could have happened yesterday, and actually does each day, in all of our lives.
The events go like this: God created a good life, a beautiful garden with lots of trees that represent all of the good stuff. And he gave an instruction. His commandment was “to eat from any tree in the garden.” In other words, “I have created some great stuff here. Have a good time, eat, and be satisfied with what I have given you.” He didn’t go into all the fine details like the fact that he had also carefully placed taste buds in the design of the human tongue to fully appreciate the fruits, or biochemical releases in their brains that make their hearts happy when they do certain things. And he usually doesn’t explain all the whys to us. He just basically said, “Here is life. Go for it. Enjoy. Trust me, it will work.” (I am sure that some of those trees represent the great golf courses of the world. After all, August National is in the Peach State, right?)
And, he had one warning. Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil.” “For when you eat of it you will surely die.” What was that warning? It was basically the warning to keep from playing God and thinking that you can be like him, knowing what is good and what isn’t. Just trust him to do his job of knowing what is good for us, and then do your job of enjoying it.
We all know what happened from there. The serpent came and tempted them, saying that they could be like God and really know it all. They could know “good from evil.” He told them to forget following God’s direction and design, and go their own way, apart from God. So they did, and became separated from God and his ways, as well as separated from being able to enjoy all the fruits of the good life that God had created. Here is the lesson: In going for what they thought was going to make them happy, they lost the things that really do.
The result was that they found themselves in a very unhappy state, disconnected, and ashamed. Not a good day. But to me the lesson of the story is so much what all of the happiness research shows us as well.
When we are not eating the fruits of the good life that God has created, and think that we know what is going to satisfy us instead, we will continue to go hungry. Unsatisfied. Unhappy. Unfulfilled. But because we do not see how we get seduced into thinking the human race can play God and figure it out on our own, we continue to not see the trees with the good fruits that are available right in front of us. We fall prey to the temptations of advertising, the media, culture, materialism, sensuality, or faulty comparisons with others, among other things. But, as the story reveals, they are all the same. They are but one tree, no matter what the temptation. It is the temptation to not live life in accord with the design that God wired into all of life, not investing in the real trees that are fruitful.
And I don’t know about you, but for me, following spiritual truths is always hard. I know God’s principles and yet I hear the Serpent say, “But . . . you are only one more gadget away from contentment,” or other such lies. So, it is nice to remind myself that this is not just theology or Sunday School. It is also empirical data. Science says that when we do the activities that the Bible tells us to do, we are better off for it.
So, that is our challenge. Live life investing in the ways that it was designed to be lived. When we do, as we shall see, happiness will follow. Let’s now move into seeing thirteen ways of happiness where God and science agree.
© 2011 Henry Cloud