Private Life With Public Purpose

How to set New Year’s resolutions that maximize happiness

Originally published on December 31, 2018 in the Washington Post, which can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/31/how-set-new-years-resolutions-that-maximize-happiness/ 

 

Millions of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Some will vow to make more money or new friends. Others will focus on exercising more or eating less. Each resolution represents the hope that changing one’s behavior or priorities will bring increased happiness.

Such aspirations are a truly American tradition. The pursuit of happiness serves as a substitute for fixed estates or castes, promising that every person can establish personal priorities rather than following those dictated by birth or tradition. It’s even built in our founding documents: In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson placed the “pursuit of happiness” next to life and liberty.

And yet, most Americans are left with more pursuit than actual happiness. The Harris Poll’s Survey of American Happiness, conducted annually since 2008, has consistently shown that only about a third of Americans feel happy.

So what New Year’s resolution should we make to achieve happiness? The philosopher and psychologist William James had some ideas. At the turn of the 20th century, James explored how to find happiness, and today his lessons can help us balance the desire for material satisfaction and social status with the more substantial goal of personal fulfillment.
In a chapter from his 1890 book “The Principles of Psychology,” James summarized the search for happiness with a simple equation: Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions. Success can make us feel happy by boosting our self-esteem. But high expectations can undercut that source of happiness, because it is not enough simply to succeed more; we also have to lower our expectations.

 

To help illustrate this point, James distinguished between happiness and satisfaction. Compared to happiness, satisfaction depends more on external circumstances and so is more susceptible to the lure of higher expectations: For example, maybe a glitzy new cellphone or a promotion will finally bring permanent smiles.

Americans have long been known for their love of newfangled devices, as British journalist Henry Norman observed during an 1898 visit to the United States. Unlike the British, with their persistent loyalty to things that work, Americans celebrate (and buy) countless new possessions, even when they don’t address any particular need. What’s more, Norman observed, Americans “will try an object one day and throw it away the next for something a trifle more convenient or expeditious.” By 1970, when Simon and Garfunkel sang about “keep[ing] the customer satisfied,” audiences would instantly recognize the reference to America’s fixation with material satisfaction.

But for James, happiness was different. It generally marches to the beat of its own drummer, without waiting for outside support. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, lowered his expectations by living simply at Walden Pond. With fewer material satisfactions, he declared that “my wealth is not possession but enjoyment” — an idea that included relishing experiences and simply having more time.

And yet, the paths to happiness advocated by Thoreau and James have remained unpopular. Why? Because Americans have largely opted to pursue satisfaction, not happiness, and seek material and social successes to stoke their self-esteem. For decades, these pursuits have been engines for economic growth and staples of American politics. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt enshrined the “freedom from want” as a pillar of democracy, on par with First Amendment freedoms.

James recognized something fundamentally important, and it is this notion that has become lost in our increasingly expanding consumer culture: Material satisfaction fulfills basic needs, but once a person is freed from desperation, more material goods can actually undercut happiness, especially if the expectations for satisfaction keeps rising.

As a result, the constant search for satisfaction can put happiness permanently out of reach, because even the success wrought from high achievements will always feel “ever not quite,” as James realized. Hollywood’s classic 1941 film “Citizen Kane” captured this dynamic. Orson Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane was awash in wealth but constantly pined for the simple joys of childhood, symbolized by Rosebud the sled.

James himself only gradually came to this realization. As a young man, he was unhappy, despite growing up in a well-off family and enjoying the privilege of a Harvard education. When researching his early development, I was struck by his physical ailments, depression, uncertainty about his career, family tensions and awkwardness with women. He even vowed never to marry to avoid any chance of passing his troubled traits to another generation.

Despite his problems, James became the founder of American psychology, an advocate for pragmatism, an innovator of spiritual approaches to religion and a committed public intellectual. How did this disturbed young man become such a confident and influential figure?

He ditched satisfaction in favor of happiness.

James embraced his limitations, rather than focusing all his attention on fixing them. In letters to family and friends, he even called his problems “a periodical neccessity [sic].” This new posture gave “a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss.” Happiness, he understood, emerged from a “bitter willingness to do and suffer anything.” The meaningful future he was creating, even in small steps of learning, writing and discussing, was more important than his troubles. And those purposeful engagements became his new source of happiness.

In his 1892 book “Psychology,” James drew on this distinction between satisfaction and happiness. The self in its material and social dimensions that craves things and status aims for satisfaction. Beneath our material and social selves, however, an inner core persists with purpose no matter what satisfactions the world brings or withholds. If financial or social successes, or any other short-term want, are not in tune with that self, better to find different goals.

James’s insights have shaped the contemporary field of positive psychology. Researchers today advise seeking happiness in two ways. First, pay attention to your own distinct traits and cultivate those as your strengths. Second, because initial strengths are often not enough, persist with motivation and commitment. This “grit” is generally a surer path to success than native ability.

For the contemporary psychologists, as for James, the greatest happiness comes from finding meaning through focus on significant purpose, especially when effort is crowned with a sense of accomplishment. Even satisfying countless material wants cannot measure up to the happiness flowing from creative achievement or from helping a child in need. And often, with the focus on well-chosen inner purpose, material and social successes will emerge as side effects of being true to one’s self.

So go ahead and make those New Year’s resolutions. Incorporating these suggestions from James and company can turn your vow into a path to happiness:

1. Make a resolution that’s in tune with your deepest commitments.

2. Invest in that resolution with a sense of purpose.

3. Don’t shy away from the challenges it might present and keep going.

A resolution energized with these supports offers the best chance of ensuring your pursuits to lead to genuine happiness.

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After Election Quake 2016: Republicans in the Driver’s Seat

A Less-Kind and Less-Gentle Grand Old Party

Originally published through History News Network on December 23, 2018, and can be read here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170700

 

The death of George Herbert Walker Bush symbolizes the end of the Republicans as the GOP, the “Grand Old Party.” He dipped his toes into the new Republican Party that emerged during his leadership, but that new party was not his cultural home. He was in that party, but not of it.

George H. W. Bush as Federalist 

Despite the Republican Party nickname, the Democratic Party is far older. That old party began in opposition to the grandeur that the Federalists brought to American politics in the first years of constitutional democracy in the 1790s. The Federalists endorsed the constitution, ratified in 1789, as a structure to institutionalize power to the people—once duly refined and enlarged, as James Madison insisted. The Federalists presented themselves as the rightful custodians of governmental power, the best-educated citizenry, the new world equivalents of old world aristocrats. As the son of a Senator and raised with a spirit of public service, Bush could have been at home with the Federalists.

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Private Life With Public Purpose, Uncategorized

Feeling Overwhelmed by What’s Happening?

Originally published on September 23, 2018 in the History News Network; full article can also be read here: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/169822

 

As a young man, William James studied a range of fields, from chemistry to literature. He focused especially on physiology, psychology, and philosophy. In the 1860s and 1870s, the future psychologist and philosopher was sorting out his own philosophy of life and sampling career paths. Each offered plausible insights, but none was decisive or beyond some criticism, especially as amplified by his temperamental indecisiveness. The swirl of choices, and the dramatically different ways of understanding the world, made him feel downright “dead and buried.” With these burdens, compounded by severe depression and poor physical health, he even vowed never to marry lest his problems descend to another generation. By his late twenties, he felt “rather precipitately old.”

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Private Life With Public Purpose

The Scripture in the Stone:Preparing for adulthood in the new old-fashioned way

Originally published on July 19, 2018 through Public Seminar; original can be found here: http://www.publicseminar.org/2018/07/the-sculpture-in-the-stone/

William James’s Hard-Won Development Between Childhood and Fame

How do we come of age? The Pew Research Center reports a steady increase over the last five decades in the number of young adults, aged 25 to 35, living with their parents. The percentage of young people “nesting” at home has almost doubled since 1964, up to 15 percent of this age group in 2016. Economic factors have encouraged these living arrangements, including the difficulties of breaking into the labor market, the high cost of independent living in many areas, and soaring debt obligations.

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The Uses of History

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

This essay first appeared in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, March 16, 2018, https://s-usih.org/2018/03/two-cheers-for-pragmatic-democracy-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals are always out of reach—and it also means, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

                  Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

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Popular Thinking in Political Campaigns

Waking From the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

This essay first appeared in Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018), https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016.  The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.”  The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend.  In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons.  The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin.  The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

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William James Coming of Age

Challenging His Teacher’s Racism: Was Huck William James?

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog, December 17, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/challenging-his-teacher%E2%80%99s-racism-was-huck-william-james; and then in the Huffington Post, December 31, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/challenging-his-teachers-racism-was-huck-william_us_5a490387e4b0d86c803c77a9

A moment of awakening to an honest reckoning with natural facts

In his youth, William James tried on a range of career possibilities.  In the 1860s, his attention was focused on a career in science.  He had spent his childhood in a host of schools on both sides of the North Atlantic guided by his father, Henry James, Senior, who promoted experiential learning and familiarity with natural facts for his five children.  The elder James had high hopes for a “scientific career for Willy,” his oldest son.  Like his father, Willy James had an appetite for the natural facts of scientific investigation and a reflective temperament.  Henry James noticed the growing authority of science in this era, and hoped that his eldest son would train in science to give more respectability to his own idealistic belief that all the natural facts of our empirical world are mere shadows pointing to higher spiritual truths, which he hoped would help shed society of selfishness.

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William James Coming of Age

Letting Go of Results: The Education of William James and My Own Medical Crisis

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Author Blog, December 1, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/letting-go-results-education-william-james-and-my-own-medical-crisis; and then in The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/letting-go-of-results-the-education-of-william-james_us_5a26fd7ee4b0e9b1e032b105

Life is a soul school, and some classes are harder than others.

For decades after his death in 1910, William James served as the genial uncle figure of American philosophy.  He was famous as a popularizer, even though his tendencies to offer insights connecting disparate parts of life and contrasting outlooks reinforced his reputation for lack of rigor.  Recently, research on the relations of dual contrasts between religion and science, mind and body, and philosophical thinking and lived experience has increased appreciation for James’s ways of thinking.  My book, Young William James Thinking, tells the story of James’s evolution toward his mediating postures, and writing the book brought home to me the significance of connecting theory and life.

In December 2003, I was working on chapter 2, “Between Scientific and Sectarian Medicine.”  However, in previous weeks, blurry vision in my left eye was making reading increasingly difficult. My eye doctor conducted some tests, including an MRI, “just to rule some things out.”  A few days later, the doctor called to say that the MRI results explained my blurry vision: I had a brain tumor growing on my pituitary gland and pushing on my optic nerve.  This craniopharyngioma tumor is extremely rare, and sadly, it usually strikes in childhood.  Within a few hours, after immediately imagining the worst, and getting advice on next steps, I was back at my writing desk, revising the paragraph I had written the day before.

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Sampling Popular Culture at MegaHalloween

Halloween 2017

MegaHalloween, DeLand, USA: Trying on Identities

This essay also appeared in the Stetson University student newspaper, Hatternetwork, November 18, 2017, http://www.hatternetwork.com/arts_culture/megahalloween-deland-usa-trying-on-identities/article_7bb073fa-cc73-11e7-bd79-cbcaad1ce9a1.html,

And, with the title “A Time to Try on New Identities,” in the West Volusia Beacon, November 20-26, 2017, page 7A.

Halloween was as big as ever on Minnesota Avenue, with about 2,000 creepy and cute outfits adorning people from far and wide and from many social backgrounds.  This year, students from my Modern US History class joined me on my front lawn to talk with our animated visitors about how they think up their ideas.  Continue reading

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The Uses of History

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life

Similar versions of this essay have appeared in:

History News Network, August 27, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166629,

The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59a48a7ae4b0d6cf7f404fa5,

and in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, September 16, 2017, https://s-usih.org/2017/09/historians-the-columbos-of-our-cultural-life-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford University, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge,” https://s-usih.org/2013/05/to-understand-and-to-judge-kloppenberg-on-haskell/.  On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

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