Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to Be Happy

Children can teach us a lot of things. Before they begin to second-guess the world around them, they are amazingly innocent. They laugh when they are happy, cry when they are sad, and (despite our condescending habits) really pout when they are mad.

I have had the good fortune of being able to observe this very revealing childhood laboratory of human nature for a long time. My daughter Alicia (now 21 years old) has been a child for over two decades. She suffers from a form of epilepsy that has rendered her mind aphasic in many ways. She sees the world differently than most of us, and her emotional life is very basic. She can be very happy or sad but doesn’t get overly bothered by the moods of others.

One very noticeable part of her affliction is the lack of a sense of self. Alicia doesn’t care what she looks like or how she behaves. She has never worried about what others might think of her. It is very easy for those of us that live with her, to know how she feels. She is incapable of hiding anything.

When Alicia is happy she smiles and claps her hands. This isn’t a habitual token. It comes from her heart. And the applause isn’t intended for anybody else. It is an intense and rapid staccato that is sparked by her burst of emotional contentment. And it is quite interesting to see what makes her feel this way. Over the course of two decades, I have learned a lot about what makes her happy by trying to get her out of bad moods.

The best way to make Alicia smile is to tell her she has done a good job. It doesn’t matter too much what her accomplishment has been. Often we compliment her for reading a sentence correctly in a children’s book. Sometimes we compliment her on the way she sorts the spoons. She takes great satisfaction (and seems to be constantly clapping) when working on a jigsaw puzzle that she is good at. And she loves being recognized when she sings the right words of a song.

But more interesting to me is the other major reason that Alicia smiles. It happens when she makes other people happy. Many years ago, when she was a little girl, Alicia noticed how happy I was when she handed me a wash cloth after I brushed my teeth. She had watched me enough times to memorize my little routine, including the way I washed my face afterwards. On one particular day she decided to help. When I smiled and give her a kiss, she just bubbled with happiness and began clapping with real energy. I just had to give her a big hug.

Now, however, this fun little experience has become a good deal less entertaining. Alicia tries to help me in the same way every time she sees me brush my teeth. She has mastered all kinds of variations on the theme. Sometimes she throws me a towel. At other times she sneaks up behind me to surprise me. It has become annoying – as most things are after being repeated hundreds of times. But I don’t have the heart to let her know it bothers me. I still muster a smile and tell her how polite she is.

Alicia enjoys bringing you a glass of water as long as she knows it makes you happy. She will also willingly pass you a plate of food at dinner if you make sure to seem pleased. And she will watch a basketball game on TV (even though she doesn’t understand the game) and shout hooray if your team scores – when she sees that you are celebrating too.

I have also observed something very interesting about what fails to make Alicia happy. I mean her continuous need to acquire things. She can be annoyingly fixated on gathering the oddest objects. She will try and steal cups and water bottles in order to enhance her little backyard laboratory of bubble blowing. She will refuse to leave a parking lot if there are hair bands (however small) to be found. And if she thinks there are pennies nearby, she won’t stop looking until she finds one. More frustrating is the need she has to gather more and more books from the library shelves every time she visits (which she insists on doing almost every day).

Alicia acts out an extreme that the rest of us normally experience under better self-control. We know how fun it is to get a present or a bit of spending money. And so we believe that acquiring things is a way to become happy. Alicia’s experience is noteworthy: the psychological drive to acquire does not make us happy. In excess it can only lead to frustration. Yes, a thoughtful gift can make our day. But the belief that we constantly need more things is a childish error.

Just last week I was reminded of both of these truths in sharp contrast. I am in the process of moving my office to my home. I am now working out of my house. Part of this change involves buying several fairly expensive things. I got a new printer, new phones, other new electronic devices, even a company vehicle. It was getting quite a bit more than I ever get for Christmas or for my birthday. It was all nice, but left me none the happier. I still sought out time with my family and a good book at the end of the day.

On the other hand, I was thrilled by a note Kathy received at the same time I was buying all of these things. The note was from a friend in North Carolina (where we used to live) who had attended a class wherein students were asked to name some of the people that had made a difference in their lives. Many students mentioned bishops or school teachers. And apparently one of the students mentioned my name. When I learned this, I felt a real joy. It made me happy all week (and continues to do so as I write about it). It was a very clear example to me that helping others can make us much happier than can the acquisition of things.

We, in the Western World, are surfeited with these kinds of things. In any given week, the mere packaging of the things I might buy is of more value than all of the weekly purchases of a typical individual among the millions of the World’s poor. And yet, for those of us who have been privileged to visit these developing countries, it is obvious that we are no happier than they are. Very often the opposite is truer.

Go “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22) Such a demand from the Lord was too much for the rich young ruler. And it is certainly too much to ask of most of us today. And yet the truth has never changed. If we should spend all our days serving others – even if we only manage to help a very few - “how great shall be your joy” (Doctrine & Covenants 18:15).  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Will You Change For?

Some time ago, a friend of mine made a comment about the differences between men and women. He said that men find it easier to change. And he meant that men are more likely to repent when they make a big mistake than women are. He gave me a handful of examples and I could see his point. And yet, this claim has bothered me for several years – ever since I learned of it. Even so, I haven’t been able to put my finger on the reason I disagree with it. My friend is not inexperienced in the ways of men and women and I haven’t been willing to dismiss his claim outright. 

Then just recently I gained a bit more insight on the matter. It occurred to me that this very friend had in recent years disagreed with his wife on a handful of issues. Feelings were hurt and unfortunate things were said. After they got through the angst of it all (they are still happily married) it was obvious that it was my friend’s wife who was the most willing to change in order to improve their relationship. This struck me as an important observation because my friend has always been willing to change his life when he makes mistakes.

I have come to believe that men and women are both equally capable and willing (or perhaps unwilling, as the case may be) of making changes in their life. It’s just that the things we are willing to change are often (even inherently) different.

I remember when I was younger overhearing conversations between young married women lamenting the fact that their husbands hadn’t changed as they had hoped. I thought it was quite presumptuous of these women to assume that a man would completely change his life to accommodate his wife’s whims. Why doesn’t she change? I asked myself.

I have learned through the years that women often expect their husbands to change because they themselves are willing to change. Who wouldn’t be willing to change, the feeling seems to be, for the spouse they love more than anything?

The problem with this sort of thinking is that men are more likely to change for other things. Changing for a relationship might make a lot of sense to women (who through the millennia have often had to leave family and move to a husband’s home). But to men, it makes much less sense.

The man, in contrast, is much more philosophically minded. Ideas can motivate his entire life and many of the decisions that he makes. Most men, whether they realize it or not, are philosophers. They may not enroll in philosophy classes. But bringing up a discussion in the abstract is something they normally enjoy. Politics, the weather, even ancient Peruvian mysticism are all valid conversation pieces. There’s an important reason why the discipline of philosophy is almost completely comprised of men. (A professional woman philosopher is a rare bird.) Men are different than women.

With this manly love of philosophy comes an ability to steer one’s life by philosophical principles. If it becomes apparent to a man (whether it’s true or not) that the world’s economy will collapse in coming years, he will likely change his life to prepare for such a catastrophe.  In fact he may go to extremes – extremes that his wife (concerned as she often is with the more immediate challenges) may be concerned about.

A man thus philosophically minded might also be willing to change his life for religious reasons. If he experiences the change of heart that Alma describes so significantly (in the 5th Chapter of the Book of Alma, in the Book of Mormon) he will very likely be motivated to repent. And very often men have sufficient things to repent of.

But women are also willing to change for religious reasons. When we understand the eternal significance of the family unit, it becomes apparent that sacrifices made to promote family unity become very much religious efforts. When a women makes behavioral sacrifices for her family (whether they be for the benefit of her husband, her children, or whomever) she is certainly making a religious sacrifice. Her change is just as significant as the change her husband makes (say in giving up an alcohol addiction) in order to be worthy of an eternal marriage.

Some of these differences can be magnified out of proportion when we fail to accept our God-given sexual differences. A recent study showing that men and women have inherently different abilities relative to fasting is a case in point. We have been aware for a long time that women (having a greater genetic propensity for storing adipose tissue) survive prolonged physical ordeals better than men. But it now becomes apparent that hungry men are better able to focus their minds off of food than hungry women are. Obviously a comparison of will-power is misplaced given this genetic reality.  

We certainly need more understanding about these differences between men and women. It can help us patiently understand each other’s foibles. Why can men be so unchangingly defensive in public over seemingly little issues – as if they didn’t mind being ornery? And why are women so likely to hold grudges (forever it seems) against other women over something as trivial as a wardrobe sleight?

We all have reasons to change – some of us more than others. But we should also be sensitive to the fact that men and women are made to change in some ways better than others. If you are a philosopher and your wife is a social-light, don’t be concerned. Let your differences complement each other. In the meantime, continue with a humble and a repentant attitude. This will lead each of us in different directions. It may even lead two of us struggling with the very same issue in different directions. Fortunately for all of us, the change will be just right, as long as it is right with God.


For the article on dieting differences between men and women, see Jeffrey Kluger’s article Why Men are Better Dieters than Women, in Time Magazine (Monday, Jan. 19, 2009).