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April 22, 2014

Kings of Infinite Space

An interesting article in the WSJ claims that personality is more malleable than we think and deliberate, incremental changes to our behavior have the power to make us happier:

Changing your personality is a lot like losing weight, experts say. It requires constant intentional behavior that eventually becomes second nature. The process can be painful and humbling. But it is necessary for psychological maturity.

1. Figure out which personality traits it will benefit you most to change. Is there a pattern of conflict or negative feedback in your career or your personal life?

2. Try to gain insight into your role in this pattern, starting with your own behavior. Isolate the behavior that you think is causing you the most trouble, and work on that one.

3. Start with baby steps. Change begins with one behavior so gain control of one before adding another. Don't expect to overhaul your personality in one day, week, month or even year.

4. Remain committed. Review your progress to provide positive self-reinforcement. Expect some backsliding. When slip-ups happen, don't dwell on them. Just keep moving in the direction you want to go.

5. As your new behavior becomes ingrained, identify a new and more significant area for improvement.

One thing modern culture has lost is the notion - common when the Blog Princess was growing up - that happiness is more a function of our habits and decisions than of our circumstances or nature. Is the glass half empty? Or half full? Is the way we see things in this moment accurate, or would a different perspective produce better results?

The emphasis on passive acceptance - of the moment, our feelings, our instincts, our personalities, of other people - just as they are has eclipsed the older sense that how we are now is a transitory state: that today was meant to be a starting point, not a final destination.

The older view whispers that we really aren't wonderful just the way we are. Rather than jogging in place, we should strive to become something - someone - better. One can't help but wonder whether the rejection of striving - the notion that life isn't supposed to be such hard work - doesn't explain the sense of malaise and powerlessness that seems to have gripped the nation? This is certainly what the President keep telling us: you shouldn't have to work so hard. It's not fair that some people have more than others. Let us make things easier for you.

Except some things can't be done for (or given to) us. We have to earn them for ourselves:

Once, after having a 'discussion' with my husband, it occurred to me that in marriage outward behavior (i.e., our "form") was in many ways more important than (and may even at times play a role in determining) what both partners think to themselves privately. In other words, some times if we are not happy, it's because we've fallen into the habit of not acting happy. Correct the behavior and you correct the state of mind. Relationships are a bit of a feedback loop. In marriage, people tend to get sloppy and stop doing the nice things they did when they were courting. They take each other for granted. And all of a sudden, there is no positive feedback and they wonder where the 'magic' went? What they forgot was that the magic wasn't an externally created force: they had a role in creating it. If the flame dies out, you can re-ignite it.

Though Hamlet isn't one of our favorite plays, we've always been delighted by this exchange between the Danish princeling and Rosencrantz, who tries to reason with Hamlet's determination to dwell on the dark side:

HAMLET Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ Then is the world one.

HAMLET A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ Why then, your ambition makes it one. 'Tis too narrow for your mind.

HAMLET O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

The riposte in the second to last line is both stinging and apt: if you see yourself in prison, perhaps you have made it your ambition to be so. The fault doesn't lie with you, Hamlet. The world is just too small and confining a place for someone of your intellect. It's all so unfair.

It's odd, this notion that encouraging people not to improve themselves should be viewed as empowering. The real empowerment lies in reminding people how much control we all have over our own lives.

Happiness is not a right. It's a responsibility, and sometimes very hard work.


Posted by Cassandra at April 22, 2014 07:53 AM

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Comments

habit... than of our circumstances or nature...

This is Aristotle's view exactly: as he says, happiness is an activity (the activity of using your rational nature to pursue virtue in your life), which becomes a habit.

The only difference is that he distinguishes between "first nature" and "second nature," with the habits you form concretely -- the kind this article is talking about -- being the latter. For Aristotle, a "nature" is an internal principle of motion or change. So if you consciously work in this way to improve your character, it will eventually become "second nature" to you. That means that you will have structured yourself internally, by rational choice, so that you naturally pursue the good in this area.

At that point, you have become virtuous (in at least that one field), and you will be happier.

Posted by: Grim at April 22, 2014 09:01 AM

I absolutely believe that happiness is entirely within the control of the individual, and not something imposed or caused by external factors. And I knew this at 16, because I worked at an amusement park. I have never seen crowds of people more determined to have a miserable time, and to pay a lot of money for the privileged. They would walk through the doors into my stand and complain about everything. It was too hot outside, it was too cold outside, it was too rainy, too sunny, too windy, the food was too expensive, the food was too small, the food was bland, the lines for rides were too long, the lines to buy food were too long, a ride was shut down and they wanted to ride it, there weren't enough restrooms, the ticket prices were too high... just about everything you could imagine. They were literally in a park built to "make them happy", and they were absolutely miserable. Because they ignored all the parts of the park they liked (being on a ride, seeing a concert, being with family, etc) and focused solely on what they were not enjoying. Their focus determined their reality, and they focused on why they were unhappy. I never understood why they'd do that to themselves.

Posted by: MikeD at April 22, 2014 09:17 AM

Whether the glass is half full or half empty depends greatly on the size of the glass.

Posted by: spd rdr at April 22, 2014 10:12 AM

Technically, either the glass is entirely empty (if it's in a vacuum) or it's completely full (even if it's only half full of water, the other half is full of air).

Posted by: MikeD at April 22, 2014 10:16 AM

Denoument

Hamlet asks for the lay of the day (all the news fit to print).
Rosencrantz: 'None, my lord, but that the world's grown honest,'
Hamlet: 'Then is doomsday near.'

Who would still say that paranoid melancholy swains never get things as they really are?

Posted by: George Pal at April 22, 2014 10:54 AM

But what if half the glass is water and the other half is vacuum?

What if it's the bottom half?

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at April 22, 2014 11:04 AM

If the glass has half of its volume filled with water, and you place it in a vacuum, then the glass will be full of water vapor as the water expands to fill what was formerly a vacuum. Still full.

Posted by: MikeD at April 22, 2014 11:19 AM

I'd never seen that XKCD before! Cool! but I was assuming we were placing our half glass of water into a chamber then evacuating all the gas from it (i.e. a vacuum chamber).

Posted by: MikeD at April 22, 2014 11:24 AM

I am not sure how the "glass half full" thing got started here, but I`ll go along.

The best I have heard is via Bill Cosby. He and some friends were talking it about it, and he asked his grandmother how she felt. She came back - "Am I drinking or pouring?"

Posted by: John A at April 22, 2014 12:18 PM

Whether the glass is half full or half empty depends greatly on the size of the glass.

Now I could interpret that two ways, mr rdr:

1. People with bigger (stronger) spirits are more likely to see their glass as half full.

2. When you really want something (and don't have it), that makes it harder to appreciate what you do have. Or put another way, the more you want, the less satisfied you tend to be.

Which reminds me of a story. I've played piano by ear most of my life and have composed a fair amount of music.

Years ago, I decided to take piano lessons. It was fun, but also enormously frustrating because there was a huge gap between what I knew I was capable of and what I could do right then-and-there. One day as I was struggling through a very difficult recital piece that I still hate, my teacher said to me, "You know, you are getting in your own way. Your standards are unrealistic; yes, you have the ability to play this piece very well - but you don't have the ability to do it right now.

She was right. I needed to reset my expectation for today but not let go of my aspirations for tomorrow.

Blogging, especially right now, has always been a compromise between my internal standard for my writing and the time/attention I can afford to bring to it. I cringe every time I write a post hurriedly or fail to make a point the way I know it should be made, but sometimes 80% now is better than 100% I'll never have time for.

It's not an easy balance, at least for me.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 22, 2014 12:45 PM

... happiness is an activity (the activity of using your rational nature to pursue virtue in your life), which becomes a habit.

I think culture exerts a tremendous influence over our habits (what eventually becomes second nature).

Posted by: Cassandra at April 22, 2014 12:48 PM

So... Hamlet was right about Denmark being a piano that just won't play the way you ought it to?

Posted by: spd rdr at April 22, 2014 01:43 PM

Were the lessons hard because you had to start using your fingers?

"Is the glass half empty? Or half full?"

That is not the question! "Who the hell has been drinking my beer?" is the real question.
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 02:37 PM

"Who the hell has been drinking my beer?" is the real question.

And 'Someone who'd best be headed for the exit' is the answer.

Posted by: Grim at April 22, 2014 02:58 PM

Thanks for this refreshing post, Cass ... I usually tune in to your views in hopes of a renewal of the Bullwer-Lytton contests, but this came as a very pleasant (and needed) nudge.

Posted by: CarlosinCA1191 at April 22, 2014 03:01 PM

My pleasure, Carlos :)

Hopefully when/if work gets less busy and I get done with all this physical therapy, I can do something more fun.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 22, 2014 04:53 PM

So... Hamlet was right about Denmark being a piano that just won't play the way you want it to?

WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP :)

Were the lessons hard because you had to start using your fingers?

Actually, smarty pants, that was exactly the problem :p That, and having to read music rather than play from memory. I never did get very good at that - after playing most pieces a few times, I had them memorized so my reading skills didn't develop very quickly.

I heard that recital piece (Mozart) the other day and shuddered.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 22, 2014 04:56 PM

"And 'Someone who'd best be headed for the exit' is the answer."

Exactly!
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 05:11 PM

"Actually, smarty pants, that was exactly the problem :p"

Well, why didn't you just tell the teacher you played with your ears? I'm sure that would have been a sight as yet unseen by him/her.
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 05:16 PM

It's not easy, tickling those ivories with my earlobes.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 22, 2014 05:50 PM

Dear Princess,
Happiness *is* a choice made daily, and the Glass is *always* half full.

The book I most identified with as an adolescent was 'Beneath the Wheel.' Grim. When I dropped of the University of Washington to enlist, I was granted the favor to be forced to focus on the present. It was a gift I can never repay.

Actually Sly, if it is not you and your chosen friends drinking your beer, you have more immediate issues than the intellectual pursuit of happiness.

BTW, as a technical issue a glass half hull of water at the right temperature will become a glass nearly half full of ice if rapidly decompressed to vacuum. Then the ice will slowly sublimate. Have watched it demonstrated with a bell jar several times.

Very Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at April 22, 2014 09:09 PM

"Actually Sly, if it is not you and your chosen friends drinking your beer, you have more immediate issues than the intellectual pursuit of happiness."

I'm so glad someone on this site finally gets what I'm trying to say!
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 09:12 PM

"BTW, as a technical issue a glass half hull of water at the right temperature will become a glass nearly half full of ice if rapidly decompressed to vacuum. Then the ice will slowly sublimate. Have watched it demonstrated with a bell jar several times."

Yanno, CAPT, I'm a firm believer in the infinite improbability of having too much fun, but you, sir, have definately pegged the bell a few times.
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 09:19 PM

Speaking of ice...JLust before I retired I did some experiments which indicated that ice might have some piezoelectric properties under shock loading.

"Wait a minute you shocked ice?"

"Yes."

"Why?."

"Because it was there, and I was curious."

"Why were you curious?"

"It's best we stop here, unless you want to hear about the other stuff."

Posted by: Allen at April 22, 2014 09:35 PM

From what I understand, Allen, that is the fastest way to freeze water.
Did your experiment work?

Posted by: DL Sly at April 22, 2014 10:07 PM

Pessimist: glass is half empty.
Optimist: glass is half full.
Engineer: waste of half a glass.

Posted by: Rex at April 22, 2014 10:25 PM

That's a fairly depressing book, CAPT Mike. When I was a boy, my favorite book was The Hobbit, which has a similar focus on the development of character by doing hard and dangerous things. I suppose, if you read it straight, that it also has a depressing end -- a lot of the fellowship dies, and many elves, in the battle that serves as the climax of the book. Yet this is redeemed, in a way, both by the development of virtue in the hobbit, and in the advancement of what Tolkien suggests is a divine plan.

The common theme is that you have to get out and do to achieve a good character.

I used to mention Francis Parkman. He was a wise and worthy man.

Posted by: Grim at April 23, 2014 12:11 AM

Well-written and insightful, as always, Cassandra.

As Billy Shakespeare said elsewhere, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars [or Denmark either], but in ourselves."

Or as my old pappy [quoting Norman Vincent Peale, I believe] used to say, "P.M.A.!" [Positive Mental Attitude!]

Attitude--and action--'tis what makes all the difference.

Thanks for reminding us of that, Cassandra.

Posted by: Bruce Washburn at April 23, 2014 07:02 AM

Grim,
The VES has been asking about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series. Seems the movies have sparked an interest in the books for her. I'm hoping that by the summer, she'll have picked up the Hobbit and began her own journey into Middle Earth.


"Attitude--and action--'tis what makes all the difference."

Better or bitter.
Pick your vowel.
0>:~}

Posted by: DL Sly at April 23, 2014 12:17 PM

The VES has been asking about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series. Seems the movies have sparked an interest in the books for her. I'm hoping that by the summer, she'll have picked up the Hobbit and began her own journey into Middle Earth.

Whuf! Poor child. I love Tolkien's work, but frankly, he can be a struggle to read. The problem is he's a linguist, not an author. And he writes like it.

Posted by: MikeD at April 23, 2014 01:05 PM

Fortunately, Mike, the VES is a very talented writer who love language and linguistics. She constantly amazes her English teachers by asking "Why" wrt language rules - so she can use it properly in the future. She made it through "To Kill A Mockingbird" for English class and actually liked it in the end. Also, having been in competition book clubs, she's been exposed to different linguistic styles. And while I'm looking forward to her reading the books, it's her Papa that's really excited about it as those were his favorites growing up.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 23, 2014 01:31 PM

If it's any help, LOTR is the first work my youngest son ever read by himself from start to finish. He was in 3rd grade.

So it's definitely do-able, but if it doesn't catch a child's interest, he or she probably won't put in the time/effort to get through it.

I was reading it to the boys every night before bed (we always read for at least 1/2 hour and often longer if they wanted to). He got so excited that he didn't want to wait for me :p

I loved LOTR as a girl. To me, it's like Shakespeare - there are parts I know by heart.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 23, 2014 01:45 PM

The Hobbitt is a great read for kids around Middle School, if they like adventure stories. Tolkien has a talent for describing another place and time in enough detail to make it compelling, while painting the picture broadly enough to allow the reader to fill in a lot with their own imagination.

His broad use of the language is also incentive for a newer reader to pull out a dictionary and broaden their vocabulary.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at April 23, 2014 04:40 PM

Oh, I'm not saying it's dense or difficult to read from a word use standpoint (for that, see Nathaniel Hawthorne), but from a writing standpoint. Two Towers is uniquely difficult to deal with as it jumps back and forth in the timeline and is actively confusing as to when events are happening in relation to each other. It's not incomprehensible, but it is poorly written.

Posted by: MikeD at April 24, 2014 11:17 AM

Well, I particularly like The Two Towers. The description of the fight between the Rohirrim and the Uruk-hai gives a very nice depiction of early cavalry tactics against a disciplined infantry, for example. I can't agree that it's poorly written; in fact, I can't think of a better depiction of that kind of encounter in all of literature.

Posted by: Grim at April 24, 2014 05:56 PM

DL Sly, it worked to the sense an aerial photograph does. It shows you the territory, but it's still unexplored on the ground.

That's all I wanted it to do.

Posted by: Allen at April 25, 2014 01:19 AM

Allen,
Hmmm, I sense an experiment with the VES on the horizon, for she loves science as much as I do.
heh
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at April 25, 2014 01:41 AM

Well, she has started the Hobbit and so far is enjoying it. I have a feeling she will be one of the *faithful* soon.
0>;~]

Posted by: DL Sly at April 25, 2014 01:44 AM

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