Living Right is the Path to Happiness
It is said that Abraham Lincoln once exclaimed, “When I do good I feel good; when I do bad I feel bad…” Whether or not Lincoln actually spoke those words, I have found them to be true both by experience and scientific research. Much of the unhappiness and grief we experience in this life is of our own doing. Often the anguish we feel is entirely mental or emotional. In other words, the physical consequences of the act have long since passed, but the guilt or remorse has remained.
The Causes of Guilt and Remorse
What causes a person to feel guilt or remorse? Most people operate according to some type of inner moral compass. For persons of faith (and one singing Disney cricket), this moral compass is known as a conscience. It is that something inside, generally believed to be directed by a higher power, that distinguishes right from wrong. When an individual’s behavior is not acceptable to Deity, a divine guilt is the result. Many faiths teach that the purpose of that guilt is to help the offender identify the error and promote a change of behavior and nature.
For the scientist, it is a matter of cognition and meta-cognition. Meta-cognition, the ability to think about our thoughts, is one attribute that sets humans apart from all other animal species. Science proposes that through some combination of nature and nurture humans develop an individualized set of beliefs and morals over the course of their life-time. This belief system guides behavior and attitudes. When a person’s behavior is contrary to their own belief system it causes an unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance.
A wonderful example of a combination of these two views is found in the popular children’s tale (turned cartoon), Pinocchio. The lonely craftsman, Gepetto, carves a wooden boy which miraculously comes to life. Although alive, Pinocchio has no moral compass to guide his actions. The talking Cricket, Jiminy, comes to the rescue and proclaims himself to be the boy’s conscience. Pinocchio, however, continually disregards the advice of his miniature companion and must learn the lessons of action and consequence for himself. Through a series of quite troubling experiences, including having his feet accidentally burned off, Pinocchio‘s nature has changed and he exclaims to the cricket “I shall remember the lesson you have taught me…”
Why Do We Act Contrary to Our Beliefs?
Nearly every one of us has said, “Why did I do that? Or, Why did I say that? I am so stupid!” Although our actions may have truly been studid, there is usually more to consider than intelligence. Thomas Monson once told of visiting a children’s school in Tonga where the teacher was showing the children a maka-feke. A maka-feke is a lure used to catch an octopus. The carefully disguised hunter quietly guides his canoe along the ocean waters while dangling the lure in the water. He tugs the line causing the lure to dance about, giving the appearance of a small animal in distress. The unsuspecting octopus leaves the protection of the ocean floor and latches onto the maka-feke. Unwilling to release its hold on the lure, the octopus is easily reeled in and tossed into the boat.
Where did the octopus go wrong? In our desire to condemn poor behavior we often fail to realize that, very much like the octopus, most mistakes are made as we seek to fulfill real and genuine human needs. The octopus needed food and believed the maka-feke to be genuine. Human needs include the life sustaining elements, but also complex desires such as safety, love, validation, a sense of personal self-worth, and a general state of happiness.
Like the octopus, if we are not cautious in our attempts to fulfill these needs we can mistakenly grab onto what promises satisfaction, but really leads to entrapment and destruction. Furthermore, as our appetite to fulfill a specific need increases, we more easily set aside our conscience or belief system in its pursuit.
A great example of this is found in the words of the 80’s pop song by the Cutting Crew, “I just died in your arms tonight.” I’m not sure that as teenagers on the dance floor we understood that what we were listening to was no love song, but a stern warning against casting away one’s conscience in the pursuit of pleasure. And I quote:
But now it’s over, the moment has gone
I followed my hands not my head, I know I was wrong
Oh I, I just died in your arms tonight
It must’ve been something you said
…It must’ve been some kind of kiss
I should’ve walked away
Four Ideas for Living Right
Many of us find ourselves continually boiling in our own hot-water. What can be done to help us “do good” more frequently so we can “feel good” more often? We have all found ourselves saying, “I want to be good–but I just keep being stupid.” Let me offer 4 suggestions I have found helpful in making better choices and living according to our moral compass.
First, recognize and beware of the imitation.
Like the octopus and the maka-feke, we must be constantly vigilant in monitoring how we pursue filling our needs. We want to avoid being that “girl in junior high” who, contrary to the advice of every single one of her friends, got entangled with the “wrong sort of boy,” because he filled her need to be loved and validated. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. If all of those who truly love you are sending up the red flags, it may be prudent to heed their warnings. Again, the more desperate we become to fulfill a specific need the more susceptible we are to fall for the imitation.
Second, evaluate the potential consequences of your actions.
Reason through the potential consequences of the actions you are contemplating. It may help to practice self-talk when you are tempted to do something your heart is telling you isn’t quite right. Shakespeare demonstrated this technique and the value of examining the consequences of our actions through the monologue of Tarquin.
‘What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?
Third, in your moments of strength prepare for your moments of weakness.
We all have moments of strength and moments of weakness. The best time to fight against your weakness isn’t when you are weak, but when you are strong. When you are in the throes of “hangry,” it is nearly impossible to deny yourself the doughnut or the siren song from the bucket of ice-cream. I have found the best time to throw out my junk-food is right after I have been on the scale! When your desire to quit smoking is high, destroy your cigarettes. If you struggle with a pornography addiction, build protections into your life while you are feeling the strength to fight.
Fourth, exercise your powers of self-control.
Most of us are familiar with the famous “marshmallow experiment” of Dr. Walter Mischel. Researchers gave several children one marshmallow, with a promise that if they would wait to eat it they would be rewarded with another. The study grew out of Dr. Mischel’s own concern over his addiction to smoking. One of his colleagues in the study concluded; “self-control is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Avoiding something tempting once will help you develop the ability to resist other temptations in the future.” What a wonderful discovery! This gives great hope to the person struggling with any kind of addiction. If you can fight it once, your ability to fight the next time is increased.
Happiness is the great quest of mankind and much of our happiness depends on our ability to live according to the moral compass within us. When we do good, we feel good. When we live right, we feel right. Living right will not protect us from all of the challenges of mortality, but if we are living right we can have peace and serenity even during life’s storms. Although our natures are inherently good, we can be easily deceived by the imitations of happiness and find ourselves in trouble. To protect ourselves from these trap we can (1) Beware of imitations, (2) consider consequences, (3) prepare for our weak moments while feeling strong, and (4) strengthen our “self-control” muscles.
*to read foundation #1 and #2, visit the “foundations of happy living” tab from the homepage, or follow this link http://theartofliving.live/category/the-art-of-happy-living/