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Stumbling towards Happiness

[Anne:] I have added yet one more text to our reading list, Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 Stumbling on Happiness, which I found interesting and useful, so I want to append my reading notes for that text to our conversation here. Gilbert’s argument is that when we make decisions “in the charitable service of the people we will soon become,” we are woefully inept in imagining who those selves will be, and what they will want and need. Ours are mistakes of “realism” (being insufficiently skeptical of the products of our imagination, which fills and leaves out–like memory does–without telling us what it’s up to), “presentism” (our tendency to project the present onto the future, rather than imagining something much different), and “rationalization” (our failure to recognize that things –especially bad things– will look a whole lot different once they actually happen). Gilbert also offers a remedy for these shortcomings: give up on remembering and imagining, and use other people as surrogates for our future selves. Thinking of ourselves as unique, we mistakenly reject the lessons we could learn from the emotional experience of others, but “the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.”

That’s the overview, but there were many particular moments of illumination throughout. Perhaps the one of most use– because so clarifying– to me came in the first section, on “realism”: “When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen. Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons…. our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance….. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives?… When we said yes we were thinking… in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience….

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So, what have I learned from this happiness study anyway?

This semester of exploring happiness is coming to an end and it is time to reflect on all that Anne and I have accomplished. Often I wish I had devoted more time to this exploration so that I could have done more to meet the insanely high standards I often hold myself too. But one thing I have learned from this independent study is the way you tell the story matters. It’s only fitting then, that the story of an exploration such as this should be a happy one.

“Many ancients… rejected the idea that happiness should be our goal. It is for them, just a by-product to the life well-lived” (Unhappiness, 9). The quote featured on the top of this blog can be interpreted in a very different way than I initially read it. I started my happiness exploration (almost a year and a half ago) with this goal clear in my mind. Studying happiness WOULD make me happier. However, throughout these last few months of my journey, the ancients (along with many other disciples of various happiness related advice) have convinced me that lusting after happiness could never be the right way to actually achieve it. Hector’s seventh lesson is listed on my most important for a reason: finding happiness really means taking small steps towards contentment, making little changes to daily routines, and learning to appreciate the everyday.

I’ve been spending most of my life looking to the future. “In the future everything will be better; in the future I will finally be happy.” But that’s not really how it works. It is up to me to decide that I am happy now. Nothing magical is going to happen to my mindset, my depression, or the circumstances of my existence. These will always be pretty much the same, but I do have control over how I live in these circumstances and how I deal with the mindset I was given. Even if sweeping changes were to happen to my life, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” winning the lottery will only do so much for your level of happiness. Sure, things might seem better for a while, but eventually you return to your natural level of contentment. If I can’t learn to redefine happiness for myself now, I never will.

Placing too much importance on the opinions of others is something I have struggled with a lot over the last two years. Other people are constantly at the center of my decisions everything from the job I will have when I graduate to how I will spend my Saturday night. In many ways, I do not really think I know who I am anymore. The definition of who I am has been crafted to meet the expectations of others. Now that I am graduating, moving, and almost completely starting over, I am intending to begin my new life with this lesson in mind. One key to happiness is letting go of what other people think and expect of you.

Religion, perhaps more than any other topic, has been at the center of this happiness exploration. Religion makes people happier and live longer. Hector even wonders “whether belief in God was a lesson in happiness,” but ultimately  he realizes “he couldn’t make that a lesson because you don’t choose whether to believe in God or not” (68). I’ve thought about God, I’ve talked to God, I’ve gotten back in touch with the religion of my childhood, but I have not yet found my place in the world of faith. Maybe Hector’s right and we can’t choose whether or not we believe. Most of the time I’m sure I believe in God, but sometimes I doubt. I’m a Christian by culture and upbringing and an agnostic by mindset. I don’t think you need a traditional religion to be happy, but I do think you need conviction in something to have happiness. So whether your religion is running, the sciences, or the tooth fairy I’d say you’re on the right track.

The Alchemist taught me a number of things including that “the secret of life…is to fall seven times and to get up eight times,” “if you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man,” and “there is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve, the fear of failure(vii, 85, 141).  I hope I, like Santiago, am able to follow my personal legend one day. I’m not sure what my legend may be, but I have faith that I will find it. I have to admit, although I have failed often (and sometimes quite epically), I am still extremely crippled by a fear of failure. This semester I have spent so much time fearing what my grades will be at graduation, fearing that others will think I failed in comparison to them. Spending time fearing these things has done nothing to help me; it has only added a first and second dart to my already overly anxious head. In the Alchemist, Santiago lets go of all his fear and achieves an amazing feat. In this, the last week of my work as an undergraduate, I am going to do my best to let go of my fear of failing. My failures have taught me many important lessons and I know that if I don’t get what I think I want, I might end up getting something even better.

Buddha’s Brain provides practical applications and mediations to help change the way your mind works. The idea of being able to change the way you think was such a foreign concept to me before this semester. I still don not entirely believe that I am capable of changing the way I think, but I know I will continue to work on it. Buddha also brought up a topic that has always been difficult for me: “Everything changes. That’s the universal nature of outer reality and inner experience. Therefore, there’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as you live” (33). I have never been good with change, other than the obvious the thing I find myself seeking the most in life is stability (which doesn’t always bring happiness by the way). Change makes me anxious, upset, and afraid. I probably will not ever be the best at dealing with change, but Buddha’s Brain (along with many of the other works I’ve read this semester) have given me the tools to address this problem and change it.

Not only have I gained the tools for emotional preparedness, but I have also read about preparing for the unexpected from a financial standpoint. I worry a lot about money. Most people worry a lot about money. I knew in the beginning of the semester that I would soon be entering the work force and that learning about the financial decisions I would be making would be a good idea. So I read books, and talked to my parents, and watched Suze Orman specials on PBS…and I am so happy that I did! I found my apartment months before my friends even began thinking about looking, I secured my first independent credit card, and I’ve begun selecting the index funds I intend to invest my retirement savings in. It feels great to be so prepared for the next steps of my life and being prepared has helped me to fear the change that much less.

Of course I would like to be able to say that I am graduating from Bryn Mawr having successfully applied all of these lessons to my own life, but (yes, this is another lesson!) that’s not really how it works. I spent this semester discovering the lessons I will spend the rest of my life applying. Happiness is not the goal because it is not a finite state. I will be happy, but I won’t stay that way forever. Happiness is a process I must actively choose to participate in everyday and hopefully I’ll be keeping you posted on how it’s going.

It’s funny, but I feel that in some ways this exploration of happiness has the same “head fake” as Randy Pausch’s last lecture: It’s not really about achieving the goal of happiness; it’s about how to live your life. Mistakenly, I believed this independent study would help me reach a goal. Really this independent study has help me recognize the unhealthy habits I have allowed myself to keep. There is no one to blame for my unhappiness but myself. I need to choose to be happy and I hope some day soon I will be able to do just that.

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Life of Pi and A Little About Unhappiness

The last two books Anne and I read this semester are “Life of Pi” and “The Pursuit of Unhappiness.” We’re not really sure how Life ended up on our list…but it did and the first half (and the very end) of the book contained some useful bits relating to happiness. The meat of the book finds our protagonist starving on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean and was sometimes difficult to read.

Some of my favorite parts of Pi are:

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling. My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition” (5).

“Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you? But animals are incapable of such discernment. Within the limits of their nature, they make due with what they have” (18).

“Repetition is important in the training not only of animals, but also of humans” (23).

“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation” (28).

“The presence of God is the finest of rewards” (63).

“These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside” (71).

“People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing…Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else” (79).

“Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but what can you do? You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it” (91).
“It was frightening, the extent to which a full belly made for a good mood. The one would follow the other measure for measure: so much food and water, so much good mood. It was such a terribly fickle existence. I was at the mercy of turtle meat for smiles” (213).

“The rain chilled me to the bone. But I was smiling. I remember that close encounter with electrocution and third-degree burns as one of the few happy times during my ordeal when I felt genuine happiness” (233).

“What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order… It is important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go.” (285).

“Isn’t telling about something–using words…already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?… The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” (302).

This last quote is (as I’ve mentioned before) a theme that Anne and I talked at length about. The way you shape and tell the story of your life determines if it is a happy one. Life of Pi also has a lot of interesting commentary on religion, not all of which is related to happiness. All the same, it’s worth checking out.

“Unhappiness” on the other hand, is a philosophical/psychological book that points out our fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘happiness’ really is. We have so many definitions for the word it’s hard to know what the right one is. “Unhappiness” also touched on many of the topics our other readings talked about. I wish I had more time to write, but alas it is finals week and my work is never ending.

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Money, Stuff, and Happiness

I’ve always been a little overly concerned about money, so it makes sense that my coming graduation would cause me to become even more interested in this subject. People often associate money with happiness and I’ve been thinking a lot about how money effects my happiness. A few months ago, I clicked on an article linked off of Vanguard’s website entitled: “Living a Minimalist Financial Life–and Debt Free.” The basic advice given by the couple interviewed is to simplify your life, downsize, and pay more attention to experiences. Tammy and her husband used to live “the American dream.” They had a large apartment, normal everyday desk jobs, and not just a little bit of credit card debt. Realizing they weren’t happy they began a five year project of de-cluttering their life and in the process they re-defined the meaning of success. Now the two of them live in a 400-square-foot apartment (to give you some perspective, I’ll be living in an 800-square-foot apartment…by myself next year) and no longer own a car. Downsizing has allowed them to begin doing work they love with no credit debt.

This new minimalist lifestyle is really catching on (by “really catching on” I mean it has become a recognized underground movement) and Tammy’s story has been covered by the New York Times as well as a number of other major news outlets. I have to say, this style of living is really attractive to me because I often feel that the less clutter we have in our lives the more happiness we have room for. Tammy was able to start doing work she is passionate about for the first time in her life because her money and her time is no longer tied to STUFF. As I’ve begun packing to move out of college, I’ve been taking her advice and the advice I’ve read on her blog to heart when thinking about the things that I really need to take with me and I have realized that there are a lot of things I’ve been holding onto for years that I just don’t need to be burdened with anymore.
In my copious space time as a senior in college…I’ve also started reading some of Suze Orman’s financial advice (It’s never too early to think about saving for retirement! No really, I’ve been dreaming about opening my 401k since I was 12). Surprisingly, I’ve found that the Queen of financial advice in the U.S.A is giving similar advice to mainstream America. She’s all about re-defining the American dream so that it no longer necessarily means buying a house and having tons of stuff.

I definitely see the worth in this style of thinking and living. The less stuff the more happiness!!! (wish me luck on my finals…)

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Woe Be Gone

[Anne]: In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G. Wilson says,

“The greatest tragedy is to live without tragedy. To hug happiness is to hate life. To love peace is to loathe the self. The blues are clues to the sublime. The embrace of gloom stokes the heart.” Maybe a parody? Maybe not?? To discuss….

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The Last Lecture

Last week I had to spend the majority of a night in the hospital (I have a lot of food allergies and sometimes have to take an EpiPen). This gave me with about four hours of open time and I only really had time to grab a book out of my room before I left. The book I picked up was The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The first time I read this book was during my freshman or sophomore year of college. Randy Pausch was a gifted computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed Pancreatic cancer in 2006. He passed away in 2008, but before his death he gave an inspiring “last lecture” at CMU that went viral on the internet. This talk is entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” You can watch it here (I really recommend watching it. It’s a great lecture!).

I purchased the book after having seen the lecture on YouTube. Obviously, Pausch’s lecture made an impression on me. His ability to “keep having fun” in the face of terminal cancer is amazing.  I have trouble having fun and being happy without such serious obstacles. It’s stories like this that really push me to change the way I think.

When I first saw the lecture I intended to take a lot of the advice that he gives about achieving your dreams. Somewhere a long the line this intention got lost, which makes me all the more excited about grabbing this book as I was heading out the door.

Some of his advice is really practical and he gives great antidotes to illustrate why he feels certain things are very important. I have followed some of his recommendations (even before I read his book I might add!). For example, No Job is Beneath You. This is a sentiment that my family engrained in me from birth.

Other things like Be the First Penguin (experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted) I have not been exceptionally good at. I am so happy I have been reminded of Randy Pausch! I now have now renewed my intention to follow his advice ( and so I have a lot of thank-you notes to send!).

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The Alchemist

This is the second time that I have read The Alchemist. I read it for the first time the summer after my sophomore year of college; my copy was handed down to me on May Day from a graduating senior (a part of one of our many traditions here at Bryn Mawr). I honestly don’t remember what I thought of it the first time I read it. I did however, have misgivings about reading for the second time. I remembered The Alchemist as something quite different from what I found it to be this time around.

Here are my important quotes and themes:

“What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend” (vi).

“We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey” (vi).

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times” (vii).

“We have to be prepared for change, he thought…” (8).

“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That is the world’s greatest lie” (18).

“It is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their personal legend is” (21).
This quote is really interesting to me. I feel like I have definitely lost track of my personal legend. In all honesty I’m not sure if I did ever know what it was. From about fifth grade until freshman year of high school my only goal in life was to become a nun. I’m not Catholic and I don’t believe I was very religious at the time that I had this deep longing, but it was something I really wanted to do. How do you know if something is your personal legend?

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one” (22).

“…every day was the same, and when each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day the sun rises” (27).
I live my life like this everyday. Most days are the same to me because I don’t let myself enjoy the present. This is something I really want to work on.

“The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon” (32).

“As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure” (42).
Anne and I spoke at length about this during our discussion of Life of Pi on Wednesday. We have the ability to tell our own stories; we can shape the narrative into a happy or sad tale. It is all about choice!

“Today I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse” (58).

“I can always go back to being a shepherd, the boy thought. I learned how to care for sheep, and I haven”t forgotten how that’s done. But maybe I’ll never have another chance to get to the Pyramids in Egypt” (64).

“…making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision” (68).

“…people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want” (76).

“Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man” (85).
A mindset I hope to master.

“The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better” (103).

“Life attracts life” (117).

“You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t true love… the love that speaks the Language of the World” (120).

“‘There is only one way to learn,’ the alchemist answered. ‘It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey” (125).

“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say. That way, you’ll never have to fear an unanticipated blow” (129).

“Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place” (131).

“When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed” (134).

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure” (141).
I have an intense fear of failure and I know this fear has shaped many of the decisions that I have made in my life.

The Alchemist gave me a lot of inspiration. I feel like Hector and The Alchemist came at the perfect time for me in this semester. The weeks that I spent reading these books were really tough and the lessons that I learned from them helped me to get through that time.

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Linking Up

[from Anne:] Coupla’ links to further exploration that I wanted to include here.

The first two are from postings made this week by a student in my evolution class, who asked,

can we control happiness? … I think if we have this sense of outer self looking in on ourselves, that would help us manage each of the situations. We could have an objective view of ourselves and provide input for ourselves….

I am responsible for my happinesswe are in control of how we react to things…. I can choose to let reactions affect me or not. In that sense I will be in control of my happiness.

The next lead, to Sara Ahmed’s essay on Happy Objects, which considers “happiness as a happening,” a “promise that directs us toward certain objects, which then circulate as social goods,” was provided by another student whose work on Stigma (a different sort of object than happiness….) I’m supervising this semester.

And the last  is to the work of the philosopher Daniel Haybron, who ends his study of The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford 2008), with this quotation from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

Perhaps [we should?] emphasize, among our basic entitlements, our right to the pursuit of unhappiness.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claimng the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim then all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.” You’re welcome,” he said.

What this suggests to me (and this is the burden of Haybron’s work) is that freedom and the assurance of happiness are incompatible: if we want agency, if we want the freedom to shape our own lives, then there is no guarantee of the outcomes. And we could/should be happy about that….?! (including being happy about the fact that we don’t know ourselves too well? As Haybron also says,

I want to know what it’s like to be me. This is a real question, not a joke, because there are good reasons for doubting that any of us have a firm grasp on the quality of our experience of life, in particular its affective character. Possibly, many of us are profoundly ignorant about such matters, to the point that we often don’t know whether we are happy or unhappy… (p.199).

Which brings us back to Alex’s observation that she doesn’t know who she is. Do any of us? And if not, then wherefrom happiness? (Perhaps precisely from the not-knowing??)

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Lessons From Hector

In my last post I mentioned that Lesson 3, Lesson, 7, Lesson 8, Lesson 13, and Lesson 17 were the lessons that made the biggest impact on me, the lessons I most connected with.

Lesson 7: It’s a mistake to think that happiness is the goal. This lesson is really interesting to me. On the surface it seems to contradict the entire exploration Anne and I are on. The first four books that we read for this course all positioned happiness as the goal. People read those books because they are searching for happiness. Even the quote at the top of this blog could be seen as contradicting this lesson (but if you look closely you can see how they can complement each other).

Three of the other lessons are closely related; they all have to do with other people:
Lesson 8: Happiness is being with the people you love.
Lesson 13: Happiness is feeling useful to others.
Lesson 17: Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.
I think the fact that I connected with these lessons says something negative about the places that I look for happiness: I place too much importance on the opinions of others. From this I have decided that my first lesson from Hector is that happiness is being secure in myself. Happiness is not needing the approval of others.

Lesson 3 (many people see happiness only in their future) is by far the lesson that is most important for me. I have lived my life this way for as long as I can remember. I need to learn to see happiness in my present. It’s like The Alchemist says: the journey is the most important part.

One lesson that I didn’t put in my list originally is Lesson 14: Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are. It felt selfish to me, including this lesson in those that are most important to me. In many ways it also falls under the placing-too-much-importance-on-the-opinions-of-others  category. How can I expect someone to love me for who I am when I don’t even know who I am?

Arguably, this is one of the simplest works we have read so far, but I feel like I am taking a many lessons from Hector and his search.

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Hector and the Search for Happiness

I’m over a week removed from when I finished Hector and the Search for Happiness (and I just finished The Alchemist today) so I feel that it is time to record my thoughts about Hector and his travels.

Hector is a psychiatrist in an unknown, but affluent, country. “He felt dissatisfied because he could see perfectly well that he couldn’t make people happy” (5). This dissatisfaction (along with fears that the discontent of his wealthier patients make be contagious) prompts him to start a journey to many different places in order to discover the truths about happiness.

“You must be careful when you ask people whether they’re happy; it’s a question that can upset them a great deal” (15).

“The basic mistake people make is to think that happiness is the goal!” (38).

“He wondered whether belief in God was a lesson in happiness. No, he couldn’t make that a lesson because you don’t choose whether to believe in God or not” (68).

“This is something all children wanting to survive should know, then: people are kinder to a child who smiles, even if it doesn’t always work” (80).

“Here, there are plenty of reasons to be unhappy, even for people like us who are relatively fortunate. So when there’s an occasion to be happy we want to make the most of it! We don’t care about the next day, we never know what it might bring!” (99).

“Happiness is not attaching too much importance to what other people think” (129).

“True wisdom would be the ability to live without this scenery, to be the same person even at the bottom of a well. But that, it has to be said, is not so easy” (151).

These are the lessons that Hector wrote in his notebook:

Lesson 1: Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.
Lesson 2: Happiness often comes when least expected.
Lesson 3: Many people see happiness only in their future.
Lesson 4: Many people think that happiness comes from having more power or more money.
Lesson 5: Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.
Lesson 6: Happiness is a long walk in the mountains.
Lesson 7: It’s a mistake to think that happiness is the goal.
Lesson 8: Happiness is being with the people you love.
Lesson 8b: Unhappiness is being separated from the people you love.
Lesson 9: Happiness is knowing your family lacks for nothing.
Lesson 10: Happiness is doing a job you love.
Lesson 11: Happiness is having a home and a garden of your own.
Lesson 12: It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.
Lesson 13: Happiness is feeling useful to others.
Lesson 14: Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are.
Lesson 15: Happiness comes when you feel truly alive.
Lesson 16: Happiness is knowing how to celebrate.
Lesson 17: Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.
Lesson 18: Happiness could be the freedom to love more than one woman at the same time.
Lesson 19: The sun and the sea make everybody happy.
Lesson 20: Happiness is a certain way of seeing things.
Lesson 21: Rivalry poisons happiness.
Lesson 22: Women care more than men about making others happy.
Lesson 23: Happiness means making sure that those around you are happy?

The most important lessons for me from this list are Lesson 3, Lesson 7, Lesson 8, Lesson 13, Lesson 17.

I am falling asleep so I must continue this post another time!

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