Century-old Wisdom on Happiness

Last month, in a post titled The Happy Life, I wrote about a couple ideas on happiness written in a book published in 1905.

Recently, I received an even older book on the subject. The Duty of Happiness by Sir John Lubbock was published in 1896.

Lubbock book pic
Cover of Lubbock’s Book on Happiness
Photo by M. Fleming

I read the book with interest and discovered three important nuggets of century-old wisdom.

First, there’s a link between happiness and nature.

Nature provides without stint the main requisites of human happiness.

Second—and my wife is also good at reminding me of this—we need to think about how grateful we are. Lubbock writes:

Think how much we have to be thankful for. Few of us appreciate the number of our everyday blessings.

And finally, we have the ultimate choice of how we live.

Few of us, indeed, realize the wonderful privilege of living; the blessings we inherit, the glories and beauties of the Universe, which is our own if we so choose; the extent to which we can make ourselves what we wish to be; or the power we possess of securing peace, of triumphing over pain and sorrow.

Thanks to Sir John Lubbock, when it comes to living fully, I will remember to consider the following: nature, gratitude, and choice.

My Love Affair With Carl

I was first introduced to the ideas of Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, when I was in university back in the ’90s. I had a psychology professor who made fun of Rogers and his principles.

These days, if I were to run into that psychology professor, I would strongly disagree with his criticisms. But that psychology professor has probably kicked the bucket by now.

Anyway, after reading On Becoming a Person, I have come to discover that I love Carl Rogers. His philosophy on relationships and personal growth align with insights I have gained from my personal and professional experiences.

Rogers On Becoming
Cover of On Becoming a Person
Photo by M. Fleming

In my personal relationships and in my work with students, I have found that individuals have enormous potential within themselves.

Rogers discovered the same:

Gradually my experience has forced me to conclude that the individual has within himself the capacity and the tendency, latent if not evident, to move forward toward maturity.

Let’s keep moving forward.

The Happy Life

This past Christmas, my wife gave me things I desperately needed: socks and self-help books.

One book that intrigued me was The Happy Life by Charles W. Eliot. It was published in 1905! My 5-year-old son said, “Dad, that book smells old.”

happy life book cover
Cover of The Happy Life.
Photo by M. Fleming

I was curious to see if any of Eliot’s principles applied in 2019, more than a century after he wrote the book.

Incidentally, most, if not all, of Eliot’s insights still apply today.

Here’s one of my favourite passages:

In trying to enumerate the positive satisfactions which an average man may reasonably expect to enjoy in this world, I of course take no account of those too common objects of human pursuit,—wealth, power, and fame; first, because they do not as a rule contribute to happiness; and secondly, because they are unattainable by mankind in general.

And another:

The most satisfactory thing in all this earthly life is to be able to serve our fellow beings,—first those who are bound to us by love, then the wider circle of fellow-townsmen, fellow-countrymen, or fellow-men.

Wealth, power, and fame do not bring happiness. Loving others does. True in 1905 and still true today.

Anger Management Strategy from a 6-Year-Old

Like all parents, I was eating breakfast with my young children and quizzing them in the subject of mathematics.

There was one particularly difficult question that my 5-year-old son was struggling with. My 6-year-old jumped in and gave an answer. My son got angry. He stormed out of the room and started screaming and throwing things.

My daughter said, “Sam, you need to roll that anger into a ball and throw it out the window.”

I asked her where she learned that good strategy. She said her teacher.

I applaud those who have an awareness of their feelings and use calming techniques before they lose their cool. And I especially applaud the primary teachers who teach children these strategies.

Lego and Change

My 5-year-old son loves building with Lego, and for a 5-year-old, he’s pretty good at it. Sometimes, I’ll be staring at the instructions and he’ll already have the right piece in the right place. His mind sees how little pieces come together to make something whole.

My son recently had a birthday party, and of course, he got some new Lego.

“Dad, can you help me build this?”

“Let’s eat the birthday cake first.”

“Okay. Then can we build it?”

“Sure.”

We scatter all the pieces into an open container, open the instruction booklet, and start building. He’s very focused, but like most kids, his attention span is not very long. Sometimes, I look up and he’s no longer there. Other times, he’ll ask me to complete the creation.

The last time it was a dinosaur. Unlike my son, I don’t love building with Lego. Sometimes it’s painful locating a particular piece and figuring out where it goes. Anyway, after a little hard work I completed the dinosaur.

“Check it out, buddy.”

“Good job, Dad. Now let’s take it apart and build a different dinosaur!”

“But it took me so long to build this one! Let’s just keep it for a while.”

“No, Dad. Let’s take it apart and build something else.”

It’s then when I realize it’s not about the creation. It’s about the creating. It’s not about admiring the creation. It’s about taking it apart and creating something better. It’s not about constancy, but fluidity. It’s about building something with the pieces we are given and once it’s built, using the pieces again to build something even better. It’s about improvement. It’s about growth. And it’s about spending time with my son.

Losing Teeth and Change

My 6-year-old daughter was eating mint chip ice cream when she bit something hard.

My daughter had lost her first tooth.

It was an important milestone, but she was sad.

I asked, “Earlier you said that you didn’t want to lose your wiggly tooth because you were worried about how it might look.”

She said, “It’s not that, dad. I just don’t like change.”

Interesting, coming from a six-year-old. It reminded me of something my colleague said recently to students transitioning from high school to college, and I had my daughter repeat it.

With change comes opportunity.

Losing a tooth that you’ve had for most of your life is hard. It may hurt a little. It may bleed a little. You look into a mirror and things have changed. You may be sad. You may be scared. The gap is wide. The hole is deep. The wound is tender. But you’ve made way for something bigger, something better, something stronger. And when you realize it, you smile a little differently.

Reflecting on Insights from a Pure Mathematician

It is ironic that after years of studying graduate-level mathematics, it was a piece of literature I read during my studies that had the most profound influence on me. Mind you, it was written by a mathematician, but that doesn’t matter.

G. H. Hardy was arguably one of the greatest pure mathematicians of all time. He is portrayed by Jeremy Irons in The Man Who Knew Infinity, a movie that depicts his relationship with the mathematical genius Ramanujan from India.

Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology was published in 1940. His poetic and philosophical prose draws me in. In Apology, Hardy poses two questions that lead to the justification of his chosen profession:

A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be.

Hardy reflects on his life as a mathematician and concludes one, his work is valuable and two, he is good at it. Hey, if he had been a better cricket player, he may have chosen to be a professional cricketer.

And when others question my work, I reflect on Hardy’s morsels. I have no doubt of the answer to the first question, and I’m pretty sure I suck at baseball.

A Real Hero

My young daughter has been fascinated with Terry Fox ever since she learned about him in junior kindergarten.

I used to read Terry Fox: A Story of Hope to her at bedtime, and every time I’d be crying by the final page. My daughter was drawn to the story and pictures, especially the Terry Fox statues depicted in the book.

Last week our family travelled to Ottawa and across from the Parliament Buildings stood a statue of Terry Fox. It was a special moment for my daughter and me. She got to stand beside her hero Terry Fox, and being next to her, I got to stand beside one of mine.

In a world where people look up to those like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber, I’m proud that my daughter looks up to a young Canadian who embodied hope and courage: Terry Fox—a real hero.

Using “F” Words to Build Rapport with People from Other Countries

Over the years in my work, I’ve had many opportunities to work with people from other countries. It can be challenging connecting with someone from a different culture. However, it can be an amazing experience if we are open to learning and willing to build relationships.

I’ve discovered that having a genuine interest in an individual is one of the best ways to build a relationship. And when it comes to building rapport with people from other countries, I use three “F” words to stimulate conversations: food, family, and future. These conversation topics are helpful in bridging cultural divides and making positive connections.

Food. Who doesn’t like food? It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you eat. You may not like eating bland food as much as I do, but I’m sure you have a favourite dish. What is it? How do you make it? Describe it. I’m getting hungry.

Family. Most people can talk about their family. It might be a special bond with a sibling or a loving relationship with a parent. Sometimes you don’t get along with family members, but you still love them. If you ask questions about someone’s family and actively listen to the responses, you show that you care.

Future. Questions about the future are very relevant to students in college, the population I work with. But I see this conversation topic working with anyone from another country. Everyone has hopes and dreams. Why not tap into this core human quality and connect with someone?

I guess “F” words aren’t all bad. Food, family, and future: topics that help build relationships and help us realize we are more similar than different.