Tuesday, 7 January 2014

It all depends on how

you ask the question.
I was reading Nicola Morgan's blog yesterday and she posed the question "what does your existence do to the world?"
She had been reading Flourish by Martin Seligman and gone to his Authentic Happiness website. I had a look at these too. (You can waste a lot of time doing this sort of thing so I am not going to add the links to this blog as well.)
What was there was not really "my sort of thing". I have a background in, among other things, psychology.  I am wary of such things.
One of the questions on Seligman's website asks you to choose between the following:
A: In the grand scheme of thing, my existence may hurt the world
B: My existence neither helps nor hurts the world
C: My existence has a small but positive effect on the world
D: My existence makes the world a better place.
E: My existence has a lasting, large and positive impact on the world.

Answering this question is, according to Nicola, a clever way of finding out how happy you are. Her own reaction (and I can say this because she put it in her own blog post) was to say  "C but I try to aim for D". It is, I suspect, the sort of answer that comes from people who are confident and care about the world around but are also realistic enough to realise that they are not going to change a lot. It was also made in response to her definition of "the world" - the world around her. That's fair.
But what if you think of things in a different way? Unlike most people my job is global - I think of "the world" as a very big place. I am not in the least bit important in that big world. I don't think my existence harms the world. I certainly hope it doesn't. Would the world be better off without me? That's a question I can't answer - except to again say that I hope it doesn't. That deals with A I think.
Perhaps it deals with B too.
C is slightly different. I'd like to think I had a small positive impact on the world. But - if I was not here would it make a difference? I like to think some people would miss me - just as I would miss them but would it actually make a difference? Is there anything at all that I do that nobody else can do?
For the vast majority of us the answer to that question has to be no.  That doesn't mean that we aren't useful. It just means we aren't indispensable - even though we might like to be.
It might even mean that D sometimes applies to all of us. It may be possible to consider (as Nicola suggested to me) the idea of the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon and having a global impact. Certainly anyone who tries to help anyone else might, if thought of in terms of the butterfly, have a lasting impact on the world. The problem with D however is that we will almost certainly never be aware of the impact we have. We need to take that on trust.
I concede that E is unlikely but our actions may help someone else achieve that goal. It was Braille Day recently - to honour Louis Braille, the man who invented the system which has allowed millions of visually impaired people to read. Most of us would probably think of him as an "E" person. I wonder how Louis Braille would have seen himself but I also wonder how his parents and teachers would see themselves. After all they had a part in what he became and what he invented.
So surely it depends on how you ask the question? The best we can hope for is that we are never an A, that B does not apply and that if C is largely true it also leads to others being D and E. But what does that really make us - and how does that apply to happiness?


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