Does everyone have the potential to be happy?

Bart likes to wear black. He thinks of himself as a rebel. He has always been an outsider and that is just fine with him because in his own words, the world is a messed up place.

People are too closed-minded, he says, and their interactions are superficial. So Bart took no part in school plays, sought out and stuck with his nonconformist buddies in college and still refuses to sell out by working for the man today.

It’s hard to check in with my friend Bart, his name only for the sake of this post, because he can’t afford a cell phone and his myriad of odd jobs (needed to make ends meet) put him on what seems like an antisocial schedule.

Is Bart an example of the Nietzsche Ubermensch – resisting the opiates of the masses, like “American Idol,” and moving to the beat of his own drummer? Or is Bart kidding himself?

By Bart’s own admission, life is an uphill battle that rarely makes him happy. But it’s bill collectors that gnaw at him, not suckers in the daily grind. It’s failed relationships that hold him down, not a backward thinking populous that fails to see the value of going against the grain.

In truth, he just seems to be getting in his own way. Don’t we all have friends like that? They just never seem able to get traction, no matter how many hours we spend on the telephone trying to solve their problems. We wonder why they just won’t wake up as we try to listen to their dysfunctional stories in one ear while catching “American Idol” in the other.

There may actually be a reason.

Psychologist Jack Mayer studies how emotions influence personality. According to Mayer, biology and social interaction can shape a personality. This much we know, but studies over the last 10 years indicate that once the personality is molded, a person is limited to experiencing only a finite range of emotions. Mental health professionals call these ranges “set points.”

“We are a bit like Weeble-Wobble dolls,” said Carol Kauffman a psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor. “We tend to go back to our usual happiness set point after negative or positive life events.”

So, Bart may always want to wear black. But according to Mayer, all hope isn’t lost. Psychoactive drugs, exercise, and diet can help a person break past biological limits on happiness and “cheerier friends” can help counteract negative surroundings.

Specifically, Mayer offers the following advice to Bart.

“The world is a marvelously complex place,” said Mayer. “As it turns out, some mental models are more constructive than others… I think that searching for a constructive model of the world is a worthwhile pursuit in life.”

Although he acknowledges that Bart may not agree.


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
This entry was posted in happiness, mental models, nature vs. nuture, nonconformism, nonconformist, personality development, set points, The Joy of Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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