Happiness is a Warm Gun

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"Happiness is a warm gun" wrote John Lennon in 1968. With U.S. Unemployment at its highest in 26 years at a rate of 10.2% it seemed particularly relevant for the search for the source of happiness to come up during a panel on hospitality at the Urban Land Institute [ULI] conference in San Francisco last week.

ULI, for the unfamiliar, is an institute of 33,000 members from 95 countries, representing the entire spectrum of real estate development disciplines, working in the public and private sector. They gather a few times a year to contemplate the future of world building – literally - and last week, on a panel titled "The New Consumer," they considered the future of resorts and leisure.

Jim Taylor, Vice Chairman of the Harrison Group, Inc., a strategic marketing consulting and research service firm, shared an amazing statistic. As people's purchasing habits have changed from "wants" to "needs" in this new economy, their happiness has increased by 67%.

In these odd times it seemed worthwhile to me to contemplate this strange sense of happiness for a moment.

Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Dan Gilbert, offers a compelling hypothesis for why we could still find joy, regardless of our predicament, on the beloved TED site. The video is from 2004 but the ideas are still super relevant.

For those of you who don't have 20 minutes to spare, here's the basic premise. Very simply, he explains that our psychological immune system helps change our views of the world so that we can feel better about the world in which we find ourselves. He attributes this to our ability to synthetically create happiness. We just naturally learn to love the things we have and are essentially stuck with.

That's why a lottery winner and a paraplegic are found to be equally happy a year later, and people who are gifted at something that they don't love learn to prefer it over other previously liked options.

That's also why, he explains, people who are given the option to select something and commit to it are happier than those who are offered a return policy.

Synthetic happiness, explains Gilbert, is as powerful and profound as found happiness. He quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet to remind us that "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

I love that idea. It's so empowering to think that happiness is neither an object nor an action, neither a gun nor the firing of it, but, instead, lies within us.

This week I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures. In it he talks about the inventor of the birth control pill, John Rock. Gladwell's books are always about a lot of things but he ends this particular chapter with the fact that Rock did not get to live long enough to be properly celebrated for his invention.


During the end of the sixties, besieged by the Church and accused of causing major diseases, consumption of the pill was cut in half and John Rock lost most of his fortune.

In his last interview Rock was asked what the most gratifying time of his life was. "Right now," he answered. "It frequently occurs to me, gosh, what a lucky guy I am. I have no responsibilities, and I have everything I want. I take a dose of equanimity every twenty minutes. I will not be disturbed about things."

Even in difficult times, I hope that we can all treat ourselves to some of this kind of luck.

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