Real Leverage

We have a happiness “set point.” It’s genetic. The cards you have been dealt. If you win the lottery, you’ll be happier for a while, then return to your set point. If you have a terrible life changing accident, you will be sadder for a while, then return to your “set point.”

In their book, “Connected,” Fowler and Christakis describe it. They say it is like walking up a downward escalator. But they also say something else. They say scientists estimate that our “set point” is not the only thing that defines our happiness. Our genetic disposition accounts for just about 50% of our happiness level.

“Long-term happiness depends 50 percent on a person’s genetic set point, 10 percent on their circumstances (e.g., where they live, how rich they are, how healthy they are), and 40 percent on what they choose to think and do.”

This is where things get interesting.

Ten percent of our happiness is determined by our circumstances. Where we live. How rich or poor we are. Our health. Our place within the structure of oppression.

The other forty percent is shaped by what we choose to think and do. Where we place our attention. How we eat and tend to our bodies. The choice to be both generous and grateful.

I have devoted my life to the work of social justice. It has been my central orientation. I see injustice. I am aware that we are breaking the planet. I want to have real impact on real things.

I want my work to have a direct impact on the objective conditions of the people. I want to have a positive effect on people’s circumstance. But it is imperative that I pay attention to how I go about doing this. Because I risk limiting my impact. My work should aim for more than only 10 percent of a person’s experience of happiness, of freedom and aliveness. I want real leverage.

When we place most of our attention on shifting that ten percent. We risk neglecting the forty percent of our human experience that is shaped by what we choose to think and do.

I am often dismayed by the ways in which we go about taking our stand for justice. I am dismayed by the way we indulge rage and resentment. By the fundamentalism that demands purity and gives shape to call out culture.

It can be a beautiful passionate stance that seeks to quench the thirst for justice. But it can also turn into a terrible misuse of powerful energy.

Focusing on the 10 percent that makes a difference is terribly important. But it is a mistake to give it most of the weight. Our (accurate) analysis of structural oppression can make us feel like we are exempt. We focus on that 10 percent that is outside or ourselves. And we fail to do the hard work of looking at ourselves.

We project all of our unhappiness onto a system of oppression. And this projection holds us back. It keeps us from attaining what we are seeking.

Let us bring more of our effort to how we choose to think. “Whatever you give attention to will grow.” And to what we choose to do.

This conscious choice can get tricky. We don’t want to forget about injustice. But we don’t want our focus on injustice to be the lens that shapes our human experience or even our work for justice.

We want to act. We want to do. We want to fight for justice. But when this looks like a state of permanent rage. And when this is upheld by justified resentment. Then all we are doing is limiting our human experience. And making each other miserable under the guise of building a better world.