Why won’t you change?

You know what I mean. Here are the facts: You will admit you’re not perfect. You will readily concede that you are far from it, in fact. When pressed, you may even grant that you are not as happy as you would like to be. What’s more, you might have a bead on the steps you need to take to make you happy. But you don’t, won’t, follow them. Why?

We are wired this way, for some reason. I could speculate on the evolutionary reasons why our brains naturally steer us away from change and keep us in line with the herd or lead us to risk aversion, but let’s reserve that pop-science conversation for a dinner party some time.


Instead, let’s focus on this: There is no good reason for avoiding change that is good for us. That is, there are explanatory factors for this risk-avoiding, change-evading behavior, but the behavior itself is not based on rationality. Here’s an example of what I mean: You have heard that eating large amounts of fast food isn’t good for you, but — if you’re a normal American — you do it anyway. Does it make you happier? If so, is that a fleeting happiness later offset by guilt or despair (or indigestion)? If your answer is yes, then there exists no good reason to eat fast food. But you do it anyway.

If something does not make you happier — either immediately or in the future — why do it?

Last May I had the privilege of teaching a business and economics course to a class of seventh grade girls. After six one-hour sessions with these wonderful students, I huddled them all up for some final thoughts. Sitting in a semicircle, we reviewed some of the lessons we had learned, and after a piece I asked them this: “What’s the point?”

They looked at me, silent. “Why did we study all of this?” I said.

“So we can handle money,” said one student.

“So we know how to get jobs,” chimed in another.

“Yes, but what’s the point of being able to handle money or of getting a job?” I pressed. Again, confused silence, and then:

“So we can buy stuff.”

“What’s the point of buying stuff?”

Long pause. And then one of the more animated students, thinking hard but speaking timidly took a guess. “So we can be happy?”

“Yes! And there you have it. School is about your happiness!” They looked at me like I was an alien. But what is school about if it is not about the happiness — in this case, by and large the future happiness — of the students? It cannot be about anything else.

The trick, of course, is to balance future and present happiness, but the larger point is that happiness is the purpose, the end, the telos of life. Love is about happiness, as is earning money, as is any purposeful relationship, activity, or action, even if misguided.

And very often happiness requires change. We must always be willing to change if that will increase our happiness. We know this. Deep down in our guts we know that change is necessary to keep us happy or to make us happier, yet for some reason our instinct is to resist any and all change.

Maybe our brains are wired this way, but we also have the ability to counteract instinct. We can choose. We can choose to change. We can decide to take the path that leads to greater happiness.

For me, a recent move to Hawaii reflected my willingness to change to maintain or increase my happiness. The same analysis applied to my exit from faith, which was enormously hard. My next personal challenge consists of making those changes necessary to improve my happiness through proper diet and exercise. Will I do what makes me happy? Will you do what makes you happy?

Why? Or why not?

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