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10/22/09

Does Spontaneity Promote Happiness?


"Despite considerable research on the topic, I've discovered very little explicitly relating spontaneity to happiness. Admittedly, it's doubtful that any straightforward, one-to-one correspondence actually exists. Still, what various theorists have said about this ideal state of consciousness suggests that, however indirectly, spontaneity does play a crucial role in its achievement. For whether these writers talk about the importance of living in the moment (or 'mindfulness'), liberating oneself from self-consciousness, or even 'being in the zone,' the underlying notion of living more spontaneously to foster a greater state of well-being is generally not far below the surface."

Spontaneity. Hmmm. Long ago when I took French, I read a novel by Andre Gide, Lafcadio's Adventures (in French Les Caves du Vatican, or The Vatican Cellars), in which the protagonist tried to do a completely gratuitous act--something undetermined by him. Without premeditation, so he thinks, without a plan, he murders a man, by shoving him off a train. But the act was not gratuitous, for at the last minute Lafcadio Wluki had intent. He could not escape the cause and effect which informs our lives. For Gide, this was a philosophical novel on what the novelist regarded as the conflict between human freedom and determinism. So much for literature vis-à-vis neuroscience, which cannot find a ghost in the machine.

Which raises the question, Is anything ever spontaneous? Yes, says Robert Burton (On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not). Yes, by implication in the sense that we think we know something because a conscious thought (our belief) arose as a sensation produced by the unconscious mind. The conscious thought that we are right is produced by an unconscious association and is therefore spontaneous. Burton has an interesting argument and from a neurological perspective he is dead on about many things, but it is too long for my purpose here. Read the book if you want to understand more.

Burton, though, was a neurologist, now retired to write novels, and his book is not about happiness. For a psychologist's perspective on happiness and spontaneity, read on. More

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