Friday, April 29, 2011

Behavior Is a Tool To Obtain Happiness

Shortly after my stepfather was arrested for abusing me and my siblings, my mother began studying psychology books trying to figure out where she had gone wrong so she could prevent it from happening in the future. One of the benefits of all of this reading was that she changed the way that she viewed and dealt with misbehavior from us. Prior to that point, she labeled us according to our behavior. If our behavior was good, we were good. If our behavior was bad, we were bad. Afterward, she would assure us that while she did not approve of the behavior, we were still worth loving and she still saw us as basically good.

Years later, I would study psychology in college. During my studies, we learned about behavioral conditioning. People do a certain behavior and get some kind of emotional reward for it, and that leads them to repeat the behavior. This can happen with negative behaviors just as easily as it can with positive behaviors. In fact, quite often, children who have trouble getting the attention of a parent through positive behaviors will resort to negative behaviors even though the negative attention is less desirable than the positive attention.

When I combined my knowledge that all people want to be happy with the knowledge that people's behavior is motivated by emotional rewards, I began to see that human beings use behavior as a tool to obtain happiness. The child who steals the cookie from the cookie jar mistakenly believes that the cookie will make them happy. The woman who cheats on her husband believes she will find happiness in the bedroom. Drug addicts believe they will find happiness chasing a high. My stepfather's abusive behavior was an effort on his part to find happiness.

As I did more studying, though, I also began to see something very important about human beings. We all have a need to believe that we are good. So driven are we to see ourselves as good that we must rationalize any deliberately harmful behavior by either assuring ourselves that the person we are harming isn't really human and therefore it's not important that we are harming them or that we aren't really harming them at all. This is why abortionists tell themselves so loudly and often that the babies they are killing aren't really babies. It is why atheists campaign so hard to convince themselves and others they don't have to believe in God to be good. It is why people who are racist will refer to those of a different color as weeds, cockroaches, or animals.

This led me to ask a fundamental question: If we all want to be happy, if our behavior is an effort to find happiness, and we all need to believe we are good, then why is there so much bad behavior in the world? I began to examine the difference between good behaviors and bad behaviors. Good behavior is always self-sacrificial on some level. The more noble the behavior, the greater the self-sacrifice involved. For instance, volunteering at a local homeless shelter requires a sacrifice of time and energy. Donating to a charity requires a sacrifice of money. Even obeying the law requires that some measure of personal freedom is given up in order to ensure that the freedoms of others are protected. This willingness to sacrifice a small amount of potential happiness pays off by building relationships with others. Those relationships, of course, are the key to true happiness and so this strategy pays off in a big way over time.

Bad behaviors, on the contrary, sacrifice others in the pursuit of happiness. The thief sacrifices someone else's happiness in order to gain his or her own. The rapist sacrifices the happiness of his victim in order to gain his own. The person speeding sacrifices the safety of those around him or her in order to get to a destination more quickly. The workaholic sacrifices the happiness of his loved ones in order to gain more money. The alcoholic sacrifices the happiness of her loved ones in favor of pursuing the bottle. Bad behavior is ultimately a counter-productive strategy because it destroys the very relationships that bring the happiness the person desires.

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