Compartmentalization And Happiness, Part 1

Compartmentalizing what you do in flight allows you to focus on what keeps you safe

In previous articles, we’ve looked at the importance of placing your life as a professional aviator into a “compartment” to allow you to focus on flight while minimizing outside distractions. Along the way we’ve learned that giving outside portions of your life their own compartments will further strengthen your compartment devoted to flight. We know intuitively that problems within any compartment can turn you from your normal joyous self into a psychological mess. Your misery within any compartment is likely to infect the other compartments and the misery will spread. Your happiness, believe it or not, becomes a safety of flight issue.

Unhappy Aviator = Unsafe Aviator
The question of happiness is an important one. The answer will help us to better understand the implication on the safety of flight. Is a person's normal state of happiness or misery a part of their chemistry, or is it something learned through experiences? Do you have any control over your normal level of happiness or are you destined to remain at that level forever? Is happiness an emotional or a rational choice? What is the key to being a happy aviator? Do your flight, social, family and work compartments support your overall happiness?

Many of us “ice water in our veins” pilots refuse to believe that our emotions have any impact on our performance at all. If you are naturally happy, maybe that is true. But what if you aren’t?

Happiness or Misery: ‘Normal’ or Learned?
Until recently, many psychologists believed that your personality is shaped primarily by your childhood environment. You are what you are because of the way you were brought up at an early age. Now psychologists realize there is more to it than just environment; it turns out your personality owes much more to your DNA than previously thought.

Consider the identical twin sisters Daphne and Barbara, studied extensively by the University of Minnesota's Center for Twin and Adoption Research, founded by Thomas J. Bouchard, Ph.D. It is the largest ongoing study of separated twins in the world, with nearly 100 pairs registered. 

Many of the sisters’ similarities were to be expected: They had the same medical maladies (heart murmurs, thyroid problems and allergies) and their IQs were just a point apart. Raised outside London, the sisters left school at the age of 14 and went to work in local government. They met their future husbands at the age of 16, suffered miscarriages at the same time, and then each gave birth to two boys and a girl. They feared many of the same things (blood and heights) and exhibited unusual habits (each drank her coffee cold; each developed the habit of pushing up her nose with the palm of the hand, a gesture they both called “squidging”). None of this may surprise you until you learn that separate families had adopted Daphne and Barbara as infants; neither even knew of the other's existence until they were reunited at the age of 40. When they finally did meet, they were wearing almost identical clothing.

These kinds of coincidences are common among identical twins who were separated at birth but not among fraternal twins who were also separated.

Daphne and Barbara have sunny personalities and tend to burst into laughter in mid-sentence. Their brains seemed to be programmed to look on the bright side. Some other pairs of twins, however, are not so lucky.

Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt has written extensively about this, notably in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He finds that happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality. “On just about every trait that has been studied, identical twins (who share all their genes and spend the same nine months in the same womb) are more similar than same-sex fraternal twins (who share only half their genes and spend the same nine months in the same womb). This finding means that genes make at least some contribution to nearly every trait. Whether the trait is intelligence, extroversion, fearfulness, religiosity, political leaning, liking for jazz or dislike of spicy foods, identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, and they are usually almost as similar if they were separated at birth. Twin studies generally show that from 50% to 80% of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.”

It appears that being naturally happy or miserable is due in large part to our genes. This is obviously good news for those who are naturally happy, bad news for those who are not, and maybe just confirmation of the situation for everyone between the two extremes. For those with a predisposition to being unhappy, the big question is what to do about it? Are you stuck with what you have, or can you do something about it? Wouldn't it be neat if there was a formula for happiness?

In Part 2, we’ll discuss how you can control your happiness level.

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…