On Happiness

09:25 Thu 24 Aug 2006
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Happiness is a topic I consider relatively often. Most of my musings about flow, structured consciousness, focus, and so on have the implicit goal of increasing happiness. Over the last few months I’ve come across a few articles on the subject that interested me.

An audio broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (linked from here) discusses happiness, as do these articles from New York Magazine: Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness and Happiness: A User’s Manual. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and The Evolving Self also strongly influence my thoughts on the subject.

I tend to conflate happiness and fulfillment, which seems fair enough to me. I also don’t really want anything like ignorant bliss, and I happen to be convinced that it’s possible to search for truth and to be happy. In other words, I think it’s possible to not bury your head in the sand about all the horrific things that go on in the world, and yet still be happy.

One of the reasons for this belief is that I think it’s possible to control your consciousness (although not in a trivial way).

One of the first things the CBC broadcast points out is that we’re not necessarily programmed by evolution/genetics to be happy. Our “natural” drives push us to procreate, but not necessarily to be happy doing so (although they might well try to make us think in advance that procreation will make us happy). In any case, I think it’s clear that we’re complicated enough as thinking beings that all kinds of other things would get in the way of evolutionary programming even if it were likely to make us happy. So we still have to use our consciousness to achieve happiness. But is happiness something that can be “achieved”? Not with any real permanence. We have to keep striving for it—which, as the broadcast points out, is how evolution has shaped us. “Happiness is evolution’s carrot.” So we can’t just get happiness and keep it, it’s something that’s going to shift and move, and we’re going to have to do the same to keep after it.

Perhaps due to evolution’s untrustworthiness, humans are generally terrible predictors of what will make them happy. Many of the commonly-held goals, like money and children, apparently do not make us happier. (Children may be a special case, with some claims that while overall happiness of parents isn’t higher, they benefit from “transcendent moments” that they remember later, making them recall earlier parenthood as happier than it was. There are also claims that the fulfilment of having raised children is important to happiness in later life.) Money and things, though, rarely make us happier.

In my view this is critically important. So much of our environment tells us to strive after money and after things that money can buy. In addition, our evolutionary programming seems to push us to seek status (which might, rather than money, be the true root of all evil…), and both money and trinkets of various kinds give us status. Or promise to… especially in our culture, these things are fleeting, and so we are encouraged to keep striving for them. The result of this is not happiness, but frustration, because we wonder why, having gotten the thing we wanted, we aren’t simply happy and satisfied.

So the attainment (temporary or otherwise) of money, things, and status may not keep us happy. To some degree, however, these things are important—the rich may not be far happier than the middle class, but the middle class appear to be a lot happier than the very poor. Poverty often creates unhappiness, so getting out of poverty is important, but being out of poverty (or being rich) in no way guarantees happiness. From the broadcast: “We get all the happiness we can out of money very early on, and once we have a comfortable lifestyle, accumulating more of it doesn’t seem to make us very happy at all.”—Dr. Daniel Gilbert.

So it’s important to get out of poverty, but after that concentrating on money isn’t going to help you be happy. Yet we all tend to think otherwise. It seems that step number one towards achieving happiness is absorbing this realization.

Number two may be to disengage from status competition. I am biased in this regard, as I consider the concept of status inherently unhealthy, and responsible for a great many ills. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that being on the wrong end of wealth disparity makes people unhappy—that is, it’s not the wealth level per se, it’s the unfavorable comparison with someone else. Training the mind to ignore status could ward off a lot of the negative effects of our advertising-saturated consumer culture.

Apparently too much choice leads to less happiness, possibly because with more choices, people are more concerned that they might make the wrong one. Presumably multiplicity of choices also makes decisions more difficult, and as decisions appear to be quite stressful, this leads to an increase in stress and a corresponding decrease in happiness. I find that in practical terms I tend to get stressed and overwhelmed when I give myself too many things to choose from, and do much better when I arbitrarily divide things into smaller groups and then focus on one small group at a time.

“Positive thinking” is a difficult area. On the one hand, I do think that negative thoughts, especially about the self, will cause unhappiness, and it’s important to train the mind to not dwell on them all the time. On the other hand, I have no interest in a happiness based on thinking about nice things all the time. Nor do I really believe that that would make me happy. I think that overall happiness is not simply “sunny thoughts”, but also has to do with an engagement with the world—the real world, with its dark side and grim realities. And “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness” mentions an experiment that might support my case: pessimists did better on an anagram test while listening to a dirge, optimists while listening to Mozart. Anagram test performance hardly equates to happiness, but there are correlations between happiness and an ability to focus. And it seems to me that the dirge will help the pessimists focus better because it will feel to them more like a real engagement with reality. Or perhaps merely because it more accurately meshes with their emotional aspect—but in either case, focus is aided by that which better suits the listener, and not by the generally-accepted “cheerier” music. I suspect that similar things are true for other art forms.

Apart from money, power, children, and status, what other things don’t make us happier? Education and intelligence don’t correspond to happiness. Nor do youth or climate, according to the CBC broadcast. And even major disasters, such at losing limbs, apparently don’t make us more unhappy in the long term, despite our assumption that they would: “…those who are permanently injured say they’d be willing to pay far less to undo their injuries than able-bodied people say they’d pay to prevent them.”

So what kinds of things do make us happier? Close ties with family, friends, and/or community. Good food, good sleep, good exercise. And if you believe Csikszentmihalyi (which I do), flow activities do also—that is, challenging activities that we get so absorbed in that we lose track of time, and where we lose self-consciousness.

Another thing that can make use happier, at least a little bit: acting happy. Both the CBC broadcast and some of Csikszentmihalyi state this, and I’ve seen other references that I can’t currently remember. But apparently it’s true: if was force ourselves to smile or laugh, we will actually feel better. (This may be true for other mental states as well—if we want to be in a specific mental state, the best way to bring it on may be to act as if we are already in it.)

There are significant questions concerning the degree to which happiness is determined by things beyond our current control, such as genetics and upbringing. It seems to be the case that some people simply have happier dispositions than others, and that this is due to genetic factors. However, there are a lot of things we can do to alter our happiness levels, and this suggests that while there are genetic predispositions, we definitely help ourselves in the quest for happiness. Many of these things, though, are apparently small and mundane.

The CBC broadcast discusses two scientifically-measurable physical things related to happiness: cortisol, a hormone, and the left prefrontal cortex region of the brain. Cortisol gets disrupted by stress, and if disrupted too long screws up things like sleep and the immune system. But when that hormone is functioning well, it helps prevent infection, heart problems, and high blood pressure. Apparently, just as negative events disrupt the function of that hormone, so positive events help it run more smoothly, and the positive events can have greater impact than the negative. And helping people be less affected by stress, something that can be achieved with cognitive behavioral therapy (and probably by a lot of other things), helps the cortisol flow as it should.

As for the left prefrontal cortex, apparently happy people have more activity there, unahppy people less, but Buddhist monks tons. So meditative techniques seem to help us learn how to activate that part of the brain—a rather good argument for learning how to meditate, I would think.

So, practically speaking, how to be happier? Good routines, especially for sleep and exercise, seem important and under our control (to varying degrees). Meditation appears to be worth the effort. Close ties to other people are important, but are harder to create if they’re not present (harder, but hardly impossible). Training ourselves to not worry about status or status-bearing trinkets. And I believe that doing (that is, doing with focus, “flow activity”) is critical, and that doing is much more important than “achieving”, despite all the cultural programming to the contrary.

There is no should—any feeling that we “should” be happy is clearly going to be counterproductive. But if we want to be happy, then we need to determine for ourselves what works… with the above points in mind.

3 Responses to “On Happiness”

  1. Radegund Says:

    Interesting post. You’ve largely summarised a range of the arguments made by Clive Hamilton in Growth Fetish, which I rather enjoyed last year. It’s a polemic against the sanctification of economic growth – possibly too lightweight for you, but you might find it worth checking out (if you haven’t already). Meanwhile, I must look into this “flow” thing you keep mentioning.

  2. Niall O'Higgins Says:

    I have read lots of different things myself about happiness and so forth. The best , most rounded and fully considered material I’ve encountered has been from Sigmund Freud.

    Freud wrote much about what he called the “pleasure principle”. He says that man is dominated by the pleasure principle from the very start of his life but that it seems almost as if man was not intended to be “happy” by “Creation”. Afterall, pain comes at us from our own bodies, which are doomed to decay, from the external world, which can rage against us mercilessly and from our relations with each other. He states that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and “very little from a state of things”. Thus happiness is restricted by our constitution while unhappiness is very easy for us to experience.

    He describes a number of the approaches towards attaining happiness. Aloofness from one’s fellow man and protection from the elements can offer a quiet kind of happiness – but really it is not a happiness as a lack of unhappiness. Another method of attaining happiness is through intoxication. Freud considers this the crudest but also most effective method of being happy. He ultimately believes the route of intoxication to be responsible for a “large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot”. However he states that the chemistry of drugs to be worthy of study, and I wonder what he might think of our modern, sophisticated drugs.

    One approach which he touches on – and I must say I agree with him – is in attempting to free oneself from one’s instinctual impulses. Yoga specifically is concerned with killing off our instinctual impulses, and should one succeed one has sacrificed his life and still only achieved a kind of “quiet happiness”.

    He goes on to talk about love – yes, it provides happiness. But “we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love”.

    He considers the best approach to happiness to be what contemporaries seem to have named ‘flow’. He describes it as the displacements of libido which our mental apparatus permits of and through which its function gains so much in flexibility and continues “the task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assitance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from sources of physical and intellectual work. When that is so, fate can do little against one. A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating, in giving his phantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality which we shall certainly one day be able to characterize in metaphyschological terms. At present we can only say figuratively that such satisfactions seem “finer and higher”.”

  3. Eoin Says:

    I have spent a long time considering happiness, having spent much of my life fundamentally unhappy. Many of the points you have mentioned figure heavily in my current understanding. I think there are two other points worth mentioning. These can be summerised as “Go easy on yourself” and “Dont let the bastards get you down”.

    The former refers to the guilt derived from doing things you want to do that are opposed to the ideas we have of what we should be doing, and the frustration of doing the things that we should be doing that are opposed to the ideas of what we want to be doing. Admitedly, our ideas of “should” are derived from a whole variety of external sources that have been in place to influence (control?) us since birth.

    Religion is a key one, even if many of us have grown up and abandoned the authority of religion upon our lives, I think it can be very difficult to truely shed ourselves from it influence.

    Parental, peer, and social pressure to behave and conform in some particular way is another powerful force, especially to those of us who have chosen a path in life that flies in the face of these forces, the guilt remains, I think, even after we have convinced our selves that our reasons and arguments are completely valid.

    The trouble is, that even if we KNOW that we are free to be what/who we want to be, we have grown up in a society that has conditioned us since birth (especially through our most formative and fragile years) that we are only free if we are conforming to those norms. Step out of line, and we are heretics to one degree or another.

    Finding a way to pursue our ideals and consolidate those selfish (pah!) urges with a sense of honour/loyalty/purpose will allow us to act in a manner we wish to, sans the unconscious sense of guilt for being ourselves despite societies/parents/peers/or gods disaproval, and feel fulfilled for having done so.

    Dont let the bastards get you down! I have been lucky enough in my time to have spent time with wonderful groups of people who have inspired me with thier own actions, they have supported me when I have been weak in body, will or mind. I have also spent large periods of time surround by people who have ultimately given up on life, themselves, thier goals and theier dreams (quite often without even knowing it). Such cynical attitues that lurk in the air and atmosphere behind every decison, every conversation, and every judgement they make. In many cases, these groups of people APPEAR to be very similar in thier attitudes and thoughts, when your just hanging out and being with your friends, however the effect they can have on you, while subtle and unconscious, can be tremendous.

    The former will, without pressure, inspire you to become more than you are, they will, by example, show you what you yourself could achieve if you dedicated your energies to allowing your dreams and ideas flight and form.

    The latter will ultimately grind you down. Thier cynacism will be felt anytime you utter an idea. Your successes will be met with supprise and your failures with knowing nods.

    The difference is the expectations each group have about life. Some expect to succeed in thier endevours, overcoming thier obstacles, even if it takes time, energy or multiple attempts. Others will expect to fail, they will shift the blame of thier failures to another source. It will never be thier fault. It will always be because of bad luck, or somebody holding them down. Such attitudes are contagious… highly virulent.

    I aggree 100% that our happiness is our own responsibility. Your right that you cant just think yourself happy, even though it is a state of mind that we are ultimately in control of. Happiness takes effort. It takes choices. It is up to us to put ourselves on a path to happiness. To forgive ourselves for being a little selfish sometimes. To acknowledge that a path that denies us life or happiness is not the path to tread. To do our best to surround ourselves with people who embrace and nurture our happiness, our ideals and our achievements. To try and minimise contact with those who would pull us down from ascent, just so the have company in failure. Blind ignorance is not happiness. We must come to terms with who and what we are, and CHOOSE to take joy from the world.

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