Happiness: An Elusive Conundrum?
Are you Happy? What makes you happy? These questions, although seemingly rudimentary, are more difficult to answer than you might think. As it turns out, happiness, as a condition, eludes clear understanding.
Throughout history, mankind has grappled with a definition of this emotion. Perhaps the most meaningful framing of happiness is rooted in the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia suggests that fulfillment comes not from experiencing the feeling of joy, but from living a virtue-based and meaningful life. Central to this notion is an emphasis on being a good person. Others have put forth perhaps equally telling notions. Nietzsche wrote that “the secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.” Bertrand Russel noted that “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” These latter two concepts acknowledge something important about the reality of happiness that Ayn Rand denied when she wrote that happiness is “a state of non-contradictory joy, joy without penalty or guilt.” (Salerno, 2010).
We all know (I hope) the feeling of happiness. We might surmise that, if given the power to manipulate our circumstances, we would be able to effectively engineer our world in a way that would guarantee this desirable state. But, as it turns out, as Nietzsche and Russel suggest, happiness is paradoxical.
We think we know what we want, but the acquisition of one’s desires often fails to live up to expectations and sometimes it brings regret, remorse, guilt, or dissonance. Those situations or items we covet in hopes that they will bring us happiness, come with detractors. Many women for example, desire children. Yet many mothers struggle with the need for fulfillment beyond domestic responsibilities (Salerno, 2010). And these two pursuits often collide in stressful ways. We are it seems, hard wired to pursue some goals that are, by their very nature, contradictory when happiness is concerned.
Life’s most prized aspirations, namely children and wealth, actually do not tend to bolster happiness. When looking at the research on the impact of children on maternal levels of happiness, the conclusions suggest that child rearing has a neutral to negative affect on quality of life. Positive associations are hard to come by. And although it appears that there is a slight positive relationship between wealth and happiness, there are numerous caveats to this correlation. Lottery winners for example, after the initial excitement of the win end up being no happier or even less contended than they were before the draw. And people in the United States, the richest nation in the world, report overall lower levels of happiness than folks from poorer countries. (Salerno, 2010).
In reality, our daily lives are comprised of unending battles between opposing objectives. On the one hand, we are drawn to selfish, indulgent, freedom while at the same time we are constrained by altruism, frugality, and commitment (Salerno, 2010). We can’t have it both ways and this conundrum often leaves us conflicted. After all, if we all were to pursue or own selfish interests we would have a highly dysfunctional, disjointed, and even dangerous society. The drive for social cohesion and the necessary restraint have deep evolutionary and strongly compelling roots. And then there is the drive to build social status through material acquisition or conspicuous consumption. This pursuit is really a zero sum game. Whatever you accumulate, there are many others that have bigger and better houses, cars, and jewels. It is all quite complicated and we are a curious lot. We want happiness, yet often what we aspire to, diminishes our happiness. I am reminded of the proverb: “Be careful of what you wish for. You just might get it.” What we want and what really brings happiness are often opposing forces or at least likely to stir conflict. This seems to be especially true with regard to deeper, genetically driven, intuitive drives (e.g., procreation and status building).
A similar paradox plays out in society where it is need, or misery, that catalyzes advancement. To paraphrase Plato: Necessity is the mother of invention. We prosper through innovation, creativity, and achievement: all of which, to some degree, stem from discontent (Salerno, 2010). Sociologists Allan Horowitz and Jerome Wakefield suggest in their book, The Loss of Sadness, that sadness has a clear evolutionary purpose – essentially to propel adaptation. Daniel Gilbert (2006), a happiness guru from Harvard University once wrote that “We have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain. That word is dinner.” It seems that contentedness fosters passivity and stagnation. For example, college students who score very high on measures of happiness rarely have correspondingly high GPAs. And the perkiest adults among us tend to make less money than their more even-keeled colleagues. (Salerno, 2010). I refer to yet another paradox in “Adversity: Had Enough?” where I shared research that contends that happiness is strongest in those that have experienced two to four adverse life events. Moderate amounts of adversity seem to bolster one’s capacity to tolerate and cope with future stressors and elevate one’s general level of contentedness (Seery, 2010). One might assume, that smooth sailing brings happiness, but as it turns out, this is not quite true. And a newly released study from Harvard University suggests that lower levels of happiness are associated with mind-wandering (Killingsworth, 2010). I discussed this in Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy, where I suggested that the mantra of FOCUS & FINISH will result in more efficiency (Nass, 2010), but as it turns out, it may also bring one a better mood.
Okay, so what brings people true happiness? There are general circumstances that appear to be associated with higher overall levels of happiness. For example married people tend to be happier than singles, church goers happier than atheists, and people with friends tend to be happier than the insular (Salerno, 2010). Recent findings suggest that people in their 50s are happier than those in their 20s (Stone, 2010).
To me happiness has to do with how you frame it and mostly about your expectations. It is helpful to think of life as a transient series of states dappled with moments of joy. It is unrealistic to expect a chronic state of bliss. We are much too inclined to misery to ever accomplish this. And this brings me to perhaps my greatest offering:
Misery exists in the gap
between expectations and reality.
Think about it. I am suggesting that a flexible and open minded focus on the world and the realities of its constraints will help you avoid misery. The most miserable people I know have the most rigid expectations about life, about others behavior, about rules, about fairness, and about shoulds. We have a concept in psychology called the tyranny of the shoulds (coined by Karen Horney) whereby one’s expectations that things should go a certain way, result in subsequent neuroses. This is often true it seems because generally our expectations are unrealistic. The more rigid and prolific one is with regard to expectations, the more likely they are to be slapped down by reality. These folks are consistently victimized by life.
Happiness I contend is a multidimensional construct. In part, it is an absence of misery. But that doesn’t tell us what it is. Perhaps Charles Shultz had it right when he said “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In reality we have to accept that it is paradoxical and that pursuit of it is a personal responsibility. This latter fact is a stressor for many (Salerno, 2010). I myself get joy from shared moments of close interpersonal intimacy, from adventure, from persevering on challenging tasks, from increased understanding of the world around me, and from the contributions I make toward the betterment of other people’s lives. I am happy because I make a difference, because I choose to include adventure in my life, and because I am very fortunate to live in this time and place where I am relatively well off (although not wealthy) and loved.
I ask again: What makes you happy?
Gilbert, D. (2006). The Science of Happiness. Edge The 3rd Culture. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gilbert06/gilbert06_index.html
Harmon, K. (2010). It’s getting better all the time: Happiness, well-being increase after 50. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=its-getting-better-all-the-time-hap-2010-05-17
Horowitz, A., Wakefield, J. (2007). The Loss of Sadness. Oxford University Press: New York
Killingsworth, M. (2010). Quantifying Happiness. National Public Radio. Science Friday. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131274191/quantifying-happiness
Nass, C. (August 28, 2009). Talk of the Nation: National Public Radio: Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112334449
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 106, no. 37. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583
Salerno, S. (2010). Ignorance of Bliss. Skeptic Magazine Vol. 15 No. 1.
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010, October 11). Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021344
Seldon, B. (2009). Multitasking, marijuana, managing? http://www.management-issues.com/2009/9/21/opinion/multitasking–marijuana–managing.asp
Stone, A. (2010). Positivity And Life At 50 Plus. http://commcgi.cc.stonybrook.edu/am2/publish/Medical_Center_Health_Care_4/Positivity_And_Life_At_50_Plus_–_SBU_Scientist_And_Colleagues_Find_Patterns_of_Perceptions_Of_Well-Being_Across_The_Life_Span.shtml
Tierney, J. (2010). When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/science/16tier.html