Modern mental health science has focused all its energy and attention on the whys, hows, and cures for depression. However, far less time has been spent studying happiness. It’s as if happiness were taken for granted as our “normal” state, and depression is not a natural state as well. And while it’s true that negative emotions are debilitating and sometimes paralyzing, medications only make people less unhappy instead of providing a real portal to happiness.
Happiness, like the existential void, remains a mystery, elusive and baffling, and to this day, still under scrutiny. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is up to us, the living, to give meaning to the elusive word so that our pursuit, at the end of our sojourn, will not have been in vain.
Happiness is a state of well-being, the opposite of pain. Both work together; without one, you can’t really understand the other. However, reaching that state of mental wellbeing and contentment is a struggle for so many of us. Why? The answer might be in our genes.
In her new book, “The How of Happiness,” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reveals that much of our temperament is genetically predetermined. “Fifty percent of individual differences in happiness are governed by genes, 10 percent by life circumstances, and the remaining 40 percent by what we do and how we think that is our intentional activities and strategies. The secret, of course, lies in that 40 percent.”
Experience versus memory: collecting happy moments
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman suggests that happiness is difficult to define because it depends on too many individual factors. He differentiates “experienced happiness”—how you feel while about your current circumstances at any given moment—with “memory happiness”—the way you feel and think about your life as a whole, what he calls your story.
Kahneman suggests for example, that when we go to a concert if just one second is ruined by one of the musicians screwing up, we might have the whole experience ruined by that second. When we look back we will mostly remember that bad experience and forget all about the rest of the wonderfully played music.
Aristotle says that the total sum of small daily pleasures could be called happiness. So we might see our lives as a series of happy moments which add up as we look back at our story.
Our individual happiness baseline
Daniel Gilbert, best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness explains how no matter what life bestows upon us we manage to be relatively happy with what we get. He explains that on a scale from 0-100, when people are asked how happy they are, they tend to say 75. They try to go for 100 but they don’t stay long in that state and keep on going in their pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence told us about.
We all have a baseline of happiness and even when the scale dips down to 20, after a death or loss, in time most of us will move back closer to the 75 baselines. Humans are immensely resilient and without this resilience, mankind would have disappeared millions of years ago. We have an innate talent to soften life’s blows.
Practical steps to attain our private and personal happiness.
While there are many ways to increase the number of happy moments, as Aristotle told us in his Nicomachean Ethics, or increase our level of satisfaction in life, the process is very personal. We all have different backgrounds, likes, dislikes and experiences which in a way map out our own path towards attaining fulfilling, happy moments.
- Staying in the moment. It is now or never. Carpe diem, seize the moment.
- Setting realistic goals and trying to accomplish them.
- Spending time with positive people, friends, and family, with happy souls, as William James told us.
- Engaging in conversation. Connecting and relating to others. We are not islands but members of a whole.
- Spending time in activities we are passionate about. Experiences make us happier than things.
- Giving. Investing time or money on a cause or helping out someone in need. It is true that it is better to give than to receive.
- Exercising or spending time in nature.
- Oh! And sex!
Antonio Damasio says in his Looking for Spinoza: “Much as it may sound naïve and utopian, especially after reading the morning paper or watching the evening news, there is simply no alternative to believing we can make a difference.” This idea that we can make a difference can indeed make a difference in our attitude towards the illusive concept of Happiness. Let us become cheerful souls and enjoy the good moments, however small and trifling, that we encounter daily.
Stumbling on happiness by Dan Gilbert
Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James,
Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Antonio Damasio,
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky