Thoughts / happiness

Problems with Happiness

I know I’m going to come over as the biggest party pooper, grouch or grinch in the history of the world here, but I’ve noticed that I’m really struggling with offering up a particular word to others. The word is happy.

I can never really sing “Happy Birthday” to anyone with any degree of conviction or enthusiasm (and it’s not entirely down to my self-consciousness of how tone deaf I am). When I send birthday cards these days, I’m struggling to write the words “happy birthday” in black and white. It seems too coercive to me. My attitude is OK, be happy if you like, but if you want to be unhappy that’s good too, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to be happy. Surely like all our feelings, happiness ought to be voluntary and accidental and spontaneous and strictly optional?

I reckon the pursuit of happiness can get us into a bit of trouble.

Often when we try to articulate the purpose of our lives, it is to the word happiness we commonly have recourse. We tell ourselves and others that the ultimate rationale for our jobs, our relationships and the conduct of our day to day lives is the pursuit of happiness. What we wish for our loved ones, our children is “to be happy”. It sounds like an innocent enough idea, but excessive reliance on the term means that we are frequently unfairly tempted to exit or at least heavily question a great many testing but worthwhile situations.

The ’be happy’ approach that we have undertaken to life, is put forward as a choice we have, not a matter of luck or circumstance. Yet the word happiness, literally derives from the middle English word ‘hap’ meaning chance or good luck (thus ‘happenstance’ or ‘perhaps’). Some believe that it is generally impossible to experience happiness for more that fifteen minutes at a time. We’ve twisted the meaning in recent time such that it is now something we just need to work at. As though it is an endpoint that exists.

In the 1990s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman led the positive psychology movement, which placed the study of human happiness squarely at the centre of psychology research and theory. It continued a trend that began in the 1960s with humanistic and existential psychology, which emphasized the importance of reaching one’s innate potential and creating meaning in one’s life, respectively. Since then, thousands of studies and hundreds of books have been published with the goal of increasing well-being and helping people lead more satisfying lives.

It’s true that we now know a substantial amount about happiness, including who is happiest and where, social patterns in happiness according to your age and gender, and what drives individual and national levels of happiness, such as income, education, social relationships, good national governance, and health. Yet levels of global economic inequality and high rates of global depression and mental distress persist. In other words, while we know a lot more about happiness, happiness as a whole has not improved. Our self-reported measures of happiness have remained stagnant for over 40 years.

One reason may be – we still have the same brains. By way of illustration, consider the following examples.

We’ve all started a sentence with the phrase “Won’t it be great when…” (I go to uni, fall in love, have kids, etc.). Similarly, we often hear older people start sentences with this phrase “Wasn’t it great when…”

Think about how seldom you hear anyone say, “Isn’t this great, right now?”

Our past and future aren’t always better than the present. Yet we continue to think that this is the case. These are the bricks that wall off harsh reality from the part of our mind that thinks about past and future happiness.

There’s evidence for why our brains operate this way; most of us possess something called the optimistic bias, which is the tendency to think that our future will be better than our present. It helps to keep us alive!

Cognitive psychologists have also identified something called the Pollyanna Principle. It means that we process, rehearse and remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information. (An exception to this occurs in individuals with depression who often fixate on past failures and disappointments.)

For most of us, however, the reason that the good old days seem so good is that we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.

These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving. If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant – or at least, mundane – present.

All of this tells us something about the fleeting nature of happiness. Emotion researchers have long known about something called the hedonic treadmill. We work very hard to reach a goal, anticipating the happiness it will bring. Unfortunately, after a brief fix we quickly slide back to our baseline, ordinary way-of-being and start chasing the next thing we believe will almost certainly – and finally – make us happy.

Studies of lottery winners and other individuals at the top of their game – those who seem to have it all – regularly throw cold water on the dream that getting what we really want will change our lives and make us happier. These studies found that positive events like winning a million bucks and unfortunate events such as being paralyzed in an accident do not significantly affect an individual’s long-term level of happiness.

But this is how it should be, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated, while warm fuzzy memories of the past reassure us that the feelings we seek can be had. In fact, perpetual bliss would completely undermine our will to accomplish anything at all; among our earliest ancestors, those who were perfectly content may have been left in the dust.

Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy.Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
( Samueal Beckett 'Waiting for Godot')

The other problem with happiness is, it is an essentially selfish state of being. It’s all about feeling good within yourself. It’s an internal, physiological and emotional state. Which means, in effect, that it is devoid of any morality. Harvey Weinstein was just trying to be happy too. Pursuing his democratic rights.

Our pursuit of happiness is a very privileged pursuit. It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. And it makes our propensity for anxiety much worse. When the goal is to be happy the expectations are high, given the reality of what happiness is. We always feel like we are falling short. It’s true that the more relentlessly we value and pursue happiness, the more likely we are to feel depressed, anxious and lonely.

So, from now on I might refrain entirely from putting the ‘happy’ on the birthday cards because personally I’m a bit fed up with being ganged up upon, bullied, battered and bruised by the imperative of happiness. I’m going to acknowledge and appreciate the fifteen minutes when it arrives, but it is not going to be the ultimate goal.

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Meaning = Happiness?

I’ve been observing a possible growing trend of late. It might not be new. It might not actually be a ‘trend’. But it doesn’t have anything to do with kale. Or other foods claiming to be ‘super’.

There seems to be some discussion around the relationship between happiness and meaning. And a general belief that if we pursue a more “meaningful” life, we will indeed live a much more “happier” life. How super, indeed.

The good news from this discussion is that at least it seems like we’re moving on a little from the solo “pursuit of happiness”. Sort of. In today’s consumer-driven society, we might just be finding that it’s taking ever more and more of those dopamine-producing blingy things to make us happy. And a recognition that with the pursuit of this form of happiness, the effects wear off quicker and quicker.

Research has shown us that there is indeed some sort of relationship between happiness and meaning. A recent psychological survey of over 500 people, conducted several times over a three-month period, asked participants about their feelings of happiness, how meaningful their lives felt, and what their lives were like in other ways. The findings showed that happier people tended to have more meaningful lives and vice versa, but the relationship between the two was not perfect. Whilst happiness tended to go hand-in-hand with measures not linked to meaningfulness, such as being healthy, lack of money or other stresses, feeling that life was easy and being more short-term oriented; having a more meaningful life was associated with thinking more about the past and future, more stress and worry, experiencing more negative events, deep thinking, and engaging in activities that were true to oneself.

These findings make quite a bit of sense to me. When we experience negative events they usually decrease our happiness pretty dramatically, but they often increase the meaning in life. When I speak to people who have experienced episodes of trauma or mental illness and are in recovery they reflect that they would never wish the experience on their worst enemy, yet they would never take the experience away from themselves. Traumatic or emotional experiences have the capacity to build character and teach us hard lessons that make us more compassionate and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Working through grief and abuse and failures though often can lead to regret and resignation, but it can also bring resilience, resolve and even post-traumatic growth. In other words, they can – once healed – bring some meaning.

Consistent with this, is an organisational study published last year that asked over 100 people in various occupations to describe times that they’d found their work meaningful or meaningless. What the researchers noticed here was that many of the most meaningful situations were often the most challenging and poignant – not those that are happy and joyful.

All this suggests if we are looking to live a more meaningful life, we’re going to need to be prepared for much, much more than happiness. And this is where we might get stuck again

If we want to lead a more meaningful life, we really need to learn to tolerate our negative emotions and to see their value rather than seeking to avoid them. As I repeat all of the time, all of our feelings are important. They all serve a purpose. And they will always pass. Even the negative ones.

In the right context, controlled anger can be empowering, while sadness can be poignant and connect people. If we spend our life dodging feelings like disappointment and self-doubt we will struggle to take on new challenges, depriving ourselves of new opportunities for personal growth and development. Or meaning.

And research backs this up. A study published in Germany last year found that people who can see the value in their negative emotions are less adversely affected by them, in terms of mental and physical health. In contrast, people who see the more negative emotions as entirely unwanted and harmful tend to suffer a worse toll from them, and the more negative emotions they report experiencing.

I’m not sure if this observation/trend will continue. If so, I hope people that dive into it, do so fully prepared. Because as all of this suggests happiness and meaning are too quite different things. We can live a happy life when we get the things that we want. It’ll feel good, but the feeling will be fleeting. We can live a meaningful life but we need to be prepared for the fact that it may not include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. Instead, we’ll need to be ready to embrace some of the harder emotions that life can bring our way.

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Days for Happiness

This post is a bit late. Sunday 20th May 2016 was the International Day of Happiness. And to be honest it sort of just passed me by. Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. The UN just launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek to end poverty, reduce inequality, and protect our planet – three key aspects that lead to well-being and happiness.

I have some mixed feelings and thoughts about ‘happiness’. Mostly because so often we see - and I have fallen into this trip over and over again - that striving for happiness often leads to people feeling the opposite. Reasonably miserable. Have you ever fallen into the cognitive-happiness-expectation trap, where you think - ‘When this happens? When I have this? When this is resolved? Then I will be happy?’ Only to arrive there and things not to be all that much different to how they are now.

But mostly, I worry when we humans place too much emphasis on just one of the emotions available to us over all the others.

All of our emotions – and when I talk about emotions in this post, I’m referring only to those that are in the spectrum of ‘normal’ experience and functioning. I’m not discussing the emotions that can cause significant impairment, distress and mental illness – can be seen as reactions to what happen to us day by day: the people we meet, the experiences we have, the challenges we face. Sometimes these emotions act as alarm bells warning us we’re in danger of being harmed. Sometimes they reward us with feelings of joy and euphoria. Often they send us darker signals as well, like sadness, disappointment or anger, alerting us that something isn’t quite right or a something needs to be learnt.

When we look closely at happiness, it is all lovely and good, but it doesn’t actually teach us much about what it means to be fully human and fully engaged with the life we lead and the world we live in. For most people, it’s not all that difficult to handle the emotions of satisfaction, pleasure, euphoria, contentment or triumph. But dealing with sadness, suffering, disappointment and failures is much harder. But if we give ourselves time to experience them, reflect on them, learn from them and reflect on them, we learn things. And we become stronger. If we ignore them and focus on instead only on the experience of happiness, the opportunity for resilience and growth can be lost.

My concern is that if we become obsessed with only experiencing happiness, we might become scared of sadness. And that makes us much less resilient as individuals, as families and communities. The important truth about being human is that all of our emotions are really, really important. They are instructive. They are trying to teach us things about ourselves and the world. Sadness is not only as authentic an emotion as happiness, but it’s also far more instructive. The fleeting moments of bliss and joy, make sense only because they represent such a contrast with the experience of pain, trauma, disappointment or sadness, or even with those times when we might feel ourselves trapped in a tedious or dull routine. It’s vital that we become aware and acknowledge these feelings for what they are. And it’s quite okay to feel them. They’re trying to tell us something.

If people are encouraged to pursue happiness single-mindedly as their primary goal, either they are going to risk surrendering to the delusion that it’s possible, or they’re going to be frequently disappointed and frustrated. Neither is healthy.

As a person who has experienced some pretty significant episodes of major depression, I’ve noticed that a number of people in the general community there’s a perception that the opposite of depression is going to be happiness. This is just not right. For someone recovering from depression, sure moments of happiness will be great. But more importantly, coping with the really difficult emotions is going to be way more important. This is where the strength and resilience is going to come from.

So when I went to do some research into International Day of Happiness, these were the thoughts/cynicisms coming with me. Are there things we can do to increase our experiences of happiness? Hell yes! But I’ve always been a bit cautious about promoting them as a single mode of action for improving general health and wellbeing. Because I really do believe all the emotions are important.

But when I downloaded my ‘Action for Happiness’ guidebook I was way impressed. These weren’t quick fixes for instant gratification. These were evidence-based practices that when consistently applied to ones life can improve not just feelings of happiness, but other things as well. The beauty of these ‘happiness’ activities is that if you’re open to these ideas who knows what aspect of the human experience you’ll uncover.  

The ten actions (in a very brief and neat numerical list) are:

  1. Giving – do things for others
  2. Relating – connect with people
  3. Exercising – take care of your body
  4. Awareness – live life mindfully
  5. Trying out – keep learning new things
  6. Direction – have goals to look forward to
  7. Resilience – find ways to bounce back
  8. Emotions – look for what’s good
  9. Acceptance – be comfortable with who you are
  10. Meaning – be part of something bigger

You can find further information on these ideas, the evidence behind them and easy tips for implementing them into your life at www.actionforhappiness.org. Who knows what you might uncover.

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