Sunday, August 12, 2007

Are you happy? What exactly IS "Happiness" anyway?

Are you happy? What makes you happy?I have been thinking quite a lot lately about happiness. What exactly IS "Happiness"?

Is it a state of mind? Many people seem to think this. To them, happiness is a state of sensation where they feel pleasant and untroubled. In this scenario, it is not the external situation that creates or denies happiness, but rather, it comes from within. It is a state of being. A mental condition of feeling generally 'satisfied' in all respects. But if this is all happiness really is, then couldn't we all achieve happiness through simple medication? We could all just take happy pills like Zoloft or Prozac or something similar, and just 'bliss out', right? But would that really make you "happy"? You would still have your problems - you just wouldn't care and so they would probably get worse.

I heard an NPR interview recently with researchers looking into addictive behavior and they found that there are endorphins that get triggered by substances which increase the overall level of serotonin in the brain, but that SOME people get hooked on that level of serotonin and the brain becomes accustomed to the new levels that the substances are creating, and so their sense of 'normal' can only be arrived at by artificially elevating these chemicals to that level, and then they need more than that to actually feel 'good' again. And so they accelerate their use. This is like driving a car and wanting to feel the thrill of going fast - but driving at a high rate of speed isn't enough for them. They need to be constantly accelerating to a higher speed in order to continue to get the sense of thrill that they are hooked on. Similarly, these people need ever-increasing doses of drugs that give them a higher level of serotonin in order to feel normal.

Obviously, this path leads to destruction - both physical and financial, since these mood enhancing drugs may do damage after extended uncontrolled use and also they are not free. And somehow, artificially enhancing chemicals in the brain doesn't seem like a viable long-term solution to the problem. That isn't happiness, that is merely the artificial simulation of the effect of happiness. Mostly it is simply the numbing of the senses to the point that you don't care about the bad things, and that is not at all the same thing. So there must be more to it than that.

Is happiness based on external things then?

Different things make different people happy. For some it is a favorite food. I know a number of women who are completely happy when they eat chocolate. Or ice cream. These things seem to trigger that state in them regardless of whatever else is going on in their lives at the moment. Of course the effect is only temporary, and they have to stop eating it eventually, and at that point, reality comes crashing back in to their consciousness.

I know with me, there are certain things that give me an injection of a happiness feeling. It's usually about music. Playing guitar with the band when things are really cooking, is one of then. Listening to my own recorded music that I've done a lot of work on but it's turned out well - that makes me happy. It's an accomplishment. Also when I just hear certain tunes from certain artists. Dream Theater has a song called "The Spirit Carries On" about life, death and the afterlife that makes me happy. "Limelight" by the Alan Parsons Project is another. "The Messiah Will Come Again" by Roy Buchanan. "Where Were You?" by Jeff Beck. "Unconditional" by Willy Porter. There are some by Eric Johnson, Pink Floyd, Toto, Vertical Horizon, Sarah Maclachlan, etc. that all make me feel happy when I hear them.

Also sex makes most people happy - at least temporarily. Especially at the moment of climax, of course, but the whole experience is very pleasurable. Although, it might be considered more of a 'thrill', rather than a buoyant sense of 'happiness', really. It's hard to say.

For some people, it's physical activity that generates the endorphins that raise the serotonin levels. running, swimming, climbing, or riding a bicycle. But isn't this pretty similar to the chemical approach where a person takes drugs to generate the chemicals that give the sensation? Again, it's only temporary. Our bodies won't allow us to exercise constantly, and once the exercise stops, the levels go back down to normal.

Some people are happy when they are engaged in a particular activity. This is interesting because for some, it may be that the activity makes them happy because they simply enjoy doing that. For others, they enjoy the escape it provides. Golfing, for example. Or fishing, or woodworking, or gardening, cooking - whatever. Some people may love these activities. For others, it may be not so much the activity itself, as the fact that the activity is taking them away from some other activity that they DON'T want to do - like work, or housework, or dealing with a difficult spouse, etc.

Is this the solution? Find something you enjoy doing, and then just do it all the time, so that you can be happy? But if you do find an activity or a hobby that you enjoy that much, and did it all the time, then you would have to stop working, stop making a living, stop paying bills, and lose your home, and your car, and your possessions, and your security, and you wouldn't be able to feed, house, clothe or protect your family. Would THAT make you happy? I suggest it would not. Also, would you really be happy doing it all the time? Golf might be fun on the weekends when you get away from work and the house and shirk your other responsibilities for a few hours, but is it still fun when you are out there all day every day? Rain, sun, heat, cold, etc....? Any activity gets old after a while.

Is happiness a response to a positive set of conditions in one's life at the moment? Does being wealthy, healthy, and comfortable guarantee that you will be happy? If so, then why are some people happy and some not happy regardless of whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, etc.

Some would suggest something more spiritual. They might say that happiness comes from within - not within your body, but from within your soul. Happiness is the result of being truly satisfied with your situation. It is a spiritual sense of calm. Of serenity. Of gentle ease and understanding. Of balance.

Well, that may be, but if that is the case, then what of growth? What of striving to be more than you are? What of struggling to improve? To learn new skills, increase your capacity to become more than what you started as? If we all felt like simply accepting our situations as they are then we would all be living back in the caves from whence we came. No one would have struggled to learn to plant crops, to build homes, to seek out answers to difficult questions. And we would still be dying of trivial diseases at age 35 because no one would have had the drive to learn more and study disease and create cures and treatments to extend our lives.

And what of that struggle to do better? Is THAT where the illusive happiness lies? In the forward motion that comes from learning and growing and striving to push ahead and grab onto the next ledge above and leverage ourselves up another notch on the mountain of knowledge?

Or is that nothing but another illusion? Have we gained nothing? Is the struggle to gain knowledge or power over our obstacles simply some sort of contest to allow us the luxury of the illusion of progress so that we feel good about ourselves? Like becoming 'rich' by playing monopoly. It's a fake situation, but you feel some sort of artificial high by winning at it anyway - as if it were a worthwhile endeavor.

One thing is certain. It's not about money. Many of us feel that money would solve a lot of our problems and since our problems make us feel unhappy, it seems a logical conclusion to assume that if we have a lot of money, then those problems can be paid off and put aside - thus clearing the way for happiness to flow through. But it's not really that simple, is it?

On a recent TV show that I heard about, they interviewed a number of people who had won millions of dollars in various lotteries, but they interviewed them a year or several years after the win, to see how the money affected their lives in the long run. Most of them had gone back to their previous state of income after the money was spent. Some were worse off. None were actually happy.

This goes far beyond simply spending the money foolishly and then having nothing left to show for it 2 years later. Material things have a way of becoming meaningless when you take them for granted. Imagine you go into the lobby of a large, lavish hotel and walk by the lounge area. It may well be a $7,000 sofa sitting there, and a $2,000 coffee table under a $20,000 chandelier. But it means nothing to you. because it's just part of a hotel, it's not in your home. Well, when you have lots of money, the things in your home take on that same detached meaningless status. You have lots of money and so there was no real sense of sacrifice involved in gaining these things and so they are not treasured, and they mean nothing to you. But this is only part of the problem. Most lottery winners had lost all of their friends and couldn't trust their family members.

This is because their family members all expected to be given money, and they expected to eventually inherit what they were not given immediately, so the lottery winner was never sure of the intentions of their family members. They might be hanging around and pretending to like them simply to gain financially when they eventually died. So all of their motives and actions were suspect, and it turned the person with the money into a paranoid recluse who could trust no one.

Also, all their friends disappeared. This was because when the newly wealthy person won the lottery, all their friends came out of the woodwork to ask for money. But once they gave them the money, then these friends had no way to pay it back, so they started to avoid the rich person out of embarrassment. And so the wealthy person was finally left alone and lonely in the end. Indeed, money does not buy friends. And money may solve problems - but it sometimes creates new ones, and so this also is not happiness.

I have thought about my jobs and my career, and the ups and downs I have gone through. I think back to the job I had 5 to 10 years ago, which was a mid to upper management level position in charge of running a regional business for a large software company. I had dozens of staff, and responsibility for running a $12 million dollar consulting business with a 40%+ profit margin. I was paid roughly twice then what I earn now. Since then, I left that company as it downsized and went to a smaller company which meant my salary has dropped dramatically. I understand this company's situation, and so I understand why they cannot afford my old salary. But still - it's difficult to keep paying the bills when the income and benefits drop as the prices continue to rise.

On the one hand, things were a lot easier 5 years ago when I made twice as much money. .....Or were they? Sure, the money made it easier to pay for things, and still put money into savings, etc. but I had a lot more pressure on the job itself, since I was responsible for things I had no control over. Also, I still had money worries, because most of my income was still being chewed up by expenses. Most of us typically set ourselves up to spend whatever we earn no matter what we earn. So we always have pressures there. Also, the whole time I was in that job, I was constantly living under the threat that I would be laid off every day. That was the recession and the company was downsizing, and they were laying off hundreds or sometimes thousands of employees every 3 months. I personally had laid off about 35 people over the course of about 4 years. It was very stressful, because I felt for them. It wasn't their fault. They were doing everything right and yet the recession and the market factors, and the expectations of wall street meant that we had to keep getting smaller and reducing costs to keep profitability up to levels that impressed the stock market analysts regardless of the recession we were in.

So for four years, every conversation anyone ever had on any given day always contained some component about the potential layoffs. Everyone wondered if they would last another month or week or day, or if they might be spared only to face the risk all over again during the next quarter when the same exercise happened all over again. It was horrible for all of us. So the money was good, but the stress was doing its best to kill me.

Now, I work for that small company, but I am working on contract at a much larger company. It's a huge, complex, but fascinating job. I've learned a lot, which after 30 years in the industry is a unique pleasure. And I am feeling good about my contributions. I don't feel like I am at risk of being fired or laid off. At least my position is stable - but now I have the constant money pressure of losing ground every month since my expenses keep going up, but my income is locked. I can't legally change anything to make more money.

So - it's hard to be happy and have everything go along smoothly. There are always trade-offs and challenges. And if that is the case, do we simply accept that we will always have those challenges and seek to be happy anyway? Happiness for it's own sake - not based on anything but the need to be happy itself? Or should we always pick apart every situation and look for the bits of it that we CAN be happy about and focus on that? - which is the same thing, really. If all aspect of my career were going badly, I could still look at my life and say, well, at least my family is healthy and I have my health to keep going. Or I could say at least I am not 75 years old and I still have the energy to keep working and try to improve the situation. Or at least I have my mental faculties, and some skills. Or at least..... something; anything. I could always find SOMETHING to be thankful for.

But is that enough? Or are we just kidding ourselves? There are a lot of people who are unhappy because GWB is the president and they feel he is making a series of bad decisions and is taking our country in a direction they don't want it to go. I'm afraid that if you tie your happiness to things over which you have no control, then you will NEVER feel happiness. Others seem grumpy all the time because they feel there should be a certain order to life and the way the world works, and yet the actual world and the people in it are constantly acting in ways that seem stupid, fruitless, self-serving and are sewing the seeds of anarchy. They have the same problem. They cannot change everybody and everything, so they will have to learn to be happy based on some other measurement if they want that feeling of happiness.

I can think of at least 2 people I know who are like the above scenarios, and I can think of a third who seems to spout happiness and she derives her happiness from simple things like music or a picture of her favorite guitarist. She has chosen to simply DECIDE to be happy regardless of what may be going on around her. Who is better off? The one who is happy despite not having a good reason for it and is ignoring all that is going on? Or the other one who DOES understand in detail exactly what is happening, but who is letting it eat him up inside as he considers the ramifications? Or the one who is grumpy because he cannot tolerate stupidity or ignorance or simple-mindedness in those around him? People who miss the point drive him nuts. But people will always miss the point. Try as he might to explain it.

Some people think that if they were suddenly thin instead of fat, then they would be happy. Some think if they were suddenly young instead of old, THEN they would be happy. Some think if they could be cured of their blindness, or their cancer, or their aids, or their alcoholism, or their gambling habit or their drug habit - then they would be happy. Some think if they could get out of jail, or be spared their death sentence they would be happy. Some think if they could finally have children they would be happy. Some think if their child could be well again, they would be happy. Some think if they could just get through this tour of duty in Iraq and get home safe, then they will be happy. Other think wish that for their son or daughter or husband or wife or brother - to come home safe from Iraq.

The happiest thing I think I've seen so far is a tiny 3 yr old girl eating her ice cream, playing with her puppy, and being surrounded by her loving family. So is it about naivete? About innocence? About the bliss of ignorance? Can civilization move ahead if we all only seek that?

What about you? Are you happy? Do you think you know what happiness is? Or is it like that Supreme Court Justice once said about pornography, "It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it..."? Is it even worthwhile to TRY to be happy? Should we simply decide to be happy. or should we based it upon something tangible? Is life even about the pursuit of happiness, or is it really all just some struggle to survive and grow and thrive as we overcome one obstacle after another? Is there some greater good that comes by each of us struggling to improve? Or is the greater good served best by all of use just deciding to be happy with whatever we are and whatever we have right now at this moment?

What do you think?


At 8/01/2011 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

happiness? once you have had that one excellent moment, there will be no question in your mind ... you will just know, accept it as being real like the wind, appreciate it it as you would your faith, and cherish every second...

Not everything is so black and white....sometimes you must learn to settle for grey...


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