What exactly is happiness? Though we all seem to want it, when we try to actually define it the concept becomes slippery and elusive. Is happiness just feeling good? If so, what must feel good to count as happiness? Do you have to be in a state of physical, mental and emotional pleasure simultaneously to count as truly happy? If so, for how long? No one feels these things all the time, so perhaps being happy means living life according to one’s highest principles or making the most of one’s talents, regardless of how one feels on a day-to-day basis. Is happiness having the love and admiration of those around you or is the truly happy person the one who does their own thing regardless of whether it alienates everyone else? It’s an important question, because if we don’t know what happiness is, how can we actually hope to achieve it?
In 2015 Collin College awarded me a grant to study the Pursuit of Happiness in America. I looked at the role of that concept in the founding of the United States, at how we are currently doing as a nation, at what we can do as individuals, in organizations and through politics to increase our happiness and wellbeing and more. I dug into the writings of ancient and modern philosophers, scientists, theologians, politicians, psychologists, neuroscientists, political scientists, economists and more, using these sources to reflect on my own experiences and those of the people around me. While all this searching turned up no single definition of happiness, a pattern started to emerge that led me to develop three categories of experience all of which, maintained in balance, make up what we commonly call happiness or wellbeing. The first (enjoyment) consists of mental, emotional and physical pleasure. The second (fulfillment) is concerned with engagement in activities that we find meaningful and purposeful. The third (relationship) has to do with maintaining healthy and rewarding connections with others.
As we move forward, the focus of The Raido Report will be on providing our readers the knowledge and skills (based on solid research and first-hand experience) to improve all of these aspects of happiness in their lives at the individual level, through the organizations for which we work and volunteer and through our political systems. But first, let’s look a bit more closely at what happiness and wellbeing really are.
What Happiness is Not:
Before we get into the aspects of enjoyment, fulfillment and relationship we need to establish the most important thing about what happiness is not: happiness is not an unchangeable facet of who we are as individuals. One of the most important findings in modern neuroscience is that the brain has “neuroplasticity” which simply means that its structure and mode of functioning is changeable through effort and experience.
Researchers in positive psychology generally agree that about 50% of our happiness level is genetically determined. Yes, there are people who are by nature happier than others, but that means that the other 50% is determined by our effort, or lack thereof. There is great truth in the saying that happiness is a choice, though that is an oversimplification. It is not an easy choice, especially if a person is dealing with clinical depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, or very difficult life circumstances. And it is not a one-time choice. Happiness can be achieved by the big and small choices we make every day, consistently over time. It is not always easy, but it is possible and it is absolutely worth it.
I’m living proof of that fact. A decade ago, the idea that I would be publishing a blog and writing a book on happiness would have been ridiculous in the extreme. I was an expert in the art and practice of unhappiness. Starting in my early twenties I spent more than a decade struggling with horrible anxiety, crippling major depression, and was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. I was miserable the vast majority of the time. Doctors told me I would need to be heavily medicated for the rest of my life and that the best I could hope for was to manage the darkness and instability of my moods with pharmaceuticals. My inability to connect with my happiness undermined my friendships, career dreams and marriage. After hitting rock bottom and finding myself very much alone, I embarked on a relentless search for information about what makes for a happy life and experimented with a variety of different practices aimed at putting that information to work, making those that worked for me a regular part of my routine. And my life began to change.
Though my life isn’t perfect and every day is not sunshine and rainbows, I can honestly say that I am a happy person – I consistently enjoy my life, I fill it as much as I can with activities I find fulfilling, and my relationships have vastly improved. And along the way I have met others who have done the same. The truth is, if I can find happiness after the deep, dark hole that I lived in, anyone can find happiness.
The First Element: Enjoyment
The fact that happiness includes enjoyment seems self-explanatory. In fact, when I ask people (particularly Americans and other Westerners) what happiness is, the answer is usually some variation of “feeling good instead of bad.” Great thinkers from the ancient to the modern have almost always included enjoyment in their definitions of happiness and it would certainly be hard to call a life without pleasure a happy one.
Modern science shows us that there is good reason to embrace pleasure and positive emotion. The research shows that positive emotions and pleasurable experiences can eliminate psychological and physiological stress. According to Barbara Frederickson’s research, positive emotion makes us more creative, helps us perceive new opportunities, opens us to relationships, and develops personal flexibility and open-mindedness or, as she puts it, to “broaden and build”. Dacher Keltner’s work shows that the pleasure of physical touch alone has been shown to confer profound benefits at all stages of life, relieving cardiovascular stress, increasing relaxation and decreasing depression in Alzheimer’s patients. At the social level, research shows that physical touch builds up cooperative relationships, promotes trust and generosity. Likewise, according the UK’s National Health Service, hugging and holding hands can lower heart rate and blood pressure. Sex has a variety of important health benefits and can burn calories, strengthen the cardiovascular system, keep your hormone levels in balance, improve sleep, reduce physical pain, improve women’s bladder control, significantly reduce stress and improve immune system function. Ruut Veenhoven, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers, found that pleasures and positive emotions help people feel satisfied with who they are and what they have, and ultimately to evaluate the whole of their lives more positively.
In short, feeling good can be good for us, and for those around us. These are important reasons to count positive emotions and pleasures as important elements of the happy and healthy life. But there are equally important reasons not to let this be our full definition of happiness.
The Limitations of Enjoyment:
While enjoyment is an important part of happiness, it also holds the potential to be the source of unhappiness if not taken in measure. The vast majority of both philosophers and scientists that have studied the subject agree that true happiness should not to be equated with pleasure alone because pleasure is by nature fleeting, we get used to it quickly, and if experienced too much it can develop into addiction.
Psychologists call this the adaptation principle, and studies since Brickman & Campbell first coined the phrase “hedonic treadmill” in the early 1970s have confirmed it. It’s been well established by psychologists, but we don’t need studies to really understand this. We can just look at everyday life: for most people, getting your first car or TV or cell phone or computer is a bit of a thrill. Yet after a couple years, you get used to it. Not only do you adapt to it, but that newer, faster, cooler, more reliable model starts to look really good and the old beater becomes a bit of a drag.
And it’s not just purchases, but experiences that lose their luster. George Homans’ research has shown since the 1970s that positive rewards in relationships lose their potency over time. The first time your partner cleans your house without being asked or prepares your favorite meal may be exciting and sweet, but when these actions are repeated, they rather quickly become expected and very little if any thrill accompanies them. Physical pleasure is also very susceptible to what scientists call “sensory adaptation”, also known in psychological jargon as “diminishing sensitivity to unchanging stimulus”. You may walk into a room with a lovely smell that fills you with pleasure, but spend enough time in that room and unless it is overwhelming you will notice it less and less. Even sex, which is one of the most pleasurable activities available to humans, is subject to sensory adaptation – when attempted repeatedly over a short period, physical sensitivity and ability to perform wane, and when overdone, numbness and even pain can take their place.
Among the most striking examples of the research on adaptation are studies done on lottery winners. The acquisition of money is for most people a very pleasurable experience. In fact, team led by Dr. Hans Breiter hooked subjects up to an MRI machine and found that when they won a game in which the prize was money, it stimulated the same part of the brain stimulated by cocaine. Most of us assume that we would be incredibly happy if we won the lottery and were suddenly rich. Yet what the research shows is that the initial euphoria wears off fairly quickly, and winners soon return to their baseline level of happiness, and stories abound of lottery winners who end up less happy than before they won. As Ben Franklin said, “Money has never made man happy, nor will it; there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.” More than two centuries later, multiple studies have demonstrated that absolute income is virtually unrelated to happiness for most people (except those in poverty) and that people return very quickly to their baseline level of happiness after raises and promotions, but a person’s satisfaction with their income is closely related to their happiness. It’s not how much you have, but how you feel about what you have.
The hedonic treadmill is not just something we observe in human behavior, but we can now see it at the neurochemical level. Virtually all pleasures result in the release of dopamine in the brain’s “pleasure center”. When dopamine interacts with glutamate, it can overload the areas of the brain involved with motivation, memory and pleasure. So, we are motivated by the memory of the pleasure to repeat the experience. But the next time we do, our brains produce less dopamine and the high is not as intense, so we may feel like we need even more. This is why drug addicts so often pursue ever larger quantities of their chemical of choice, or sex addicts seek out ever edgier experiences, or gambling addicts go after ever bigger risks for bigger paydays.
And over-indulging in pleasures can cause serious harm to a human being. For example, though a glass of red wine with dinner can be healthy and a night of drinking with friends can solidify friendship bonds, overuse of alcohol suppresses the prefrontal cortex in the brain, reducing the ability to make wise decisions that consider consequences. It reduces coordination and the ability to drive or operate heavy machinery, leading to accidents. Over time, overuse of alcohol can damage the heart and lead to cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, stroke and high blood pressure. It can damage the liver and cause steatosis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. It can damage the pancreas and cause pancreatitis. It can lead to cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast. Too much of a pleasurable thing is a bad thing for happiness and health.
In short, pleasure and positive emotions are important components of a happy life and have a variety of important benefits, but the fact is that we humans are physically, mentally and emotionally programmed against continually getting the same rush from repeating a pleasurable experience. People who seek lasting fulfillment by trying to maximize the frequency and intensity of their pleasures will not succeed. A life of happiness based solely on indulging our desires is not in the cards for homo sapiens – it’s not in our DNA.
The Second Aspect: Fulfillment
Pleasure has some important benefits but is at best fleeting, when indulged regularly is diminishing in its returns, and at worst can be addictive and damaging to health and wellbeing. Surely the happy life is something more. On this the great minds of the past and the scientists of today absolutely agree – happiness consists as much or more in being and doing good as it does in feeling good. In other words, the happy life is one in which a person strives with diligence for excellence, for meaning, and for greatness of character.
Engaging in Purposeful Activities:
The scientific study of the state of “flow” was pioneered in the modern era by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was intrigued by people who took on challenging, difficult activities for no apparent financial or status rewards. Athletes describe flow as “being in the zone” – a state where we are fully absorbed in and aligned with a task to the point that we feel one with it. It is a state that builds over time a feeling that life is worth living and is associated with higher levels of wellbeing. These benefits are particularly strong when you experience flow in what you do on a regular basis.
Finding meaning and purpose in what you spend your time doing is an essential part of what the founding generation of the United States considered happiness and modern psychology confirms it. In the current research, it is often referred to as competence, industry or mastery. It is a basic psychological need in human beings to be involved in things with which we are connected, engaged and to which we are committed. When we have this kind of relationship to what we are doing, whatever it is that we are doing, we tend to be successful at it and happiness is the likely result.
Looking at a variety of studies on the subject, social scientist Arthur Brooks concludes that working hard and succeeding in the things we do– not necessarily in the sense of making money but in the sense of excelling– is one of the most important drivers of happiness there is. Regardless of income, those who feel successful tend to be significantly happier than those who don’t. So, finding what we love to do and are good at and then working hard at it is an important aspect of living a happy life.
The Application of Virtue:
Even more important than the application of strengths and talents in the eyes of philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment and the American Founding was the application of virtue in one’s life. At nearly 80 years of age, looking back on a long and remarkable life, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay titled On True Happiness. It was essentially an argument that true happiness lies in reason and virtue, and not in passions or pleasures. The idea goes back at least to the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle wrote, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”
Despite his reputation as a bit of a party animal, virtue was a lifelong pursuit of Franklin’s and to him it was essential to happiness. At the tender age of 22, he had embarked on a project to attain “moral perfection”. He made a list of 13 virtues, and after failing to master them all at once, he focused on one a week: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity, and Humility. Though this was the work of a young Franklin who would throughout his life learn more and refine his understanding of philosophy, morality and virtue, the list is nonetheless demonstrative of the views of America’s Founding generation on virtue. Grounded in both Christian tradition and the virtues of the ancient Greeks, these are not high-flying ideals or rigid religious strictures but practical and attainable human strengths.
Modern psychology has picked up where Franklin left off. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, worked with fellow psychologist Chris Peterson to develop a diagnostic manual for strengths and virtues as past psychologists had done for pathologies. The two pioneers of positivity combed the holy texts, philosophies and even the Boy Scout Oath for lists of virtues, looking for those that seemed most universal. The six universal broad virtues they found looked much like what the founding generation was talking about more than two centuries ago: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.
The research on virtue inspired by Peterson and Seligman has shown a very strong correlation between virtue and happiness. Simply developing one’s humanity by practicing loving kindness meditations has been shown by researchers to increase daily happiness and life satisfaction, reduce depression and fear of suffering, boost immune response and overall physical wellbeing, and to improve empathy and attitudes of helpfulness. If we are to be happy, it is important to live a life that we can be proud of. In my own life, the least happy times were also the times when I was doing the worst job living up to what I considered a virtuous life, and the more I progress at being what I think of as a “good person”, the happier I am with my life.
In sum, personal pleasure is certainly wonderful and much to be desired (in balance, of course) but throwing one’s self into activities that challenge and inspire gives life purpose, and living life in a way that allows one to be proud of one’s own virtue of gives life meaning. A happiness that includes feeling good is fine, but a happiness that includes being good is even better. Still, all of this discussion has been focused solely on the individual, and as they say “no one is an island”.
Enjoying life and finding fulfillment are wonderful, but none of it could quite be considered happiness if experienced in total isolation. The philosophers and statesmen who shaped our political culture and the researchers in modern psychology also include our relationships in the definition of happiness. Intimate relationships, friendships and a broader relationship with our community, country and world are important components of a happy life.
Psychology has long recognized the mental toll that social isolation can take. More recent research also demonstrates that feelings of loneliness also take a physical toll – weakening the immune system and increasing incidence of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and viral infections. The findings of positive psychology confirm the importance of social bonds – companionship is a basic need and is thus not subject to the adaptation principle. As a basic need, we neither experience a numbing adaptation to its presence, nor to its absence. Ed Diener, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers, consistently comes back to the importance of relationships. In his study of very happy people with Martin Seligman, he found that every one of their very happy subjects had excellent social relationships. In a study of college students with Shigehiro Oishi, he found that those who prioritize money over love are more dissatisfied in their lives. In their review of the social psychological research underpinning the positive psychology movement, Diener and Oishi concluded that “Although laypeople probably understand that close friends and family are correlated with happiness, they may not realize that they are necessary for happiness, as well as for health and optimal cognitive functioning”.
Over and over, the research shows that relationships are keys to living a happy life. George Vaillant ran the famous Harvard Grant study, which followed 268 Harvard graduates, regularly collecting data on a wide variety of aspects of their lives for 75 years. He found that far and away the most important determinant of whether the men led happy lives was the warmth of their relationships. He also found that wealth, success and health were also positively affected by warm relationships. After revisiting the data from the study, Vaillant’s conclusion remained “Happiness is Love: Full Stop.”
And so it seems that even lives full of pleasure and fulfilment are not enough to constitute a fully happy life if experienced in isolation. Human beings have a fundamental need to share their experiences with others for them to translate fully into happiness. That can be through friendships, romantic partnerships, familial relations and even relationships with pets have positive impacts on happiness and wellbeing.
Happiness in a Nutshell:
In short, happiness is much like love, in that we use a single word to describe a variety of different experiences. We use the word “love” to describe how we feel about our favorite foods, our romantic partners, our parents, our children, our cherished possessions, the books or TV shows we enjoy the most and more. Happiness is much the same. The happy life includes a variety of experiences that can be broadly categorized as enjoyment, fulfillment and relationship. Enjoying mental, emotional and physical pleasure is important, but pleasure alone can be a trap because humans are neurologically wired to adapt to pleasure quite quickly. And so happiness also requires the more lasting satisfaction of taking part in meaningful and fulfilling activities. But to really have a happy life, we need to share it with others in relationships that help us grow and flourish. It’s our goal at The Raido Report to help you acquire the knowledge and skills to develop that happy life. Stay tuned for more!
January 2, 2017 | Ryan Rynbrandt