It is hard to know what makes one happy. It is relatively easier to know what makes one unhappy. There is always a big gap between what we want and what we need. In most cases, what we want is more than what we need. Should we make addition in our need, or deletion in our want to be happy? Our failure to use and spend what we have is one of the major causes of unhappiness. We are unhappy when we use our capacity far below our potential. How to realise our unrealised possibilities, therefore, is one way to achieve happiness. We all have some degree of natural happiness. Some people are naturally happy, and some are naturally unhappy. Some people are happy, regardless of their less-than-ideal circumstances, and there are also some who are unhappy even when they seem to have it all.
One way to reduce unhappiness is to accept emotions (such as fear, sadness, or anxiety) as natural. If one does that, it becomes easier to overcome emotions. According to one view, we are unhappy because we spend most of our time, money and attention on activities that tax, rather than soothe our minds. Too many choices and material abundance is another cause of unhappiness. In the midst of a ‘choice overload’, it is difficult to keep track of desires and expectations. “We vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event,” is another view. Expecting perfection in all situations looks good but it is a bad idea. If every problem is considered a life-and-death problem, one will have to die every day. Hope, trust, faith, and confidence give us happiness. Hardship of the earlier times makes us pessimistic and discourages us from making positive judgments, even when our present living conditions are good. Happiness is contagious. Participating in a friend’s happiness makes one happy. Studies indicate that happiness is linked to our genes and genes set our ‘happiness set point’. Happiness research says that our brains are just waiting to be transformed, and they're always being transformed. We can change the brain in more positive ways. Happiness has no logic and doesn’t follow any rule. The lure of happiness works best when we are under the illusion that the bliss will persist, knowing well that this doesn’t happen. Happiness is a place to visit, and not to stay. We can’t be and also not supposed to be happy all the time.
Are we happier than our forefathers were? We are living in a world that is doing much better in terms of health, life expectancy, and child mortality. We live in a more individual world. By becoming more individual, are we becoming happier? Does our collective power improve our individual happiness? Are modern people happier than medieval people, and were medieval people happier than the stone-age people? Comfortable living makes us happy. It is also said that we are willingly paying the price for our ‘more comfortable’ life. Should we not make use of smart choices that are available to us more smartly? If evolutionary biologists are to be believed, happiness is not really determined by political, social or cultural factors, but by our biochemical system. Things like getting a promotion, or winning a lottery makes one temporarily happy. Happiness is a homeostatic system. Just as our biochemical system maintains our body temperature and sugar levels within narrow boundaries; it also prevents our happiness levels from rising beyond certain thresholds.
We want to lead a happy as well as a meaningful life, but these two goals are in conflict. Happiness and meaningfulness have some overlap but they have substantially different roots. We are happy when our needs and desires are fulfilled. We are happy when we are free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness reflects our life’s purpose and value. A meaningful life may make one feel worthwhile and happy, but life could be meaningful even when one is unhappy. Meaningfulness does not always have to bank on morality or goodness. A good athlete may be a good human being but he may not necessarily be good to his competitors. Happiness is present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness is not. Meaningfulness assimilates past, present, and future. It takes into account ‘spatially distant realities (and even possibilities)’. If happiness is ‘a taker rather than a giver’, meaningfulness is ‘a giver rather than a taker’. Meaningfulness may lead one to unhappiness, as to achieve it one may have to go through a lot of stress and anxiety. This unhappiness, perhaps, is temporary in nature, as one expects happiness to return, once stress and anxiety are over.
Happiness is natural. Meaningfulness is cultural. “Meaning is like a large map or web, gradually filled in by the cooperative work of countless generations.” Meaning, thus, is more linked to one’s cultural identity than happiness is. Although, both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they differ in how one relates to others. Happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied. It means interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should improve happiness. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, comes from making positive contributions to other people.
Money matters to both happiness and meaningfulness; scarcity of money reduces both meaningfulness and happiness. Baumeister suggests that the effect of money is considerably larger on happiness than on meaningfulness. It appears spending money in ways relevant to one’s own values, goals, and motivations contribute more to happiness than to meaningfulness. Social connections are important for both happiness and meaningfulness, but their direction and focus differ. Happiness is intertwined with the benefits one receives from others. Meaningfulness is associated with the benefits that others receive from the self.
Our state of happiness gets disturbed due to various reasons. We like to return to stable levels of happiness, as quickly as possible. We think ‘designed happiness’, if fed into the system, can sustain happiness for long, but that hardly happens. Our brains are not designed to achieve lasting happiness. The onset of happiness is often uncertain, and its disappearance, mostly unpredictable. A person’s happiness set points is determined by his temperament.
Besides happiness set point, we have ‘life satisfaction set point’ and ‘subjective wellbeing set point’. It is said that happiness set points can be relatively stable throughout the course of an individual’s life, but the life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing set points change over time. Psychologists say that the amount of fluctuation a person undergoes around their set point is largely dependent on that individual’s ability to adapt. Once an interviewer asked Stephen Hawking how he kept his spirits up. Hawking said, that was possible because his expectations were reduced to zero when he was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus for him. But most of us don’t have the limitations or the strengths of Hawking. Men of science are the happiest, because they remain busy with their work, and thus have little time to intrude into regions where they have no function to perform. Bertrand Russell said scientists have another advantage. When the general public doesn’t understand the theory of relativity, they blame it on their lack of knowledge, but when the public can’t understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem.
One is not necessarily happy when his unhappiness is removed. Totally eliminating suffering and blindly chasing pleasure are not paths to happiness. Happiness seems to work best in an illusionary mind. According to Mari Ruti the key to good life lies in the capacity to metabolise pain. It is this capability that makes us better equipped to develop relationships with ourselves. We often do crazy things and don’t feel apologetic about it. Crazy things often look perfectly normal. We feel if we had not taken this step, we would have felt crazier. The idea of a happy life has dissolved into our blood so much that we find it hard to imagine the alternatives. Can we avoid anxiety from our lives? Can we remain calm in an agitated surrounding? Can we become emotionally numb whenever we want to? Can we feign all is well all the time?
Members of a happy family are like a group of friends. Some of the characteristics one looks for in a friend are proximity, familiarity, similarity, physical attractiveness, emotion matching, and empathy. Respect is another essential feature of friendship. How one communicates respect may differ, but what matters is that it is communicated. Members of a happy family are not shy to display emotions to reaffirm their commitment for each other. The size of the family matters; small is beautiful even for happy families. According to the theory of evolutionary biology, man evolved to feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time; and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him.
Pascal said that man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay in his room alone. For many people, staying alone in their rooms is not a problem. Scientists can stay alone in their laboratories for long hours. Perhaps, scientists respond better to positive events and opportunities around them. Perhaps, scientists can wear rose tinted glasses better. Scientists are happy people, because they understand that satisfaction is not always a function of engineering and economics. Scientists are also boring people. James Watson lists several happy tips in one of his books. The first is to avoid boring people. Brightest are often the biggest bores. They expect adoration, not criticism, from one and all. In order to remain sharp, Watson says, try to be surrounded by sharper people. “An intelligent team mate can shorten your flirtation with a bad idea.” Watson suggests to make a team of two people, as a scientific team of more than two is a crowded affair. Young and not-so-famous colleagues are perhaps preferable as professional contacts. These persons help you to keep your brain moving. Most importantly, Watson advises us to avoid gathering more than two Nobel Prize winners. Watson’s ‘double helix’ partner Francis Crick has an interesting anecdote to tell in his autobiography. When Crick realised that “we had stumbled onto something important,” he went home and told his wife, “We seemed to have made a big discovery.” His wife recalls years later, that she hadn’t believed a word of it. Whatever you might have become, remember that in the eyes of your spouse you are nothing more than, as Carl Sagan would say, a “pale blue dot.” Scientists are happy people because they know that “married people are generally happier than singles, but that may be because they were happier to begin with.” Can happiness be designed and engineered? Happiness can be qualified but can’t be quantified. Daniel Kahneman developed an approach along with economist Alan Krueger, known as the U-index, which quantifies how much time people spend doing unpleasant activities. U-index identifies misery in people’s lives and “has the virtue of not requiring a cardinal conception of individual’s feelings.”
Bertrand Russell suggested a novel way to achieve happiness. There was a phase when he hated life. He was continually on the verge of suicide. Once he discovered the meaning of “diminishing preoccupation with myself,” he began to feel happy, began to enjoy life. He felt good by deliberating less on his “sins, follies, and shortcomings.” He gradually learnt to be indifferent towards himself and his deficiencies. He directed his attention more towards the external world. “External interests, it is true, bring its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with the self.”
The memories of the yesteryears begin to appear more and more frequently as one approaches the end. When people reflect on old age, they think of the people they grew up with. The more one comes nearer the end, the more one thinks of his childhood years. It is said that when you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood. The happy memories of childhood do wonders.
George Vaillant gives us a simple happiness tip - There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.