Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Challenging Happiness – Exploring the Irony of Human Nature

The irony of human nature - anxiety for those that have everything and depression for those that have nothing



The human state of mind has been cleverly characterized by someone to be either anxiety or depression. It seems that either you have attained what you desire and you are constantly afraid of losing it or you haven't and therefore you are depressed.

I've read this rather bleak outlook on life yesterday along with another I'd like to share.
It seems that many successful individuals, who are and had "lived their dream", are frustrated and unhappy, even more, perhaps more than the rest of us, common folk, if I may generalize. There is no shortage of examples of successful people who were not able to cope with success and had cracked under it.

Still, I'd like to avoid the course of cliché or the common argument true happiness exists only in the more "noble" things in life like reason, religion, art, love or anything else that comes to mind.
Rather I'd like to question the idea of happiness in itself and hopefully draw some conclusions in the end.


Is there happiness to be had?


Philosophers of language enjoy dissecting words and meanings and happiness is defiantly one of the most interesting concepts we have.

To put is in very simple terms – Is there happiness to be had at all? Couldn't happiness be just a concept embedded in our language misleading us all?

The question of meaning is deep and challenging. Concepts such as happiness, along with truth, god, soul, mind and others are under constant scrutiny. The idea in itself is simple and powerful – The fact a word exists does not deduce any sort of meaning what so ever.

I think we can all agree, empirically speaking, that happiness is not an enduring state of mind but rather comprised of moments. We sometimes feel happiness surging through us but that may well be the effect of our body chemistry. This notion of experienced utility has been discussed and researched by Noble Laureate Daniel Kahneman which argued happiness is the subjective feeling in each moment defined, in turn, as the minimum range of time a person is self-aware of his or her feeling. Readers of The Personal Financier know I'm very fond of his work on psychology and economics.

Hollywood has probably contributed to the western notion of happiness more than any other influence by putting happiness into terms of family, love, success, money, power, freedom etc.
In fact, the state of happiness in individuals, or the capability to be happy, as we relate to it, is considered to be more than 50% genetic in its source. This simply means not all of us were cut out to be happy.


Happiness and worldly possessions


The notion material achievements do no lead to happiness, as demonstrated, with some humor, in the anxiety-depression paradigm is very deeply rooted in human civilization.

The bible, philosophers and modern day cliché coachers have all discussed the inability of worldly possessions to make us happy. While the latter maybe selling something the former have genuinely tried to demonstrate the way to a happier existence.

Contemporary theories reinforce earlier views according to which money, as the essence of worldly possessions has a much lower contribution to happiness that is usually attributed.

The reason, as modern psychologists have demonstrated in empirical experiments, is not that money isn't important. Money plays a significant role, but only up to a certain minimum point. After the point basic needs have been fulfilled it's how much money one has in comparison with others that matters most. People have demonstrated destructive behavior in experiments where one was willing to lose 25% of his or her capital to "destroy" 50% of another's.

Career is very much the same. We measure ourselves on the social scale. How can one be happy when there's always someone younger and ahead?


Frustration – The irony of the human psyche


Our frustration ironically increases when we achieve our dreams and goals. Suddenly the gap in expectations explodes in our faces and we are overwhelmed by the emptiness of the peak.

More often than not our expectations are much grander than reality. Imagine your last vacation, for example, to a beautiful destination. Did its beauty surpass your expectations? It does sometimes, but usually reality has its surprises in store for us.

The irony of human nature and our psyche is apparent. We were programmed, either by God or evolution (take your pick) to constantly seek out new challenges and new goals. We are quickly accustomed to any situation that is, at the moment, our current situation and we always believe happiness is right around the corner.

By constantly striving we (arguably) better ourselves but fail, again and again, to find peace of mind and the sought after happiness.


Conclusions


Well, it seems that if you are lucky genetics has already assured you 50% chance at happiness. The rest of us may have to work a bit harder.

My personal belief is that being aware of our psychological "deficiencies" is one of the better ways to tackle the issue of happiness. By acknowledging the elusive nature of happiness, the need to constantly set and conquer new goals and by learning to appreciate the more humble states of calmness, tranquility and long-term satisfaction we may find peace of mind and general well being.

My personal tendency is to agree with the philosophic arguments according to which reason is the source of long-term well being (I avoid using happiness). The little exercise I suggest here is exactly that. Gaining awareness and employing reason into understanding the elusive nature of happiness and our human limitations.


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Image by: Sean Oneill

7 comments:

Gary said...

Big assumption on your part…

“I think we can all agree, empirically speaking, that happiness is not an enduring state of mind but rather comprised of moments.”

No we don’t all agree. Those who have taken the time to gain control over their attention and can thus direct their own emotional state at will, do not experience happiness in fleeting moments. For those individuals it is an ongoing experience of life. However, few take the time to gain mastery over their minds and emotions so this is not known by many people.

“Hollywood has probably contributed to the western notion of happiness more than any other influence by putting happiness into terms of family, love, success, money, power, freedom etc.”

If by “contributed” you mean influenced, then yes. However if you mean that Hollywood has added or improved on the notion of what makes us happy, then I disagree. Marketing, through such vehicles as Hollywood has done a great deal to pull our attention away from conscious awareness of ourselves and making our emotional states dependent on external and abstract factors like success, money, power, and freedom. If it is the latter that you mean then I suggest you use a word other than “contribute.”

"After the point basic needs have been fulfilled it's how much money one has in comparison with others that matters most. People have demonstrated destructive behavior in experiments where one was willing to lose 25% of his or her capital to "destroy" 50% of another's. Career is very much the same. We measure ourselves on the social scale. How can one be happy when there's always someone younger and ahead?"

Where do you get your information? Perhaps this has been demonstrated, but I wouldn’t take isolated cases and make conclusions about humanity from isolated cases of study. Because a percentage of the population, (large or small) is socially conditioned to feel insecure because their mental process compares themselves to another and is willing to bring down another for the survival of their own ego is not a dynamic that I would use as a truthful example. A group socially conditioned into a self destructive behavior from their fear based beliefs is not something that I would point to as a fact to be extrapolated to other people.

Dorian Wales said...

@Gary - Thanks for the enlightening comment. Always a pleasure to be read and commented on.

As for the first part: “I think we can all agree, empirically speaking, that happiness is not an enduring state of mind but rather comprised of moments.”

I may have over generalized. Still, observing my experience and the people in my environment has led me to believe happiness is by no means a constant state of mind much like sadness isn't. Interested in more views on this matter.

I agree completely with your remarks regarding Hollywood. They just sell...

As for the last part, the experiments I read about were held by British economists Prof. Andrew Oswals and Prof. Daniel John Zizzo in "Are People Willing to Pay to Reduce Others' Incomes?", published in 2001 (Link. Apparently 62% of players in their experiment chose to "destroy" value equal to almost 50% the wealth in the entire experiment.

Gary said...

62% does not make a conclusion or fact. The circumstances of an experiment or game are not equivalent to real life.

As for drawing conclusions about happiness based on the people around you. It sounds as if they are not very good at it. If you really wanted to learn about golf you would want to interview a Masters winner. The people around you are not masters of happiness and they can not tell you, nor demonstrate it except in those fleeting moments when their ego wins.

I suggest you find a more expert, and skillful resource on emotional mastery instead of studying amateurs before you draw conclusions.

I'm not so much singling you out, as point to an error that most people make. They spend no time and effort practicing emotional mastery of their happiness, or controlling their attention, yet assume that their understanding is completely informed.

Dorian Wales said...

I do feel a bit "slinged" at but it's alright.

I've based my post on research in the field and on the writings of philosophers ranging from the 4th century to our days.

The quest for happiness is like a quest for the Holy Grail or the Arc. A chase after a metaphor or a concept hardly tangible.

On the objective side, I'm not selling happiness to anyone at an hourly rate so I feel my conscience is clear in this matter. I am by no means suggesting you are wrong. I am merely being skeptical as is my nature and suggest the same to my readers.

The pursuit of "happiness" at its simplified form is futile in my opinion and understanding that is the first phase in achieving peace of mind and well-being (again, my opinion).

I'd love to see some objective evidence on your part. Aside from the ad-hominem (argument against the man) you have presented.

Professionals at happiness is an interesting concept you offer for such a basic emotion. Do we need professionals for sadness or pain?

These emotional states have been shown to be temporary and passing in many researches (again, see Daniel Kahnmen's experienced utility theory and objective happiness). These are empirical tests performed by top academy members and Nobel Laureates.

Gary said...

"The pursuit of "happiness" at its simplified form is futile in my opinion and understanding that is the first phase in achieving peace of mind and well-being (again, my opinion)."

There is a kind of peace that comes with accepting that happiness is futile. That peace is due to the abandoning of the fight. We let mediocrity and the uncontrolled parts of our mind and thoughts take over. No struggle,,, just give in. It's a kind of peace but not one that I recommend.

My experience is that happiness isn't just stumbled upon or results from any kind of success. It is an all out battle. One in which you have to scratch and claw your way through your fears, self judgments, self importance, and limiting beliefs. And even then, your best effort only gives you a minimal chance. In this regard, giving up, or accepting what the voice in your head would have you to believe is "futile" appears more peaceful than taking on the challenge.


"These emotional states have been shown to be temporary and passing"

For the above comment I refer you to the following
http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html

Happiness ( what we could call the emotional state created by the expression of love) isn't fleeting if you worked at it.

However, without many role models of that in our vicinity, we wouldn't have much knowledge of that process, or even know what is possible.

I don't golf much. I just play once in a while. I've never seen anyone hit a hole in one. So for me, without empirical evidence it is difficult to accept as possible or true. But then again,,, I don't golf much. Perhaps if I studied the game,,, and hung out with the experts for while,,, I might have my eyes opened to what is possible.

Thanks for the dialog here. For whatever reason your article caught my attention and so I am playing a bit of Socrates Cafe on line.
-

KIP said...

An excellent post about a top of mind subject. I like the point you make that simply being aware that everything else is struggling to be happy (or content) just as much as you are puts you ahead of the game. I often find that thoughts can be turned around by recognizing them and stopping the thoughts you don't want, while replacing them with the ones you do.

Thanks for a thoughtful post on the topic.

Dr. Fred said...

I like this Taoist quote as it applies to happiness…

"It is only when you seek it that you lose it.
You cannot take hold of it, nor can you get rid of it;
While you can do neither, it goes on its own way.
You remain silent and it speaks; you speak and it is silent."

Seeking happiness leads to more seeking. It’s like chasing a carrot at the end of a stick.

My view is that you can't think your way into happiness. The access to it occurs through an intuitive and meditative approach.

There are many examples of people living in horrible circumstances who maintain a state of peace and fulfillment.

Check out happiness-after-midlife.com for different perspectives on the relationship between happiness and aging.