3. Happiness Explained
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
Why do the clouds not fall? Whether or not children get actual answers to their questions is of little relevance. Their relentless probing follows the pattern of the "infinitely regressive why "—regardless of the answer to a question, the child persists with another "Why?"
why are you training so hard? Why do you want to win this prize? Why do you want to be rich and famous? Why do you want a fancy car, a promotion at work, a year off from work?
When the question is "Why do you want to be happy?" the answer is simple and definitive. We pursue happiness because it is in our nature to do so.
Happiness is the highest on the hierarchy of goals, the end toward which all other ends lead.
The British philosopher David Hume argues that "the great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled."
Do the "infinitely regressive why" exercise for a couple of things that you want—whether a bigger house, a promotion, or anything else. Notice how many "whys" it takes you to reach happiness.
"Numerous studies show that happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health."
not only can success—be it at work or in love—contribute to happiness, but happiness also leads to more success.
I define happiness as "the overall experience of pleasure and meaning."A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. The definition does not pertain to a single moment but to a generalized aggregate of one's experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy overall.
Pleasure is about the experience of positive emotions in the here and now, about present benefit; meaning comes from having a sense of purpose, from the future benefit of our actions.
Emotion, of course, plays a pivotal role in all our pursuits— including our pursuit of happiness. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine a life devoid of emotion.
As sophisticated as the robot is, however, it lacks all motivation to act. This is because even the most basic drives are dependent on emotions.
The robot could not feel the satisfaction of eating or the need to eat; it could not experience the pain associated with hunger or the satisfaction of satiation.
the robot would have neither motivation nor incentive to act. Attaining social standing, acquiring wealth, or falling in love would make no difference to it.
Emotions cause motion; they provide a motive that drives our action. The very language we use suggests an essential truth—that emotion, motion, and motivation are intimately linked. In Latin, movere (motion) means "to move," and the prefix e- means "away." The word motive, source of motivation, comes from motivum, which means "a moving cause." Emotions move us away from a desireless state, providing us motivation to act.
The neurologist Antonio Damasio provides an illuminating real-life example of the link between emotion and motivation. Following surgery for a brain tumor, one of Damasio's patients, Eliot, retained all of his cognitive abilities—his memory, mathematical ability, perceptual ability, and language skills. However, the part of Eliot's frontal lobe connected to the ability to experience emotions was damaged in the operation. Eliot's condition was similar to that of the emotionless robot: he had all the physical and cognitive characteristics of a normal human being, but the system "involved in feeling and emotion" was damaged.
Eliot's life changed dramatically. Prior to the surgery, he was a happily married, successful lawyer, but after the operation, despite the fact that his "rational brain" was not damaged, Eliot's behavior became so unbearable for those around him that his wife left him, he lost his job, and he was unable to hold another job for very long. The most striking thing about his predicament was his apathetic reaction: he no longer cared about his relationship or his career.
If we were devoid of emotion and hence of motivation to act, we would aspire to nothing. We would remain indifferent to our actions and thoughts, as well as their ramifications. Because emotion is the foundation of motivation, it naturally plays a central role in our motivation to pursue happiness.
However, merely being capable of emotion—any emotion—is not enough. To be happy, we need the experience of positive emotion; pleasure is a prerequisite for a fulfilling life. According to the psychologist Nathaniel Branden, "Pleasure for man is not a luxury, but a profound psychological need." The total absence of pleasure and the experience of constant emotional pain preclude the possibility of a happy life.
When I speak of pleasure, I am not referring to the experience of a constant "high" or ecstasy. We all experience emotional highs and lows. We can experience sadness at times—when we suffer loss or failure—and still lead a happy life. In fact, the unrealistic expectation of a constant high will inevitably lead to disappointment and feelings of inadequacy and hence to negative emotions. Happiness does not require a constant experience of ecstasy, nor does it require an unbroken chain of positive emotions.
While the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.
Make a mental list of things—from little things to big ones—that provide you with pleasure.
But is living an emotionally gratifying life really enough? Is experiencing positive emotions a sufficient condition for happiness? What of a psychotic who experiences euphoric delusions? What of those who consume ecstasy-inducing drugs or spend their days leisurely sprawled on the beach? Are these people happy? The answer is no. Experiencing positive emotions is necessary but not sufficient for happiness.
Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could provide us with "the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return" or any other experience we might desire.
Nozick asks whether, given the opportunity, we would choose to plug into the machine for the rest of our lives. Another way of asking this question is, would we be happy if we were plugged into the machine for the rest of our lives?
Circumventing the cause of these emotions, through a machine or drugs, would be tantamount to living a lie.
We want to know that our actions have an actual effect in the world, not just that we feel that they do.
without emotions (or sensations, in the case of some animals), there would be no drive to do anything, and a living organism would not sustain itself. Without emotions or sensations, animals, like the emotionless robot, would not move.
However, while our capacity for emotions is similar to that of other animals, we are fundamentally different. The fact that we can reflect on the cause of our emotions is one of the characteristics that distinguish us. We have the capacity to reflect on our feelings, thoughts, and actions; we have the capacity to be conscious of our consciousness and our experiences
We also have the capacity for spirituality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines spirituality as "the real sense of significance of something." Animals cannot live a spiritual life; they cannot endow their actions with meaning beyond the pleasure or pain that those actions yield.
When speaking of a meaningful life, we often talk of having a sense of purpose, but what we sometimes fail to recognize is that finding this sense of purpose entails more than simply setting goals. Having goals or even reaching them does not guarantee that we are leading a purposeful existence. To experience a sense of purpose, the goals we set for ourselves need to be intrinsically meaningful.
We could set ourselves the goal of scoring top grades in college or owning a large house, yet still feel empty. To live a meaningful life, we must have a self-generated purpose that possesses personal significance rather than one that is dictated by society's standards and expectations. When we do experience this sense of purpose, we often feel as though we have found our calling. As George Bernard Shaw said, "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one."
Different people find meaning in different things. We may find our calling in starting up a business, working in a homeless shelter, raising children, practicing medicine, or making furniture. The important thing is that we choose our purpose in accordance with our own values and passions rather than conforming to others' expectations. An investment banker who finds meaning and pleasure in her work—who is in it for the right reasons—leads a more spiritual and fulfilling life than a monk who is in his field for the wrong reasons.
Idealism and Realism
I once asked a friend what his calling in life was. He told me that he does not think about his life in terms of calling or some higher purpose. "I am not an idealist," he said, "but a realist."
The realist is considered the pragmatist, the person who has both feet firmly planted on the ground. The idealist is seen as the dreamer, the person who has her eyes toward the horizon and devotes her time to thinking about calling and purpose.
Being an idealist is being a realist in the deepest sense—it is being true to our real nature. We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning. Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness. While I am not advocating dreaming over doing (both are important), there is a significant truth that many realists—rat racers mostly—ignore: to be idealistic is to be realistic.
Being an idealist is about having a sense of purpose that encompasses our life as a whole; but for us to be happy, it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture. We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well.
Think of the things that provide you with meaning. What can, or already does, provide a sense of purpose to your life as a whole? What daily or weekly activities provide you with meaning?
Michel de Montaigne, "The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose." Having a purpose, a goal that provides a sense of direction, imbues our individual actions with meaning—and from experiencing life as a collection of disjointed pieces, we begin to experience it as a masterpiece. An overarching purpose can unify individual activities, just like the overarching theme of a symphony unifies the individual notes. In and of itself, a note does not amount to much, but it becomes significant—and beautiful—when part of a common theme, a common purpose.
Potential and Happiness
When thinking about the most meaningful life for ourselves, we must also consider our potential and how to make full use of our capacities. While a cow might seem content with a life spent grazing in the pasture, we cannot be happy living simply to gratify our physical desires. Our inborn potential as humans dictates that we do more, that we utilize our full capacities. "The happiness that is genuinely satisfying," writes the philosopher Bertrand Russell, "is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties and the fullest realization of the world in which we live."
The person with the capacity to be the president could be happy as a scholar of ancient Sanskrit; the person with the capacity to be a millionaire could lead a fulfilling life as a journalist. They can find satisfaction if they feel, from within, that they are doing things that challenge them, things that use them fully and well.
What pursuits would challenge you and fulfill your potential?
Success and Happiness
If, for example, grades and getting into the best institutions no longer constitute a strong motivation, might not a student lose his commitment to his schoolwork? If promotions and raises are no longer the ultimate driving force in the workplace, will employees dedicate fewer hours to their jobs?
I had similar concerns about my own success as I was contemplating the shift toward the happiness archetype. The "no pain, no gain" formula had served me well, in terms of quantifiable success, and I feared that my resolve would weaken—that the next milestone would lose its appeal and no longer sustain me as it did when I was a rat racer. What happened, however, was the exact opposite.
The shift from being a rat racer to pursuing happiness is not about working less or with less fervor but about working as hard or harder at the right activities—those that are a source of both present and future benefit. Similarly, the shift from hedonism to the pursuit of happiness does not entail having less fun; the difference is that the fun the happy person experiences is sustainable, whereas the fun of the hedonist is ephemeral. The happy person defies the "no pain, no gain" formula: she enjoys the journey and, dedicating herself to a purpose in which she believes, attains a better outcome.
The Need for Meaning and Pleasure
Just as pleasure is not sufficient for the attainment of happiness, neither is a sense of purpose.
Viktor Frankl talks about how victims of the Holocaust were able to find meaning in their lives. Despite the physical and emotional torture that these people endured in the concentration camps, some of them found meaning, a sense of purpose, in their meager existence. Their purpose could have been to reunite with loved ones or to someday write about what they had lived through. However, even to suggest that these people were happy while in the camp is absurd.
We need the experience of meaning and the experience of positive emotions; we need present and future benefit.
Freud's pleasure principle says that we are fundamentally driven by the instinctual need for pleasure. Frankl argues that we are motivated by a will to meaning.
True happiness involves some emotional discomfort and difficult experiences, which some self-help books and psychiatric medication attempt to circumvent. Happiness presupposes our having to overcome obstacles. In the words of Frankl, "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."
I am taking issue with the ease with which such medication is dispensed. There is a real danger that with the struggle, meaning too will be medicated away.
We should also remember that going through difficult times augments our capacity for pleasure: it keeps us from taking pleasure for granted, reminds us to be grateful for all the large and small pleasures in our lives. Being grateful in this way can itself be a source of real meaning and pleasure.
There is a synergistic relationship between pleasure and meaning, between present and future benefit. When we derive a sense of purpose from what we do, our experience of pleasure is intensified; and taking pleasure in an activity can make our experience of it all the more meaningful.
Think back to a difficult or painful experience you had. What did you learn from it? In what ways did you grow?
Quantity and Quality
We all enjoy and derive meaning from different activities, and to varying degrees. For example, writing provides me with both present and future benefit, but writing for more than three hours a day bores me. Watching two movies a week contributes to my happiness, whereas spending four hours a day in front of a screen, over time, will most likely frustrate me. Just because an activity provides us with meaning and pleasure does not mean that we can be happy doing it all the time.
Lasagna is my favorite food, and every time I visit my parents, my mother prepares a tray of it, which I promptly devour. This does not, however, mean that I want to eat lasagna all day and every day. The same principle applies to my favorite activities.
Just because my family is the most meaningful thing in my life does not mean that spending eight hours a day with them is what would make me happiest.
Identifying the right activity, and then the right quantity for each activity, leads to the highest quality of life..
The best method of maximizing our levels of happiness is trial and error, paying attention to the quality of our inner experiences. Yet most of us do not take the time to ask ourselves the question of questions—because we are too busy. As Thoreau says, however, "Life is too short to be in a hurry." If we are always on the go, we are reacting to the exigencies of day-to-day life rather than allowing ourselves the space to create a happy life.
Abraham Maslow maintains that a person "cannot choose wisely for a life unless he dares to listen to himself, his own self, at each moment in life." It is important to put time aside to take Maslow's dare, to ask ourselves the type of questions that can help us choose wisely: Are the things that I am doing meaningful to me? Are they pleasurable? Is my mind telling me that I should be doing different things with my time? Is my heart telling me that I must change my life? We have to listen, really listen, to our hearts and minds—our emotions and our reason.
EXERCISES: Mapping Your Life
Though it is difficult to quantify internal states of mind and heart, it is still possible to evaluate our lives in terms of happiness and gain insight into how we can become happier. We could begin by recording our daily activities and evaluating them according to how pleasurable and meaningful they are.
Devoting a few minutes at the end of each day to write down and reflect upon how we spent our time can help us recognize important patterns. For example, we might realize that we spend a significant proportion of our time in activities that provide future benefit but that we do not enjoy, or doing things that provide us with neither meaning nor pleasure. We can then evaluate our lives through the lens of happiness and decide to add more meaningful and pleasurable experiences.
At the end of the week, create a table listing each of your activities, the amount of time you devoted to each one, and how much meaning and pleasure each one provides.
Next to the amount of time, indicate whether you would like to spend more or less of your time on the activity. If you'd like to spend more time, write "+" next to it; if you'd like to spend a lot more time doing it, put down "+ +." If you'd like to spend less time on the activity, put"—" next to it; for a lot less time, write "— —." If you are satisfied with the amount of time you are spending on a particular activity, or if it is not possible to change the amount of time you devote to it at the moment, write "=" next to it.
Make a list of the things that are most meaningful and pleasurable to you, that make you happiest. For example, a list could include family, exercising, promoting human rights around the world, listening to music, and so on.
Next to each of the items on your list, write down how much time per week or month you devote to it. With or without the help of the map you made in the preceding exercise, ask yourself whether you are living your highest values. Are you spending quality time with your partner and children? Are you exercising three times a week? Are you active in a human rights organization? Do you put time aside to listen to music at home and attend concerts?
This exercise raises a mirror to your life and helps you determine whether or not there is congruence—integrity—between your highest values and the way you live. With increased integrity comes increased happiness.
Given that we're often blind to the discrepancy between what we say is important to us and what we actually do, it may be useful to do this exercise with someone who knows you well and cares about you enough to be willing to help you evaluate your life honestly.
How much time we choose to spend on our highest values depends on personal preferences and availability. Just because family is my highest value does not imply that to increase my integrity and therefore happiness I need to reallocate all the time I currently spend on my hobby to my family (remember the lasagna principle). A person who must work two jobs to get enough food on the table for his family is living in accordance with his highest values even though he gets to spend little time playing with his children.
Often, however, we are pulled away from the life that would make us happier by internal and external forces that we have some control over—such as our habits, our fears, or other people's expectations. Given that time is a finite and limited resource, we may need to give up some activities that are lower on our list of importance— say "no" to certain opportunities so that we can say "yes" to ones that are more valuable to us.
Repeat this exercise regularly. Change, especially of deeply ingrained habits and patterns, does not happen overnight. Most important, once again, is to ritualize your activities. In addition to creating a habit of activities that you want to engage in, introduce negative rituals—times during which you refrain from doing certain things. For example, if feasible, create an Internet-free time zone, each day between certain hours.
when you can fully focus on other activities, whether getting work done or spending time with your friends.