In 1978 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the best seller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In it Rabbi Kushner addresses the question of why is it that if we live our lives grounded in positive values must we suffer? It would seem that living a good life should bring us happiness. Yet many of us are not happy.
The idea of being happy is a common concern expressed in therapy. Positive psychology (or rather distorted interpretation of positive psychology principles) brought a belief that happiness is a normal human condition, as such it is easily available to all. The result of this belief is an often mistaken assumption that not being happy means one is abnormal, that something is wrong with you.
This search for happiness has become a source of frustration for many people. As a response to this frustration there are plenty of self made gurus, who are more than ready and willing to sell you their secret to happiness. The selection of books, tapes, DVD’s, groups, clubs, and so on seem to never end. Each one promises untold happiness for your life. How to turn every negative into a positive. Sounds good doesn’t it?
This leaves us with an important issue, is happiness just waiting for you to embrace it as an achievable permanent state of mind?
The Myth of Permanent Happiness
The premise of this article is that a permanent emotional state of “being happy” is a myth and the only way to experience happiness is to change your state of mind. What is happiness? It is an emotion. A transitory mental or emotional state of well-being that provides us with necessary information as our response to pleasant or meaningful stimuli resulting in positive or pleasant emotions.
The problem with the happy emotion is that we are not able to sustain the necessary stimuli to trigger happiness for a prolong period of time. Once our happy emotion has completed its cycle, it stops. What we are left with are pleasant memories.
There are several methods used to reach temporary state of happiness. Many of them require little effort, such as a happy memory, watching a feel good movie, or looking through family photos. Others find happiness by taking on and succeeding with elaborate plans; graduating from school or succeeding in some projects at work or own business. There are even instances where people engage in dangerous, sometimes destructive behaviors in their quest to be happy, up to the point of stealing from others and becoming criminals.
Human emotions exist in a point – counterpoint relationship. For example, our response to a given event can set off feelings of hopefulness or hopelessness, love or hate, wanting more or not wanting any. Either emotion can be valid depending on the stimuli. How would you know the feeling of sadness, anger, mistrust, or other common emotions if you did not know the opposite emotion?
Happiness is usually attached to attaining some external object. Examples include:
- Acquiring a new car
- Taking a cruise
- Getting a promotion
- Meeting that “special” person
- Losing 30 pounds
What is a Normal State of Mind?
I’d like you to consider these rather unconventional ideas:
- Psychological pain is normal
- Happiness is a transitory state.
- Pain and suffering are different
- Acceptance of pain begins to alleviate suffering
- You do not have to identify with suffering
Looking at the first idea; psychological pain is normal. It is the absence of psychological pain that is abnormal. To be in a constant state of happiness is abnormal in that the human body cannot sustain the neurological reaction that is required to produce happiness.
This much we do know about happiness, there are two important ingredients at work to create a state of happiness for ourselves. One is physiological and the other is psychological.
Physiological: Happiness as a Neurochemical Reaction
Physiologically feeling happy is our body’s response to certain events. There are four primary neurochemicals that create happiness: endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. When triggered by an event these four neurochemicals come together, providing us with increased motivation, a more positive world view, and other positive changes in attitude.
Just how do these four neurochemicals combine to create happiness?
- Endorphins: Serves as a means to mask the sensation of pain, giving you a feeling of euphoria after a period of laughing or physical activity.
- Dopamine: Believed to connect the links between the frontal cortex of the brain and the amygdala (aka our “emotional brain”), responsible for emotional responses. It is produced by central nervous system after certain rewarding activities such as achieving a goal, having sex and consumping food.
- Oxytocin: A chemical triggered by positive actions such as childbirth, love or sexual sensations. It is a chemical largely responsible for the feelings of trust we form with one another
- Serotonin: Acts as a booster for positive moods, sociability and alertness, a shield against depression.
On a physiological level, it is these four chemicals that when combined in the right order create a sense of happiness within the person.
Psychological Function of Happiness
Imagine yourself enjoying your favorite beverage at the local hangout. Looking up, you see a long lost friend at the door. Your eyes meet and the years fade into the past. He joins you at your table. After a few minutes of catching up your friend asks you, “So John, how’s life going? Are you happy?” With this one question the myth continues.
Let me ask you that same question, “Are you happy?” Before responding, there is something you need to know; the question your friend is asking requires you to respond to a myth. No one is happy 24/7 nor does their life consist of only happy events.
Now, before you write me off as a heretic or just crazy, hear me out. Simply by being a human being we are guaranteed that much of our lives will be lived out through incidences of suffering, disappointment, angst, and other events. Henry David Thoreau said it this way, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
This sounds harsh, but if given thought it is accurate. The question that remains is this: What are the alternatives to pursuing happiness as the stabilizing factor in your life?
Contentment as a Path to Happiness
So far we established that happiness as a permanent state of mind is impossible to achieve. To enjoy prolonged happiness requires that the stimuli be continually applied in newer ways. Even this does not last. If we are exposed for enough time, the stimuli becomes common place, losing its ability to trigger the emotional response.
This gives rise to an important question. What are the residual effects of happiness in forming our state of mind? First, let’s define state of mind.
Defining State of Mind
As used here, your state of mind is the long-term, relatively constant understanding of life you adopt. While constant there are areas where it also is dynamic. It is a multi-faceted presentation of your personal nature. It is demonstrated by you in the actions, attitudes, and behaviors you possess. These are the qualities that others and you see in yourself that make you who you are. While it is possible to change your state of mind it is usually because of a significant life altering event. Certainly your mood and current circumstances can affect your baseline state of mind, but as those events subside, you will return to your baseline state of mind.
For some their state of mind can be boring. If, for example, your base state of mind is humbleness there may be those times when an emotion like excitement triggers a good feeling. It feels good enough that you’d like to repeat it. This same sense is captured when you encounter a happy emotion.
Another important feature of your state of mind is that it is a representation of who you are. It is not some rigid thin, but is subject to the typical ebbs and flows of life we encounter.
Happiness and Your State of Mind
If you think about it, the focus of your state of mind remains fairly steady, except when we encounter an emotional event that interrupts our state of mind. We already discussed the neurochemical reaction of our body to the happy event. So intense is our response that it is common for us to focus on this event, even seek out ways to either prolong it or replicate it.
The happy event is not an ideal candidate for being prolonged or replicated leaving the person affected by the event at risk of depression. Their response to this gap in their life is familiar, “I just want to be happy.”
This leaves the goal of being happy unattainable. Not achieving this goal the person experiencing this desire for happiness is in a dilemma. “Why can’t I just be happy? What am I doing wrong?” The result is similar to a dog chasing its tail.
Alternatives to Happiness
What is your reaction to the person who exhibits a sense of perpetual happiness? The one who seems to be unaffected by external events. Always smiling and of good cheer? Many are suspect. Their auspiciousness could result from their own inability to achieve the level of happiness of the other person or because they simply don’t believe another person can always be happy.
I would like to suggest an option. It is an option that is not identified as an emotion. It is a state of mind. One that can open a person to areas of happiness they had never thought about. This alternative involves human capacity or the ability of a person to recognize and work toward meeting the expectations or goals they have set for themselves. Mistakenly thought to be synonymous with happiness, it is more basic and occurs prior to and separate from happiness.
CONTENTMENT: A state of accepting what is. Learning from your past and looking toward your future while using the present to give meaning to your life.
Accepting as used in the context of contentment does not mean the passive connotation the word sometimes has. Acceptance is not the same as giving up. Rather, it is an active element whereby you come to terms with whatever has occurred.
As we look at contentment as a state of mind it is important to recognize that acceptance is the integration and acceptance in your life of your past, present, and future.
Applied to your past contentment allows for satisfaction with what has been. Recognizing that you cannot change what was. Good or bad, your experiences are indelibly a part of your life. Bottom line; you have come to terms with what was.
The same applies to accepting the future. We all have our dreams and goals. Each of us does something with those dreams and goals, whether just to dream about them or to actually take steps toward achieving them. This is done even though there is no guarantee that what you plan for will come to be. Your only guarantee is that there will be a future.
The key to living a life of contentment is how it can affect your present moment. If your state of mind has put your past and future in the proper order it is in the present moment where your focus should be. It is in the moment that you can affect change, learn about yourself and the world you live in, and follow your vision of what is right, just, and true.
An End to Happiness?
In this article we have explored the meaning of happiness. Hopefully you have come to recognize the importance of happiness as well as its place in your life. It is a part of a larger emotional package we have access to, but not the only one. A life of contentment certainly will offer increased happiness, but it is important to remember that in and of itself, happiness is an experience not a goal.
Image Credit: Dmitri Mihhailov at flickr.com/photos/mihhailov/7663414156