Everyone wants happiness but how do we achieve it? Some ask, is it even possible? In much the same way that it is getting harder and harder to find anyone really healthy, it seems to be getting harder and harder to find people who are truly happy. Maybe, first of all, we should ask ourselves what exactly is happiness?
Many people believe happiness comes from ‘doing the things we like doing, and being with people we like being with’. But I suggest we have to take a slightly deeper dive into the subject to really understand happiness and exactly how to achieve and maintain it.
I propose that we can all be happy and I offer the insights below from my experience, my research into personal development, from talking to people, and from deconstructing and reverse engineering my own happiness.
What is happiness?
Happiness is the ultimate goal in life. We would probably all agree that a miserable life would not be worth living. Happiness is experienced as an emotion. We feel happy. But why? In philosophy, happiness translates from the Greek concept of Eudaimonia, and refers more to the comprehensive good life, or flourishing, rather than simply being an emotion (Wikipedia). This suggests happiness is the reward for right living, and when we consider how illusive happiness is for many people today in the context of examining just how such lives are being lived. Let’s dig a little deeper and expand our understanding of the concept of happiness and the principles behind it so as to ultimately arrive at a useful definition and a framework for achieving it.
Happiness is not pleasure
Pleasure and happiness both feel good, but they are not the same. There are a number of important distinctions between the two, and the achievement of happiness requires us to know the difference.
Pleasure is short-term – Happiness is long term
Pleasure is felt in the moment, but happiness is the long-term view, the sum of a life across time. Happiness is a ‘how-goes-it?’ assessment of our life or circumstances. We feel good if we are on track to realising our goals, we don’t feel good if we are not on track, or if we have no self-initiated goals.
The concept of happiness is independent from the peaks and troughs of daily life. It is the mental equivalent of a graphic indication of trend as opposed to the individual highs and lows of specific events and temporary circumstances. This is why a genuinely happy person can easily weather the storms of misfortune or circumstances outside of their control, so long as the course being pursued is right and is on target.
This does not mean that a happy person will never feel down. It means that a happy person has a broader and more positive context within which they experience their daily circumstances and emotional highs and lows. The positive quality of the context is born out of having goals and being engaged with life. Where are we headed? What are we doing? Where are we aiming to end up?
Pleasure is sensory and in the body – Happiness is psychological/emotional and in the mind
Pleasure is experienced primarily in the body and is largely sensory, where as happiness is good feelings in the mind. Pleasure can also have an emotional component, but this comes from the extent to which one has realised a value in experiencing that particular pleasure. For example, if eating ice cream was a significant value in one’s life, then the experience of eating it would illicit an emotional response associated with achieving that particular value as well as the physical pleasure of it’s taste.
But happiness, in essence, is a psychological and emotional state as distinct from a purely physical sensation. Emotions do have a physical component, but happiness is not felt in the body in the same way as feeling sick to the stomach or experiencing ‘butterflies’ with nervous anticipation.
Pleasure is Dopamine – Happiness is Serotonin
Dopamine and serotonin are both chemical neurotransmitters (or messengers) that carry signals between brain cells. Dopamine is associated with the pain-pleasure spectrum, whereas serotonin is associated with feeling happy. Dopamine reinforces habits as a pleasure reward and functions to initiate the repetition of certain behaviours or choices.
Dopamine requires the precursor amino acids Phenylalanine and Tyrosine. Serotonin requires dietary intake of the amino acid Tryptophan. We cannot make tryptophan it must be obtained in our food, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to source in nutrient deficient food. its lack is commonly associated with depression.
The point here is that there is no shortage of dopamine in the brain, but it is increasing challenging to maintain adequate levels of Serotonin. This points to a very practical causal foundation to happiness in the need for specific essential amino acids in our food. [Tryptophan and phenylalanine are 2 of the essential amino acids not made by the body] You may be interested to know that the best food source of tryptophan is organic eggs from pastured chickens.
Most people are not short of options to experience pleasure, and yet they are specifically NOT experiencing happiness. For more on the chemistry of pleasure and happiness check out Dr Robert Lustig’s book “The hacking of the American mind”
Pleasure in excess leads to addiction – Happiness cannot be experienced in excess
Pleasure does not equate to happiness. An accumulation of pleasurable experiences does not add up to a happy life. And in fact if we seek happiness in pleasure, addiction is the result. On the other hand, it is not possible to become addicted to happiness. There is no hangover, there are no unpleasant side effects. Happiness can be said to ‘be the end goal’.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing and enjoying pleasure. As long as we understand that happiness is something else, and is pursued by other means.
Happiness is not a primary
The next really important thing to know about happiness is that it is not a primary, it is the result of something, Like all emotional responses, it’s an effect. You cannot reach for an effect in disregard of its cause and expect favorable results. To enjoy effects, causes must be initiated, and happiness is no exception.
Hedonists do treat happiness as a primary and claim that we should all simply do ‘that which makes us happy’. This is unhelpful because it sheds no light on what it is specifically that will induce the feelings of happiness, beyond satisfying any whims. Offering no distinction between pleasure and happiness, addiction to pleasure can easily result.
The take away point is that happiness cannot be aimed at directly. It must be recognised as an effect, and its causes must be initiated. If we find ourselves feeling unhappy it is not enough to simply do more of the things that make us feel good. This is why understanding our emotions is so important (see below).
Happiness is up to us
Our happiness is up to us and nobody else. Other people’s happiness is up to them and cannot be achieved by us. Each man is an end in himself and his happiness is his own highest moral purpose. Just as we support our own life by our own effort, we earn our own happiness by our own achievement. That our happiness should be our own priority does not imply that others needs are sacrificed.
Making our happiness dependent upon the actions or choices of another is disempowering and it is futile. The same can be said for making it conditional upon anything outside of our control. Realising our own values is entirely within our control, even if we do suffer setbacks and failures along the way. Aspirations do not have to be grandiose, there is satisfaction in making a great meal to share with friends or family.
There is no point in waiting around for happiness to come our way, and it is not a birth-right. Happiness is not some mysterious reward bestowed upon some but not others. No one gets happy by being ‘lucky’, ask the many miserable lottery winners. Happiness is not an automatic result of having stuff, or lots of money. It must be earned by our actions and our choices, by the way we live, by what we do. Things achieved bring happiness, money earned or wealth created brings happiness, not simply having money, or being able to spend the unearned.
Happiness will only result from our own actions, from what we do and how we evaluate what we do. We have to take responsibility for our own happiness and take responsibility for doing what is necessary to experience it.
How do we achieve happiness?
We have identified 3 important attributes of happiness; that it is not a primary, that it is not the same as pleasure, and it’s achievement is up to us. We have also determined a few things that it isnt. Let’s now move on to what must be done to ensure that we experience it. There are many inter-related factors involved in achieving happiness, and they are all rooted in rationality.
1. Be rational
To experience happiness we must be accurately in touch with reality, we must be fully sane, which means being in the same real objective world as everyone else, not our own little fantasy bubble. Everyone is rational some of the time, or they could not function. And most of us are irrational at least some of the time. Effective living and the achievement of happiness require us to be as consistently rational as possible.
This is because happiness depends upon many things that all require rational thinking. Self-esteem, the achievement of goals, productivity, and maintaining mental and physical health, all require us to be rational. Having a sense of being in control of one’s life is also not possible for those who are irrational. Irrationality leads to suffering, rationality leads to happiness.
Happiness is found in knowing what is important and what is not, which is really ensuring that ones values are rational and appropriately prioritised. It can be very enlightening to write out a list of what is most important in our life.
2. Think for ourselves
Although human nature is awash with the capacity for all manner of destructive behaviours, we are fundamentally rational animals. Our unique and defining attribute is the faculty of reason. The means of exercising it is through the process of thinking using the method of logic. Everything about achieving an effective life depends upon us exercising our capacity to think, and therefore our capacity for happiness depends on whether or not we choose to think.
The habit of thinking means the habit of wanting to know and seeking to find out. If we do this we quickly become well able to create the life we want to live. The only way to gain knowledge (the accurate identification of reality) is through thinking. Greater knowledge is greater awareness is greater power and control over our lives. We could just copy others, but this is a road to dependence not happiness.
3. Build self-esteem
Self-esteem develops as a result of both of the above. we need a sense of self-efficacy to feel sufficiently capable and in control and we need a sense of self-worth and moral self-approval to be happy. Our ability to enjoy life and experience happiness is directly proportional to our self-esteem.
We start to feel good about ourselves when we feel able to live, competent for life, when we feel we have a handle on it. Imagine playing a game that you do not understand and the rules of which you have no knowledge, how much fun would you have? How good would you feel about yourself and your performance? Now imagine a game you are good at, that you know inside out, where you feel really competent. We all know our capacity to enjoy any game is proportional to our competence at it. Our capacity to enjoy living our life is similarly proportional to our perceived competence at it.
Increased self-esteem equates to confidence in owns own judgment. This makes being the author of ones own destiny much more likely. Authoring one’s own life is a key component of happiness. For those interested in building self esteem I recommend Nathaniel Branden’s “The six pillars of self-esteem“
4. Pursue and realise self-initiated values
Whenever we make a plan to do, make or achieve something, it feels good when we succeed, irrespective of the size of the goal. Happiness results from this practice mapped out over a time. If we are in the habit of always having a project on, or consistently pursuing a goal we aim to achieve, we create circumstances in which to feel good everytime we achieve one of those goals. When our goals are rational, considered, and a meaningful part of our life context, each time a step is made along the road to our destination we feel good. Happiness arises from creating our values and achieving our goals. But this means we must think about what we value and why, we must choose what is going to be important and why.
If happiness comes from realising values unhappiness results from having ones values destroyed or negated or blocked or thwarted. But it is often missed that not pursuing any values at all leads to unhappiness. If we don’t bother thinking and engaging with the world we forego a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The scale of our engagement with life is not important, but it is crucial that we do engage – if it is happiness we wish to experience.
We must choose our purpose. Our goals must be our own. It is no good to do what others opine or prescribe for us, it is no good to succeed in what others would choose for us. Our goals must be self-initiated and born of our own thinking for them to reap the reward of happiness when achieved.
5. Be ourselves
Happiness will never be found in trying to please others, trying to be accepted by others, or trying to fit in. A rational adult will always be themselves, what could be gained by faking who we are. Faking reality in any sense is irrational and it cannot be expected to lead to happiness. A man or woman of self-esteem would naturally be themselves.
Even if it sounds obvious as a prerequisite for happiness, making this explicit is important. This inter-relates with following ones passion, which is another aspect of being one’s self. We have to be living our own gig as it were. We must be the author of our our destiny in a literal sense, but this also means being our own highest authority with respect to deciding what to do. I dont mean breaking rules that should not be broken, but trusting one’s own judgment as the ultimate competent decision maker.
6. Take control of our lives
If we are being truly ourselves and we are the author of our own destiny, we will naturally be taking control of our life. To be happy we need to feel a sense of control over our destiny. If you doubt this truth imagine being incarcerated or seriously disabled, along with the loss of control over your choices that this would bring. And imagine how hard it is to bring about one’s chosen goals without a large degree of control over your affairs. This is the connection between freedom and happiness. To think, choose and act on our judgment we need to be free. Not everyone wants to be free of course, but not everyone wants to think, choose and act on their own judgment.
To take control of our life means to get into the drivers seat of our mind. We must be awake, switched on and deliberate. Being out of control or being at the behest of others is self evidently not the road to happiness.
7. Be Productive
Assuming all of the previous points, being productive is a logical extension of these. Creativity brings its own reward. Whether the creation is a hearty meal, a beautiful home, or a huge corporation. Whether we paint pictures, write books, raise children, make furniture or sing songs, being productive and creating value brings great reward. Productivity is a virtue that brings forth the material and intellectual values we need, and as such is a key part of right living. Happiness is its reward.
Money does not buy you happiness but making money can indeed make you happy. If you are offering value for value and generating wealth, you will rightly feel happy. You will feel efficacious, your self-esteem will increase, and you will enjoy spending your money with far greater satisfaction than any lottery winner or gold digger.
8. Understand emotions
We have considered how happiness is an effect and that thinking is its ultimate cause. It is well worth delving into just what emotions are, and increasing our understanding of them. I offer some insights in the post “Emotions – what are they and what do they mean?”
In pursuit of happiness we need to know what we think and we need to know what we feel, and we need to know the difference. Understanding the cause-effect relationship between them is really important in understanding our selves, our feelings and how they relate to our experience. Our thoughts affect our choice of values and our choice of values determines our emotional responses.
But it goes deeper than this. To be happy we must know that emotions are no means of finding things out about reality. Emotions don’t tell us anything objective. They are only evidence that we hold certain values. Emotions are estimates of our progress either towards or away from our goals, either supporting or threatening our values. Treating them as a means of acquiring knowledge only leads to a disconnection from reality and therefore away from happiness.
9. Pursue and maintain physical and mental health
The pursuit of health and happiness are not separate issues. Valuing one’s own life and it’s continued enjoyment and the achievement of happiness are two aspects of the same achievement. To maintain optimal mental and physical health is a choice and its achievemt is a possibility for everyone, conditional upon their context. The draw back is the commitment to rational values and the self-discipline required, but it is a choice none the less. It is one that boosts self-esteem and at the same time promotes a massive feel-good factor in terms of the immediate results of being in top shape, as well as the emotional reward of happiness in serving the highest value of all – the maintenance of one’s life!
Gut health is particularly important for happiness as gut microbial activity is intimately involved in hormone production. There are several studies linking depression to gut dysbiosis. Gut health is directly compromised by the modern diet, by both the kinds of foods and the toxicity in the foods. Anyone serious about achieving happiness must seize control of their health and particularly the health of their gut.
is particularly important because of the role that the microbiome plays in determining our moods and emotions. It has been shown that gut dysbiosis (which is an imbalance in the species of microbes in the gut and usually associated with a reduced diversity) is frequently associated with depression. If we focus on healing and sealing the gut as well as eating an appropriate diet we necessarily do 90% of the work required to achieve health as well as laying the foundations for happiness. Because health is a prerequisite for everything else, it’s a key foundation stone for happiness.
Be the ‘Master’! We need to exercise self-control and self-discipline. It is the necessary life management tool for tying it all together. Happiness is the reward for self-mastery, for being an effective manager of one’s life. We must be able to make a plan and stick with it. Its ok to vary the plan or to modify it, but not let it fall apart through failure to implement it. Without self-discipline we can get nowhere because our self-discipline is our ability to steer a constant course towards a chosen goal. The achievement of self-discipline reaps significant rewards in happiness.
So what is happiness? Happiness is the state of consciousness that arises from the achievement of one’s own rational values. Rational values are those that support our lives and their enjoyment. Happiness is therefore nature’s reward for getting it right (in broad strokes), it is the reward for Right Living.
I agree with those who say that some degree of earth connection or nature connection is essential for happiness. However, I consider this appreciation or conscious awareness of the natural world to be a rational part of ‘Right Living’. The new culture that will emerge will not only value health and eat a diet to which the human genome is adapted, but will also necessarily value the natural world and treat it with appropriate respect. This will be reflected in the new culture lifestyle. As a foot note, the notion of connecting with nature is absurd in that we are a part of nature and the natural world. To connect with nature is like a fish connecting with the water.
Happiness is not guaranteed
Happiness is never guaranteed. All the steps can be put into place, everything we can possibly do can be done. We can have all the cards stacked in our favour, but happiness can always be removed in a second. Just as one’s life – the ultimate value against which we measure all others – can end in a second. It is important to know this about happiness. It is not all doom and gloom, and it doesn’t make anything pointless or hopeless. It is important to know the frailty of our happiness and know what it depends upon, so these things can be adequately defended and protected.
Happiness must be worked at over the long term, it takes planning, effort and must be built up. However, it can be destroyed in a second. Force, violence and coercion are always the culprits. Values accumulated over a lifetime and worked for diligently over decades can be wiped out in just a few minutes of rape, murder, pillage and destruction! lives can be taken, villages destroyed, homes can be wreaked and infrastructure decimated. Happiness can be lost unless we truly understand the values at its root and make it our business to protect them. Our choice of what we value is important, but maybe even more so is our willingness to defend our values when they are threatened.
In the forthcoming post “Creating happiness” I discuss the specific method of how to be happy in more step by step detail.
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Love and laughter