I recall a certain Prof. T., a psychiatrist I worked with and whom I regard highly, recount how he very nearly left psychiatry soon after joining when the writers of the ye old DSM considered including happiness as a psychiatric condition, being the opposite of depression. How very understandable. Happiness is often touted as the purpose of life and the most important thing, the most important condition to fill: “Sure, so long as you’re happy“, as they say in Ireland. I am tempted to go on a rant how the goal-directed pursuit of happiness has made us unhappy, but I think everyone knows that anyway. My discussion with Terraustralis* revealed an interesting attitude:
Happiness isn’t necessarily the point, but it sure is a good survival strategy. It is easier to get through life when you can see the bright side.
It always seems like a barrier to entry and an annoying obfuscation when a person responds to a question by needing to define the terms of the question. However, as I get older, I find myself joining this school of question-dissection.
What is happiness and why do we need it?
I don’t plan to get too metaphysical here. All I want to say is that there are two things commonly discussed using this term:
- The concrete sensation of being happy, such as when
a loved one gets you exactly the present you wanted for Christmas, or
you get an acceptance letter from a purchaser, an employer, a journal, etc, or
you notice the colourful sunset and feel at peace, or
you notice that your coffee is particularly nice
or indeed, you think of examples of when you were happy and your brain isn’t that sure what is real and what is a memory.
2. The abstract greater, non-provoked satisfaction, fulfilment or harmony that represents the bottom line of your emotional climate.
I will discuss happiness (1), of the concrete variety – because I feel that the abstract happiness (2) is a product of concrete happiness (1). If concrete happiness (1) is the weather, abstract happiness (2) is the climate. Abstract happiness is probably more often a subject of rationalisation and by its nature, it is more difficult to get a grip on, so we’ll start small(er).
Happiness is a chemical reaction.
Then again, so is everything else.
However, happiness is very directly a chemical reaction, unlike let’s say someone’s well-considered political views. They too are a series of reactions, perhaps even facilitated by the dopamines and serotonins of this world, but they lack the binary nature of the sensation of happiness.
Sorry for dropping the tone, but is happiness that different from an orgasm? Most of us know not to expect that to last forever.
Reason 1: Happiness only exists in response to a change
There is no happiness when there is no change, real or perceived. Lack of volatility takes away the opportunities to feel happy.
As Sigmud Freud put it: “What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”
This is why learning makes us happy: we see progress (or change). Furthermore, we get to control the change to a large degree. This enhances the happiness. This is also why ambitious people tend to be happier (my observation, do you agree/disagree?) It is like they have the activation energy to take the first step to learn something, to start on something. It is the mildly philosophical who are depressed, but they haven’t thought of the South East Indian history. Or how to start a petrol station. Expanding one’s horizons always leads to happiness (it may not be pure, but it is net positive). Some may call it distraction – and that would explain why we love clicking on stupid links shared on social media**. On the bright side, however, it is a form of learning, seeing new opportunities and changing one’s understanding of the world. Happiness comes free with that.
Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has influenced me greatly. His economically-related theories, the ones that got him the Nobel prize, are of little interest to me. I am much more concerned of his background work on general psychology that led him to the conclusions he reached regarding our buying/selling decisions. His discussion of happiness is particularly interesting.
“For an example, take the following scenarios:
Today Jack and Jill each have a wealth of 5 million.
Yesterday, Jack had 1 million and Jill had 9 million.
Are they equally happy?
… Jack is elated and Jill despondent. Indeed, we know that Jack would be a great deal happier than Jill even if he had only 2 million today while she has 5… The happiness that Jack and Jill experience is determined by the recent change in their wealth, relative to the different states of wealth that define their reference points (1 million for Jack, 9 million for Jill). This reference dependence is ubiquitous in sensation and perception. The same sound will be experienced as very loud or quite faint, depending on whether it was preceded by a whisper or by a roar.”
According to Kahneman, there isn’t just one happiness because there isn’t just one self (the one that resides in our talkative default mode network). There is the experiencing self, a kind of present moment aware self, and the remembering self, including the ruminating sort we so dislike.
The remembering self will focus on the peak and the end of an experience, where the experiencing self, will be, well, experiencing every moment of it. Here is an example:
“People who recently married, or are expecting to marry in the near future, are likely to retrieve that fact when asked a general question about their life. Because marriage is almost always voluntary in the United States, almost everyone who is reminded of his or her recent or forthcoming marriage will be happy with the idea. Attention is the key to the puzzle.
The figure shows an unusually high level of life satisfaction that lasts two or three years around the event of marriage. However, if this apparent surge reflects the time course of a heuristic for answering the question, there is little we can learn from it about either happiness or about the process of adaptation to marriage. We cannot infer from it that a tide of raised happiness lasts for several years and gradually recedes. Even people who are happy to be reminded of their marriage when asked a question about their life are not necessarily happier the rest of the time. Unless they think happy thoughts about their marriage during much of their day, it will not directly influence their happiness. Even newlyweds who are lucky enough to enjoy a state of happy preoccupation with their love will eventually return to earth, and their experienced well-being will again depend, as it does for the rest of us, on the environment and activities of the present moment.”
Reason 2: Happiness is tied to an anchor bias
What is anchor bias?
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
“If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.”
My own tale is that the first “anchor” I’ve thrown was in 1990s Moscow.
I still pause nervously at the thought of the things I avoided. I was very shielded, yet the echo of the various brands of social unrest that surrounded me reached me enough to know I have to watch out. You know how your mother probably taught you to not speak to strangers and not get into a lift (elevator) with people you don’t know? Most of us use discretion with these rules and only put our guard up when something is tangibly “up”. I am used to using these rules verbatim. I still don’t speak to strangers unless I am in a crowded and well-lit place. I still move whenever someone sitting beside me is coughing a lot: you never know, it could be TB. Whenever I am in Moscow, to this day, I always have my guard up. It sounds sinister, but it’s not actually.
It is as if I am constantly anticipating that someone will try to swindle me in some minor way. In a queue, you well get skipped unless you’re paying attention. The florist will inevitably “accidentally” charge for a higher priced bouquet and reissue the invoice once questioned. The radiographer will forget to take the standing X-ray having taken the lying one unless you double check. It’s a mix of carelessness and minor fraud that arises from low wages in a cynically unequal society. This happens everywhere of course, but it is quite consistent in Moscow, or at least is was, in the very turbulent 1990s. You have to be very aware, prepared to stand up for yourself and presume the worst of people. I don’t enjoy being like that. Just to be clear, I don’t hate where I come from or have some sort of overly dramatic story. These are just observations.
Having this 1990s Moscow “anchor”, most places I go to remind me of the pages of a fairy tale book. I may be exaggerating a little, but that’s the crux of the emotion I feel every day. Every day someone is polite to me, I remember that it wouldn’t have been like that back in the proverbial old country.
Whenever things happen without me having to double check that everyone has done their job, I automatically get this wave of bliss, gratitude and a sense of that concrete happiness. It’s like drinking water after a 10 K run. It’s like escaping capture by an enemy.
Why? Because I am anchored to believe that things going smoothly isn’t the norm. Elaborating on Ray Dalio’s formula,
Happiness = reality – expectation (regarding a given event or change in circumstances).
The specific anchor I have is quite low down in the expectation ocean, so happiness is often a positive value. Does it mean I actually have low expectations and take sh*t from people? Somehow it doesn’t. It just makes it easier to be happy. The fact that this isn’t just some idea, but an actual anchor I have been fortunate enough to form makes me see everything though that filter. Biases aren’t always bad.
If I had been reading, not writing this, I would probably think: here goes, be grateful, bla bla, game your mind until you feel happy even though you shouldn’t really. It doesn’t feel like I am forcing this at all. It’s a lucky idiosyncrasy. Can it be extrapolated to other things? So that we can feel happy more effortlessly? Very soon an overzealous extrapolation approach turns into “there are children starving in <remote location>, so you have to value what you have”, which inevitably causes resentment and a feeling of pointless self-fraud over time.
The point is that looking back at our own anchors and expectations (not those of deprived children in a less-developed country) can help to explain how happy or unhappy we feel.
Understanding that happiness is only achieved through change, it helps to think of our lives as a continuum of present moments rather than an efficient emotionless journey from A to B, where B is full of yummy dopamine***. It is just another way to understand the context, gain perspective or whatever other fancy term you may want to use for all those things hidden in plain sight.
In short, happiness is fundamentally decided by:
- presence of change (real or perceived)
It’s also affected by temperament (e.g. the weight one attaches to negative events) and genetics – and I will talk about this another day.
* A gentleman who comments in English, but blogs in Polish here.
** Procrastination is an avoidance behaviour, but it does make us happy in a short term concrete way. I believe it makes us happy using the same mechanism as learning, though on balance, of course, it is a saboteur.
*** Actually, it is the anticipation of B that releases the dopamine.