From when you’re very young you start getting the message — you should be happy. You are told that the purpose of life is to be happy! By the time you leave childhood, you start telling yourself that. In adulthood, you start worrying because you’re not happy and start finding ways to be happy. And are a whole lot of people to help you, that’s for sure. The trouble is — helping you helps them — not you.
We’ve been made to buy into the idea that happiness is something we achieve when everything in our life finally looks the way we’ve been thinking it should. When I buy that car I will be happy. When she says she loves me I will be happy. When I get that promotion I will be happy.
But it never does happen like that. Entire religions have been constructed from this idea of happiness. The lure of happiness is so great and so unfathomable that it goes into the ‘next life’. If you live good you will be happy forever in Swarga, in Heaven or in Jannat. It is a far off carrot dangling from a divine stick.
But here’s the rub — everlasting happiness is a myth that has been propagated on us for thousands of years. Because it is easy to sell and that’s because everyone wants to be happy. But the human state is not of some perpetual happiness even remotely. You can look at Gandhi, or Dr Martin Luther King and ask yourself — they should have been happy, but were they? If they had a life full of strife and stress with moments of happiness, why should you be better?
That is what I talk about here, that happiness is the opposite of what everyone has taught us. And the opposite of happiness is not necessarily unhappiness — it’s just trying harder. I want you to see why happiness is a state that exists only for a while and that is the nature of being human. First, let’s look at how humans perceive happiness. Then we’ll look at why they do. And last, what can make us happier without the mumbo jumbo.
The construction of happiness
The construct that religions, pseudo-religions and new age gurus give us is that happiness is an ‘existential state’ in which you live, or not. It is an either-or-state, so you are either happy or you are unhappy. But happiness is circumstantial.
Over a lifetime — the overachiever, the underachiever, and the failure — everyone is happy for about the same percentage of their lives. Comparing 99.9% of the life experience when you are not happy with that 0.01% when you are ‘happy’ may make it appear pointless and bleak.
However, it should not be so. This is the very nature of being human. It is not pointless because all human progress has really come from the point of being not happy. Even art, that one place that reflects self-expression more than ambition, has seen its pinnacle rising out of a deep state of being dissatisfied and unhappy.
Happiness in the future: The optimism bias
If you don’t agree with me that happiness is transient consider this: how many times have you said, “Won’t it be great when I get that promotion/ fall in love/ go for that vacation…” It is because our brains have an ‘optimistic bias’ — which is the tendency to think that our future will be better than our present. The brain overcomes the monotony of being unhappy by creating happiness in the future.
Happiness in the past: The Pollyanna principle
An older person is likely to say, “Wasn’t it great when… I got that promotion/ fell in love / went for that vacation…” It shows we remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information. The reason that the good-old-days seem so good is because we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.
This modelling of both the past and the future is an adaptive part of the human psyche. These are delusions but this self-deception has a purpose — it enables us to keep striving. If our present is unpleasant but the past is great, and our future can be great, then we can work our way out of the present!
Competition between states of happiness
We all know something that makes us happy; being with a loved one could make you happy. Being successful at work could make you happy. However, happiness isn’t complementary and sometimes may actually be in conflict.
A satisfying life built on a successful career and a great relationship are built over a long period of time. But having too much time with your loved one may compromise your professional success or vice versa. Committing yourself to avoid momentary pleasures such as going for a party or a spur-of-the-moment trip — typically as happiness in one area of life increases, it’ll often decline in another. It’s impossible for us to simultaneously have all states of happiness!
Happiness creates dissonance
Everyone has their baseline happiness, everyone has triggers to go above it and to fall below it, but over a period of time, they fall back to this baseline. You think buying this bag, or shoes or that car will make you happy. In reality getting something like that is a happiness ‘hit’. It does feel happy for a few hours then you slide back to your natural state. Else everyone with a Louis Vuitton bag or a Porsche should be happy forever but they are not.
This is true not just for underachieving or distressed people. There is a lot of research that shows that making a lot of money or meeting a terrible accident actually does not significantly affect your long-term level of happiness. And there is a reason for it. The dissonance happiness creates (and the resulting unhappiness) is the way human brains start chasing the next thing. While we do not think of it like that, it is a survival skill. This ‘hit’ is what motivates us and gives us this quest of happiness.
The law of diminishing happiness
It is not only that we need a happiness ‘hit’, the same hit will not work again. If a car or a promotion made you happy for a day, the next time it will make you feel that for say half the time. This is the diminishing return on happiness, in which your attempts to have “more” will actually bring you less. But if it were not so, ambition and achievement would be a straight line and every year you would want to achieve the same as the year before. But no human system works like that. Each year you want to achieve more than the year before. As life progresses in terms of your own expectations you are going up the funnel not down it.
Unhappiness is an evolutionary trait
Unhappiness and some pessimism actually do us good and help us see the world more accurately. Evolutionary scientists believe that those of our ancestors who were very anxious, a little depressed and hypochondriac were the key to the success of human species. They were more alert for danger and disease, and more prepared for potential problems in life. We no longer value misery as a learning experience or seize on it as a time to re-evaluate. Instead, we try to mask it.
Humans did not evolve to be happy
Stress stresses people out! There is a reason we feel stress — no stress is technically called homoeostasis. This is when an organism is in balance, for instance, there is an ideal level of glucose in the bloodstream, enough oxygen supply and the body’s temperature is favourable. All systems are go. A stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks an animal out of homeostatic balance. For example in the case of an accident you are out of homeostatic balance and the stress response is what your body does to reestablish homoeostasis.
Except humans are more complex than other animals
- For one, we can anticipate that something unfavourable is about to happen and can have a stress response prior to the event. This anticipation of unpleasant events is unhappiness, but unless it is chronic and it paralyses you, it helps you cope with the event. Distress, on the other hand, is when stress is so chronic you believe you are about to be knocked out of homeostatic balance, but actually, you are really not, but this belief continues paralysing you.
- For another, this stress response is till homoeostasis can be achieved or the animal goes into shock or dies. So stress is about three minutes of screaming after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. That is why a deer panics when attacked by a tiger but if it escapes, in a few minutes will munch grass like nothing happened. Deer don’t have a very complex emotional life, despite being a social species. People are not like that. A human will see a tiger in every shadow the rest of his life. That’s what phobias are made of.
I will look at the happy hormones in a while, but for now, let’s look at stress hormones. Stress causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol. They prime us for a fight or flight response, they reach into our fat cells and liver and take out sugar and dump it in our blood streams. They simultaneously increase the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. However, humans generate these responses in non-life threatening situations. We worry about our work, loans and loved ones and respond the same way. It allows us to achieve more, though at a physiological price.
A few decades ago psychologists started studying African Baboons to study stress. The reason baboons are such good models is that like people, they don’t have real stressors. Baboons work three hours a day for food and have no predators. They sleep 12 hours. So they have 9 waking hours every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other baboons. Surprisingly all the behavioural and physiological data including blood samples, tissue biopsies and electrocardiograms show that physiologically baboons feel stress the same way we do. They have elevated stress hormones and their immune responses and reproductive systems are compromised. Baboons like people are not being done in by predators and famines; they’re getting done in by each other.
Can you think your way through with happy thoughts and success?
In his book ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?’ Prof. Raj Raghunathan of University of Texas McCombs School of Business writes that there doesn’t appear to be much correlation between academic success and career success, and there is an even smaller correlation between career success and what he calls life success or happiness.
You’d also expect that with superior IQs, greater drive, high critical thinking ability and a better work ethic the predominant thoughts of a person would be happy. His subjects expected 60-75 per cent their thoughts to be positive, but the result of 2 weeks of logged information was surprising — actually, 70 per cent thoughts were negative. These thoughts were predominantly (a) feeling inferior (b) lack of love and connectivity with others, and (c) lack of control over themselves and other people! Overall the greater the career success, the more unhappy, out of shape, harried and distracted the subjects were.
One of the regular paths to being happy frequently told to us as improving our self-image. Which should be true, because if our self-worth improves our happiness should too. Except that it’s not true. Not because happiness does not go up with self-worth, but for the most part self-worth does not change over a lifetime!
In his book ‘Self-esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth’ Nicholas Emler examines what is self-esteem and what causes low self-esteem. His research studied ways to address low self-esteem since it is seen to be the cause of unhappiness, personal and social ills, crime, drug addiction, educational failure and suicide. His study concluded however that self-esteem is not only difficult to gauge it is almost impossible to be modified through interventions. Most notably, this study recognises high self-esteem does not necessarily have only positive outcomes professionally and personally.
A 1922 study in the UK of 1,200 children well into their adult life found that those who were most happy in childhood died earlier in adult life than those who were less cheerful. In adult life, the happy children turned out to be more likely to drink, smoke and take risks, possibly because their happy world view made the dangers of those choices appear smaller. The conclusion of the study was “The long-term effects of cheerfulness are complex, and seem not entirely positive.”
The biology of ‘happy’ hormones
We feel happy when our bodies release one of these hormones. The most interesting part is that their release is not routine. It is infrequent and precisely the reason why being happy is such a positive stroke that our body craves for it. But it is hard to come by and reinforces our survival behaviour but we want to feel good as much as we can.
Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals and gives us a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. Studies on rats showed those with low levels of dopamine always opted for an easy option and less food; those with higher levels exerted the effort needed to receive twice the amount of food.
Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. When serotonin is absent you feel lonely and depressed. Unhealthy attention-seeking is another symptom of lack of serotonin. Most antidepressants focus on the production of serotonin.
Oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and builds bonds. It is released by men and women during orgasm, but much more in women than in men. It is released and by mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding. Most animals will reject their offspring when the release of oxytocin is low.
Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The “runners high” during and after a vigorous run are a result of endorphins. It is an analgesic and a sedative similar to morphine and diminishes our perception of pain.
You can’t be perpetually happy, but you can be happier!
So we can’t be happier? We can be, but not necessarily through the happiness industry. The whole industry is dedicated to teaching us how to be happy. It’s almost as though we must have a duty to be happy. The trouble is this — the happiness industry wants us to fixate neurotically on ourselves. It makes us want to be hypersensitive about our own emotional state. It tells us that just going through life without agonising over whether you are happy or not, means we’re not happy. A small low is a large emotional blow that needs immediate addressal.
The other trouble is this — it tells us attaining happiness is doing less and having less because that gets you to have satisfaction. It tells us that it leaves us more time for our family, our children and our friends. It asks you to look inward. But I have found, happiness can be found not by looking inside, but by doing for others. Very few people actually tell you that.
I can’t make you happy, but I can make you happier. No mumbo jumbo. And it does not require you to leave your family or give up your professional life. It’s just based on the understanding of what we know about the nature of happiness.
- There is no state of perpetual happiness. First, you need to accept and appreciate that sometimes life will be good, and sometimes it is bad. You can’t have one and not the other. And that acceptance changed my perspective and life. The acceptance that dissatisfaction is a function of being human, and that happiness, when achieved, is a fleeting state should not be depressing. On the contrary recognising that happiness exists helps us appreciate it more when it arrives. We might want to take those short, sharp bursts of warmth and positivity and feel them constantly, but we can’t. It is the same with other emotions: boredom, dissatisfaction and sadness. None are constant.
- Your sense of self-worth will not change over your life, but what you do with it can. The complicated ideas that happiness gurus give you — of losing ego and self and stuff like that — they are trying you change the wiring of your brain. Unless you are going to spend your life doing that there is no real use. There is ample research that shows that our personalities are set by the time we’re 25 and our self-esteem does not change over our lifetime no matter what the learning. However, there is an easy way of being happy. What we call happiness often occurs unselfconsciously, when we are so engrossed in a hobby or an afternoon of reading, painting, listening to music that we don’t notice time passing. Most of all give to others. Not as CSR — but your time. Pick up a sick child or a dog and care for it. It will change your life.
- Get your Dopamine hit. Break big goals down into little pieces. Rather than only allowing your brains to celebrate when you’ve hit the finish line, create a series of little finish lines. Each time you do, you will get that dopamine hit. But don’t just feel good, reward yourself in a small way — watch a movie or get a great meal. Your brain starts telling you ‘Life’s good’. Create new goals before achieving the current one; that ensures a continual flow for experiencing dopamine.
- SOT: Serotonin on Toast. A common antidote to feeling low is organised group activity — the culture brings experiences that facilitate serotonin release. Remember the bikers on Harleys – that’s what they’re doing. The same ride feels better when they do it in a group. Or a knitting group. The other remedy is reflecting on past significant achievements that allow the brain to re-live the experience. Our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. But remember to get off your chair and do something after that daydream.
- Get your endorphins, like you get your vitamins. You do not have to be a distance runner or athlete or gym sort of guy to get them. Exercise in short bursts. Start with running 50mts all out. Then walking 50mts. Then running 50mts all out. 2 minutes — that’s it! There is ample research that shows it is intense interval workout that actually releases the endorphins, that otherwise comes after a 20-minute aerobic period. Short burst exercise has an added benefit — shorter telomeres — the ends of DNA’s that show the actual ageing repair in these short bursts. Other than exercise laughter is the easiest ways to induce endorphin release. Even the anticipation of laughter, e.g., attending a comedy show (come to Barking Mad the next time we have one), increases levels of endorphins.
- Remember Oxytocin? It is good. Very good. But I don’t need to tell you how to get it.
Remember that the dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated. Warm memories reassure us that the feelings we seek can be had in the future. Perpetual bliss would completely undermine our will to accomplish anything at all. Among our earliest ancestors, those who were perfectly content were the 1st ones to die. Happiness is like chocolate cake. You can’t have it all the time.