Is Happiness a Thing to be Found?

There seems to be a lot of talk about happiness lately. Namely, what really makes us happy, if it’s an illusion or even a chemical imbalance.

I’m still struck by Scott Adams’ blog post earlier this week, in which he deduced that happiness may be nothing more than the absence of pain. And if you’re looking at it that way, existence as a rock might be “superior to life as a conscious entity.”

Perhaps you think that sitting around pain free would not be enough to make you happy. It would be boring and unfulfilling. And it’s hard to be happy when you are bored and unfulfilled. But boredom and lack of fulfillment are types of pain. Imagine sitting around doing nothing while having no tinge of boredom, or lack of purpose, or loneliness, or any other discomfort. I think it would feel like happiness.

The ideal happy creature would be a rock with consciousness. It would have no discomfort and no goals beyond eroding.

Harvard Psychologist and Author Dan Gilbert wrote an entire book questioning what really makes us happy. (In fact, it’s up next for me and D’s two-person book club.)

Gilbert looks, scientifically, at how our brain perceives the aesthetic of happiness and how we synthesize happiness—that is, how we create the illusion of happiness for ourselves. (Think: If I get this job; if I land this girlfriend, then I’ll be happy, etc.)

But here’s the surprising part: Synthetic happiness is not inferior to natural happiness, found Gilbert:

[Synthetic happiness is] every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.

The bottom line?

Sure some things in life are better than others. A trip to Paris is more
enjoyable than gall bladder surgery.

But our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

Gilbert follows this point with a particularly thought-provoking quote by Adam Smith, which I think would be a shame to miss:

The great source of misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another.

Some of these situations may deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame of the remembrance of our own folly, or of remorse for the horror of our own injustice.

So what do you think? Can we chalk happiness up to a thing that is not to be found but just is? Is that adage true: When life gives you lemon, make lemonade add vodka?

Watch Dan Gilbert @ TED | Buy Stumbling on Happiness

[Jam of the Day]: Rogue Wave, Chicago X 12

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2 responses to “Is Happiness a Thing to be Found?

  1. [[Warning! This comment contains stream-of-consciousness style writing, and not the enjoyable, Virginia Woolf kind.]]

    This is an interesting topic and I’m disappointed that no one has commented yet. I’ve been thinking about it off and on, and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.

    Happiness is shallow and fleeting. Peace and joy are deeper and more permanent.

    I’m happy when stress is absent (or forgotten) and I have some enjoyable activity in front of me. This can happen alone or in the company of friends. Happiness is fragile, however, and a simple thing can shatter it. Another equally simple thing can quickly restore it. Seesaw.

    I have joy and peace when I put my hope and faith into something bigger than me. People can debate the foolishness of such a view, but whether or not the object of my hope and faith is real, it’s a wonderful way to live. When happiness fails, joy and peace remain.

    To make an odd analogy, happiness is like aluminum foil. It heats and cools quickly and easily because of its low heat-capacity. Many little things are capable of making or breaking happiness, and it’s almost always very temporary. Joy and peace are more like water. It takes a lot of energy to heat up water, but the water will remain hot for a long time, even when set outside on a cold winter’s day. In the same way, Joy and peace come with wisdom and experience, trial and suffering. Then they last, even through long and difficult stretches in life.

  2. Peter,

    Love what you’ve said here. The water/aluminum analogy is right on.

    I guess I’m so caught up in this because I remember times where I’ve been seriously upset about something for an extended period of time. And according to Gilbert’s findings, negative occurrences happening 3 months ago have little impact on our overall happiness. (I’d contest this point in a couple of occasions, but man, is that interesting to think about.)

    Gilbert also caught my attention when he studied the unanticipated joy of being stuck—that we derive pleasure in being unable to make a decision. Who amongst us hasn’t been caught between the infamous rock and a hard place, trying to gauge which choice to make—agonizing over the consequences of each respective choice. (This brings up a related subject about life regarding choice and destiny…but I’ll save that for later.)

    But thinking about happiness as temporary—or more specifically, just a state of mind—really helps me to think big picture instead of just moment to moment (which, in some instances is right and decent). But I feel so many times in life, we’re hasty to make a decision because we feel unhappy in a particular moment. So, what you said about finding peace (synonymous with contentment?) really resonates. I know a heck of a lot is going to go down between now and the end of my life and not all of it will be peaches and cream. But I’m still content and fairly unafraid at this point, because I have the makings of a life that give me peace and contentment, which is more constant and supportive than that feeling of total elation.

    Sigh. Life is sure a weird experiment.

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