The Unhappy Pursuit of Happiness

rio running

I am on a walk. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and I happen upon a field of glorious wildflowers! The intoxicating smell of the nice-smelling flowers (I don’t know flower names) fills my nose, and makes me happy.

My family is with me on this walk. We are on vacation in a warm, sunny place, and relaxed. The children run through the field. They are healthy and the future looks bright for them, and this makes me happy too.

Brief pleasures of the senses and long-term feeling of contentment are quite different, but both are clearly linked to “happiness.” Before we explore what makes us happy—or even if we should pursue happiness—we need to explore what it means to be happy.

What is happiness?

Humans, including young infants, have no trouble communicating if they are happy in a given moment, or in their lives more generally. But happiness is such an intuitive and evolutionarily ingrained emotion that, if put on the spot, I think many of us would have trouble coming up with a coherent definition.

Even the professionals—philosophers, psychologists, economists, and biologists—perpetually struggle with and argue over the definition of happiness. Satisfaction, well-being, flourishing, love, and meaning are terms that capture aspects of happiness, if not its entire scope. “Well-being” seems to a widely-accepted synonym for happiness, and a good starting point.

Put in the simplest terms, happiness is the state of being happy. Who could argue with that?

happy kid on bridge

On the origin of happiness

Even if we can’t precisely define happiness, we all have an intuitive sense of its meaning. But why do we, as humans, experience the emotion of happiness? In other words, what would Chuck Darwin say is the evolutionary reason for happiness in our species?

Throughout our lives, each of us hovers around a certain level of happiness—the “set point” for our happiness thermostat. This set point is determined mostly by genetics, and likely influenced by our upbringing to some degree. Positive or negative events might temporarily bump our happiness levels up or down, but over time we will tend to return to that same set point. Why are we wired this way?

Our pre-human ancestors (i.e. animals) may not experience happiness in the same way we do, but evolution has taught them to be attracted or repelled by certain sensory stimuli in the world—to classify experiences as “good/beneficial” or “bad/noxious.”

As evolution progressed over millennia, consciousness arose in more complex creatures. Now, rather than a reflexive attraction to the good or repulsion from the bad, animals (and eventually we humans) consciously experience stimuli and the associated emotions. Cold water on a hot day feels refreshing and pleasant, or a porcupine quill causes pain and fear.

Humans (and perhaps other intelligent animals) eventually came to associate the emotional response directly with the stimulus, rather than through the intermediary of sensation. Cold water on a hot day just made us happy.

The three cavemen

We don’t know much about our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors. We do know that life sucked pretty hard most of the time: they were in constant search of food, at the mercy of the elements, and most likely headed toward an early death. They were also part of the food chain, and not always at the top.

Let’s visit a small tribe of these ancestors in the Great Rift Valley of Africa about 100,000 years ago. Three of them—Steve, Frank, and Carl—are prehistoric pals, but each with their own “set point” of happiness, like the three bears.

(Apologies for and credit to Tim Urban for the drawing style.)

Steve is so, so happy, all the time. The sunrise makes him weep with joy. A mere look from a pretty cavewoman keeps him satisfied for months on end. He’s not worried about much of anything—food, finding a mate, or having children. He has no ambition to seek more pleasure, because he is happy with what he has.

One day, before he has children, as he ponders the beauty of the wind through the grass, a lion sneaks up on him and eats him. Poor Steve.

Steve the caveman

Frank, on the other hand, is a real sour puss. Nothing makes him happy. The men killed a wooly mammoth on the hunt! “Whoopee,” thinks Frank, “I guess it’s mammoth burgers for the next month straight. How, exactly, are we going to keep all that meat fresh? I better not get food poisoning.” No one much likes Frank, including the women in the tribe. He doesn’t care to improve life for himself or others.

One day, before he has children, he wanders away from the campfire because he simply can’t stand the conversation a moment longer, and is mauled to death by a pack of hyenas. Poor Frank.

Frank the caveman

Carl is the de facto leader of the tribe. Everyone considers him as the most reliable and level-headed male. His mood is never too happy nor too depressed. He enjoys himself during the feasts after a good hunt, but knowns the food will not last forever. He is sad when a friend or family member dies, but he is not paralyzed by grief and helps other to deal with theirs.

The ladies like stable Carl. He has many children with his partner in the tribe, and passes on his just-right happiness traits to his children.

Carl the caveman

All of this, of course, is a gross and silly oversimplification.

Throughout human history, plenty of cavemen like Frank and Steve passed on their genes, and still do today—perhaps even to a greater degree than in eons past. But throughout much of human history, evolution favored, if only slightly, those who were neither always happy or always sad, and were able to quickly move on from the temporary ups and downs that life threw at them.

As a result, the human race is neither deliriously happy or constantly depressed, but rather somewhere in the mediocre middle.

What makes us happy?

Few would argue that family and community are important for life satisfaction. They seem to be more important than health and money, at least. If the opposite were true, the healthiest and wealthiest of us would invariably be the happiest, which is clearly not the case. We return to our “set point” of happiness quickly after changes in our health or finances, but a life of loneliness and lack of connection can permanently lower our happiness thermostats.

So far, we have only discussed external stimuli that make us happy or sad. But what of the underlying mechanism of happiness—that which occurs internally, within our brains?

What REALLY makes us happy?

Happiness is—like anything we think or feel—a chemical reaction in the brain; it is a result of the interplay among serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin on your neurons. Both the elation when I first glimpsed my children at their births and the pain of my aunt’s suicide were the result of molecules being released, their interactions with receptors on neurons, and tiny electrical impulses inside my skull—nothing more, nothing less.

On a evolutionary level, we can also consider how happiness and other emotions might have come to be in the first place. The initial step in generating happiness or other emotions is an unconscious, physiological response to a stimulus—the primitive reaction of “good/beneficial” or “bad/noxious.” We are attracted to food, or recoil from pain. Some call this the Darwinian good of a stimulus.

Next, the conscious experience of that emotion takes over. We feel happy, and we know that we feel it. Now the emotional good can take on a life of its own. The pleasure of experiencing the emotion can become an end in itself, rather than a reaction to an external stimulus.

We become slaves to that emotion. We can’t fight that feeling anymore.

A corollary to this stimulus-reaction-emotion phenomenon will be familiar to those interested in behavioral economics: the hedonic treadmill. Our biology screws us here. Humans are designed to “accommodate” to sensory stimuli, so we don’t overwhelm the system; responses to continuous or repeat stimuli weaken over time.  Our emotional reactions—closely tied to sensory stimuli—similarly weaken with time. Thus, we constantly chasing that initial “high” of a positive emotion, but never quite get there.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” — John Milton, Paradise Lost

crying baby

My own happiness

Like many (most?) people, I have struggled through periods of mild depression. I never required medication or therapy and, thankfully, I always emerged from the shadows eventually. But my high school years were pretty dark at times, and I can’t be certain it won’t happen again.

These days, I have much to be happy and thankful for: family, friends, a job, travel, money, my health, jalapeño chips, etc. Still, I find myself sad and frustrated by silly things—a broken car, a mean comment, or just a bad day—with some frequency. Heck, writing this very post has brought about feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction!

I have all the reasons in the world to be happy all the time, but I’m not. Is there some way I can “hack” my own brain to enter a more permanent state of well-being and satisfaction?

The secret(s) to happiness

As mammals, we have an advantage (when it comes to emotion) over our primitive-brained relatives: our neocortex. We have the ability, however difficult, to “outthink” our feelings. The reactions and emotions of the more primitive parts of the brain can be tempered or even neutralized by the rational thought process of the neocortex, particularly the frontal lobes.

Easier said than done, right? But still possible.

Perhaps we are going about this all wrong. The discussion so far assumes that happiness is the goal—an end in itself. But is this necessarily true?  Maybe long-term happiness is a byproduct of the pursuit of life goals, with the emotional ups and downs that pursuit entails. Maybe we can’t find happiness—it has to come to us. Life’s a journey, not a destination. Why shouldn’t happiness be that way too?

Look to the East

The Buddhist philosophy has long been obsessed with the mind and happiness. The Dhammapada, the earliest known collections of Buddha’s teachings, mentions happiness in the second verse:

If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves.

What is meant by a pure mind? Buddhism famously teaches that “life is suffering,” meaning (in part) that our minds are programmed to hold onto the positive feelings of our past and crave positive feelings in our future (and push away or dread negative feelings). According to the tenets of Buddhism, this is a mistake.

True happiness is independent of our feelings, and can only be attained by exiting this cycle of grasping and craving experiences in the past or future. In other words, learning to focus on the present. Simple idea, but extraordinarily difficult to execute for most. Buddhists move closer to a life without “suffering” through wisdom, compassion and meditation.

Thanks for reading and have a happy day!

What makes you happy? Have you found the ideas mentioned here helpful in finding happiness? Do you have other techniques or strategies? Please comment below!

4 Replies to “The Unhappy Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. I agree with set point theory of well being. But we do have some room to change our happiness as you mention. Typically, reasearchers sugfest up to 30-35% can be changed. The rest is majority genetic and a sprinkling of circumstance.

    Mindfulness is one way cited in the literature, but there are many other ways. For example, savoring, gratitude, community, charity, flow, eliminate overthinking, avoid social comparison, and on and on.

    I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject. You have put into words what I think regarding hedonic adaptation and happiness. We do adapt to these exercises. I honk that’s why it’s important to either keep changing them up or find one or 2 that are dynamic in themselves. I’ve found mindfulness meditation to be challenging enough and interesting enough as to continue gaining from it.

    For other techniques to bolster happiness like savoring or gratitude, I have to remind myself. Sometimes I read old my posts or flip through an article I highlighted. It’s just not human nature to focus on these things because as you say for most of our evolutionary existence (like 99.999%) happiness was an afterthought to survival but linked to it, hence its existence.

    A fascinating post in an interesting topic. Now, to my morning run and day with my daughter. I don’t know where those fall under happiness exercises but they are the most effective for me. Yay Saturday morning.

    1. Wow, you really have read and thought a lot about this topic!

      It’s hard to know what “works” unless you try it yourself. It truly is an experiment with n=1. Even if happiness or satisfaction improves, it’s hard to know how much better it might be, or how much your happiness set point may be holding you back.

      All these questions are fascinating to me as well, and I plan to read more about it and explore these practices you mention.

      Dr. C

  2. DadsDollarsDebts says: Reply

    Boom. Dropping some knowledge.

    I had never been concerned with the pursuit of happiness because I was pursuing too many other goals. Once those goals were completed, then I started looking into happiness. Makes you wonder if the pursuit of goals (like you said above) is truly the key to happiness…..

    An idle life can ruin its self for sure.

    1. It seems you had the right approach to happiness, even though you weren’t trying, because the key may be…to not try!

      Only a fortunate few in this world contemplate these types issues. Most people in the world, I think, are simply living day-to-day with little time or inclination to reflect on their own happiness.

      Dr. C

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