Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

What We Know (and Need to Know) About Happiness

Happiness matters. If we aren’t “happy,” then very little else truly has meaning. If we don’t aim at happy societies, then what’s the point of everything else?

For the past month, I’ve been reading, watching, and reflecting on happiness. I’ve been tracking my happiness and trying to measure what makes me happy.

Ultimately this turns on the classic question: What constitutes a happy life?

Philosophers, social scientists, psychologists and many others have been pondering this question for ages. From classic treatises to the latest self-help books, there is no shortage of opinions on happiness. But now we can point to a lot of data to backup what is happiness.

Let’s start with what we know, before sharing my personal takeaways.

What We Know About Happiness

In a semantic sense, we struggle to define “happiness.” As such, prescriptions for a happy life fail to feel quite right.

It’s important to consider the difference between pleasure and happiness:

Happiness is Not Pleasure: We can take drugs, play videos games, eat rich foods, and a thousand other activities that we think will make us happy. These give us a temporary state of pleasure. We conflate happiness with these sensations of pleasure. Happiness isn’t these mindless, bodily state. These are pleasures.

Phenomenologically, happiness is an experience we take part in. It matters because it’s ours.

It’s important to distinguish between two dimensions of happiness. First there is the happiness in what you are experiencing now. Second, there is the reflection or memory of happiness from something in the past. This division of memory and experience is central Daniel Kahnement’s analysis of happiness. It should part of our own since being happy now is different than remembering a period as a happy one. (Source)

So, what do we know about happiness then?

We are Terrible at Picking What Makes Us Happy: We have a number of cognitive biases that misguide us. What we think will make us happy is not always true afterwards. In predicting and picking which things and activities will make us happy, we fail consistently. For example, we think winning the lottery will make us happier, but in reality, lottery winners end up no more happier than non-lottery winners. (Source)

Being Wealthy Doesn’t Make Us Happier: There is very little benefit in terms of personal happiness to being rich. 60k usd per year has been found to be the point where greater wealth no longer is correlated with greater feelings of happiness, according to a Gallup Poll. Even though personal income and wealth has risen over the last 30 years, happiness has not.

Energy and Happiness: In her book “Happiness Project,” Gretchen Rubin attempts to make her life happier. She reads and tries many things. One of her biggest takeaways is how important feeling mentally and physically fit is. By engaging in activities like sports and social events we are “vitalized” and thus happier. Typical things like not being sick, getting enough sleep and a balanced diet are all factors she highlights. By maintaining high levels of energy, we feel happier. Ultimately she denotes “more energy” as a top priority in her happiness project.

Having More Choices Doesn’t Make Us Happier: In fact, there is almost a paradox around choice and happiness. Giving someone more choices and the option of changing their choice later actually leads to less satisfaction. Having a choice of something will make you happier with that choice (over all things being equal). But being able to choose from more things and change that choice later won’t make you happier. It will make you more anxious and regretful. (Source)

Does Exercise Make You Happier? Research says it does. Just 20 minutes of exercise can have a positive mood benefit that can last 12 hours. Exercise, especially outdoors, can help improve one’s mood. (Source)

Failure Doesn’t Lead to an Unhappy Life: Life’s tragedies don’t dictate our chances of being happy. We can be happy in any life situation, even after the worst failures, illnesses, etc. Failure doesn’t end our ability to be happy. Sometimes it’s the opposite. (Source)

Happiness is in the Mind: You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk (though it could help!) to know that happiness is a mental state. Our ability to be happy is 100% an inner condition. We can choose to be happy by controlling what impacts our psyche. How we think is how we feel. This is why meditation can help with controlling and accepting happiness. An important step towards happiness is owning it mentally. (Source)

How Does Stress Impact Happiness? 7 out of 10 adults say they experience stress or anxiety every day. We worry about money, work, relationships, and others. These are a few of the stress factors that negatively affect your ability to be happy. (They also contribute to other health problems like sleep, weight, heart, etc.). Small steps like smiling, meditating or music that can alleviate stress and make you happier. (Source)

You Can Buy Happiness for yourself by buying for others: Money doesn’t buy you happiness. But interestingly spending money on others does make you happier. In a series of social experiments, Michale Norton demonstrates this. By spending even small amounts of money on others, the giver felt happier. (Source)

Challenging, Skillful Activities Can Make You “Super Happy”: Athletes describe it as the “zone.” Artists, writers and even everyday folks sometimes call it “flow.” From games to sports to artistic creation to even reading, certain kinds activities are described by their participants as one of their highest forms of contentment. Quite simply, activities that challenge us, engage us and call upon our highest skills can make us “super happy”. Humans aren’t meant to rest at our limits. We are meant to push ourselves to the next great challenges. These challenges bring us flow. (Source: “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Happy Jobs?: When you think about jobs, it’s also true. Some of the happiest workers are happy in the engagement and challenge of their daily work activity. Writers, programmers and even farmers are able to engage their skills in a deep and meaningful way that also makes them also happy. (Source).

Conclusions: What We Need to Know to be Happy:

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle stated that happiness was the summum bonus or key good in life. For him, happiness is the sense and purpose of the entire human existence.

Little has changed since then. The number of articles, books and TED talks on happiness is massive. Each offers very unique data and considerations on happiness. We likely will always be thinking about happiness. One key takeaway for me was this: happiness matters to each and every one of us.

Over the past month, I’ve realized that there is a difference between happiness in the moment and happiness as a general state, though these two things are not entirely separate. I’ve also noticed that there is a different between happiness as a reflection of my past and history and happiness in the now.

On a practical level, when it comes to happiness there are a lot of things we should avoid like stress, not getting exercise, focusing on money, and worrying about failure. Happiness is about what impacts our consciousness. It is something we can control and develop. Happiness is within our mind’s control.

If you are able to be happy in the moment several times in a day, then it’s likely that you’d call the past day a happy one. In my tracking of happiness, it became clear that stringing together happy and productive periods can build a happy assessment of the day. Unfortunately one major disaster, argument or conflict can defeat that string of satisfying project work and you end up with a unhappy day.

In order to positively be happy and have a happy day, week, or life, here are my main takeaways:

  • Not All Happiness is Equal, so choose your happiness and own it.
  • Eat Good, Health Food (but don’t regret the occasional guilty pleasure)
  • Find and Work on Projects that Engage You, Challenge You, and Make You Learn and Grow (and avoid passive, consumer activities)
  • Get Regular Exercise and, if do feel down or “off,” get off your butt, go outside and move.
  • Seek Activities that Bring a State of “Flow,” especially ones that challenge you to go farther and deeper.
  • Cultivate a Complex Self

A complex self finds happiness in flow activities that challenge us and our skills and pull at us to be better and stronger. This is a happiness we can buy or copy. But it is a happiness we can create, build and grow.

While we know more about happiness today than ever, happiness isn’t easy. Fortunately, it’s ours to figure out. Happiness is our project individually and as a society. Be Yourself. Be happy.

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