What Makes You Happy?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

happiness-in-intelligent-people-is-the-rarest-think-i-knowFor Ralph Waldo Emerson it was the triumph of principle. Washington found it inexorably linked to virtue, and George Bernard Shaw said it was “health and a course to steer.” Singer Cheryl Crowe said it is whatever doesn’t make you sad, and comedian Johnny Carson said it is “a tiger in your tank and a pussy cat in your backseat.” When  Jefferson wrote defiantly that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, he still only mentioned three:   “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Whatever happiness is, it is a common quest and virtually universally misunderstood in the cacophony of  money, sex, and digital splash that passes for it in the West. When parents are asked about the single most important outcome in their children’s lives the answer is invariably ” to be happy.”  Why then is the human feeling of  happiness so elusive in the modern world with all of our advances in science, technology, nutrition, medicine and standard of living?

Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

~LEO TOLSTOY, War and Peace

The answer may not lie outside the human mind though undoubtedly external factors impact human happiness. The topic has been studied and the conclusions from the experts are surprising  — at least to many of us in the modern world. Let’s start with some basics. People are social animals. We know that isolated people rarely survive psychologically. Hence one of life’s greatest punishments is solitary confinement. We also know that acquisitions of things – money,power, prestige — doesn’t bring happiness. In fact as the Los Angeles Times pointed out (here), the reverse may be true in that happy people tend to attract wealth and all that goes with it. Finally, we know that we all want happiness and that we don’t consciously avoid the feeling.

So what then can get our dopamine going to produce that sense of well-being that we value. It seems three factors play a significant role according to documentary filmmaker Andrew Shapter, who produced the documentary Happiness Is.  Shapter piled his crew into an RV and went around America seeking the answer. After three years, his conclusions seem both simple and elusive in the modern world.

First, we need relationships and social ties. Family, friends, and acquaintances all contribute our well-being. While human conflicts among social groups are well-documented, the presence of strong family interaction still makes people happy.  It’s why we still all gather at grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner though we know Uncle Charlie will invariably make some statement to make us angry. Researcher Nic Marks of the New Economic Foundation cites research that says people in Western democracies who value money are less happy that those who value relationships. In fact, the happiness in valuing relationships extends beyond family ties into a connection with the whole community. Thus simply treating everyone with respect and dignity  — as we ideally would treat family — adds more to your own happiness than anything you could acquire. It’s outflow over inflow.

Second, we all need a sense of purpose. George Bernard Shaw may have crystallized the thought by reminding us that we need a course to navigate. Aimlessly wandering through our lives on some tropical beach may seem a romantic idea by freeing ourselves from responsibilities attendant to any important endeavor, but it seems that won’t make us happy for any length of time. MetLife Insurance Company working in conjunction with Richard J. Leider, author of  The Power of Purpose,  found that having a clear reason to live was the largest factor in “living the good life.”

That sense of purpose is “interrelated with vision — having clarity about the path to the good life and focus — knowing and concentrating on the most important things that will get you to the good life.” Over eight in 10 (82 percent) of those who feel their lives have purpose are living the good life compared to 35 percent for those who are not living the good life. (article here)

It was the master of psychology and the  greatest of Russian authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who explained that, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” (The Brothers Karamazov)

Finally, for happiness’ sake we need to care for others — and not just those with whom we have a relationship. The old adage about it being better to give than to receive may be a statement of selfishness, after all.  In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubormirsky, explains research into giving that benefited the givers more than the recipients.  A group of  women with multiple sclerosis  volunteered as peer supporters to other patients. Each volunteer received training in compassionate listening techniques and called the patients to talk and listen for just 15 minutes at a time. After three years researchers found that they had increased self-esteem, self-acceptance, satisfaction, self-efficacy, social activity, and feelings of mastery in their patients but more strikingly the positive outcomes for the volunteers were even greater than for the patients they were helping.

Aristotle understood the selfish component of giving. For the old Greek philosopher happiness was tied to self-dignity.   He said, “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.” Thus acquiring honors, money, and fame were of no value unless it was perceived by the recipient that it was honestly won. And winning them meant doing it on  a foundation of good character in service to others.

So what does make you happy? Can we find it  though good works, a sense of purpose, and strong family relationships? What do you think?

And remember, your answer means a lot. There’s a test on it  every day.

(Sourced Throughout)

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

98 thoughts on “What Makes You Happy?”

  1. Bron,

    A couple of weeks ago I was in the process of writing a column on the problem of evil and I ran into the materialism/determinism arguments. I’ll have to agree they are dehumanizing. Worse still, they reduce evil to a physical defect. I killed the column because I decided it was book material and didn’t lend itself to short form in a comprehensive manner, but the materialism/determinism argument left me cold as well. However, in researching that column, there are some in the sciences who are arguing that it is immaterial and that we should act as if we have free will even if in fact it is not totally free and can be traced to specific biology. Their reasoning is based on studies of what happens when you tell people they should behave as if free will is an illusion. Check this bit I found at Scientific American:

    “In a clever new study, psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara tested this question by giving participants passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a popular science book by Francis Crick, a biochemist and Nobel laureate (as co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the DNA double helix). Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: ‘‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.’

    The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that ‘…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.’ The other participants got a passage that was similarly scientific-sounding, but it was about the importance of studying consciousness, with no mention of free will.

    After reading the passages, all participants completed a survey on their belief in free will. Then comes the inspired part of the experiment. Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.

    The results were clear: those who read the anti-free will text cheated more often! (That is, they pressed the space bar less often than the other participants.) Moreover, the researchers found that the amount a participant cheated correlated with the extent to which they rejected free will in their survey responses.”

    In other words, treating free will as a valid construct has societal value and as social creatures it must have evolved because of some measurable benefit to society. In the end and after looking at the research on what the scientists (and in all fairness, philosophers dating back to the 18th Century) call the “hard consciousness problem”, it seemed to me to a bit like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Whether or not our free will is totally free or not is kind of immaterial to our evolving to think it is a real and totally free. Not just because of results found in the study cited above but also because of physics. Randomness is built into the fabric of reality. This is a fact of quantum mechanics. Free will may be influenced by biological determinism, possibly heavily so, but it cannot be totally deterministic because of quantum mechanics. Add that to the notion that it has a measurable and beneficial effect on human behavior? And the conclusion seems to be that no matter the degree of freedom in free will, we should continue to treat it as free and the only way we should let it affect our society and how we deal with evil is as a possible mitigation for bad acts in punishing them, but never let it act as an excuse for bad acts.

    Besides, I think the strict biological determinism view, aside from being simplistic and extremist, ignores a simple psychological fact about free will that we know exists without considering biology at all. That is “free will” is and always has been a bit of a misnomer. You are the collection of your experiences combined with your psychological predispositions. Free will has always been impacted by these facts and ergo was never totally free to begin with. Our will has always been free only to varied degrees created by circumstance as framed by the past and possibly influenced by a foretasted future. What we are free to do is make choices. We can go with our subconsciously driven impulses informed by experience (as we often see people do) or we can use reason and forethought (also net positive biological adaptations) to provide a counterbalance for experience and predisposition (which not enough people do).

  2. Lutefisk. Hate it.

    Now over TWO AM, Long past my bedtime
    Good night all..

    Find a video to post here to torture the snowbound.
    Or is it spelled snow bound,
    Neither is funny

  3. NickS,

    Would you please stop torturing me with references to winter in San Diego.
    I could actually afford it if I ´could find a mobile “trash” home to hire.

    Let’s hope my arythmism can be mastered. Or a miracle happens. The current medicine has as one of its side effects that you can’t stand sunshine. It turns your skin blue as one consequence of sunning. Just when I thought I could run away from the darkness and knee deep in slush climate.

    We will wait and see says my doctor. Next visit on 17th. Walk one hundred steps at a time and be thankful for that. I am.

    But a two weeks vacation might go. Hoping. There are, as always, many things I want to do before croaking. Says the world’s biggest procrastinator.

    Self-deprecation again. So easy to take that way out.

  4. ID, Ray was a very liberal first generation Norwegian. I’m sure you would have been sympatico. As you can imagine, I often busted his balls about the depravity of Norwegian food, including but not limited to lutefisk!.

  5. Bron,

    Good comment.

    I have contended that lack of empathy was without survival value, ie “good fitness” and should sometime disappear. Unfortunately, the ways of the rich and powerful and their persistence in surviving, speak against that idea/hope.

    But a hundred thousand years is little time at our mutation rate, and the time selectivity needs when working with what might be a dominant single gene.

    Let’s wish it well in its beneficial work, ie searching and sifting the deadly genes.

    Could we give it any assistance? The French Revelution was not sufficient.

  6. NickS,

    My condolences.

    Ans irreverent as usual and the iconoclast of etiquette, I contribute this consoling reflection for consideration.

    Not only the good pass away, but all b@asstards do too.
    However, the b@astards have to pay for their eulogies, and pass out the perfume and barf bags before the ceremony. The stench is overwhelming.

    I would have loved to meet the man. Sorrows we all share, at some time or another. The only passing we cannot sorrow is our own, unless we take it out in advance. Should we or not?

  7. mike spindell:

    that was an interesting article.

    There is movement to try and erase the concept of free will from human action and base it all on chemistry, materialism if you will. And worse than that to combine it with determanism. It really takes the humanity right out of you.

    Which I think is what would also happen if there was universal empathy, it would suck the humanity out of people.

    1. Bron,

      Part of what I found perplexing is the ides of “universal empathy”, whivh seems ridiculous to me and I am a very empathic person. The two oppsing views leading to the same result seemed to me to be ultimately reaching the absurd. The idea is to create a just world within the framework of human fallibility. Utopia will never exist and humanity would die from boredom if by chance it ever came about.

  8. SWM and mespo, Grazie mille. Minnesota is a great state and the Twin Cities, where he lived is one of my favs. Just too damn cold this time of year, however. Ray hated the cold. We would spend winters in San Diego together the last 5 years. I’m heading out next week. It will be a bit melancholy w/o him. However, life is beautiful, and life goes on.

  9. nick:

    “There is happiness in the stangest places, you simply must have an open mind, but more importantly an open heart.”


    No one could have said it better. My condolences to you.

  10. Sorry about the loss of your friend, Nick. Some of my very best friends live in Minnesota.

  11. Nick. My condolences for the loss of your friend. Certainly was quite a fighter and did what he wanted despite his limitations.

  12. Jon Katz,

    Kin? Student? Jon Kabat-Zinn.

    I went to mindfulness course here in Sweden. Wasn’t ready for it socially. Better understanding of the swedish ways was needed. Very strictly held here among Swedes.

    Meditation was OK, about as good as eartlier home practice.
    I found IMHO that KZ’s book was worthless after the ca 4th chapter.

    Do keep us informed.
    Different folks, different strokes.

    Have you tried TM?

  13. Hi-

    Mindfulness and non-duality/non-attachment are keys to my happiness. More here: http://katzjustice.com/underdog/FairfaxDWIlawyerJan6..html

    Your posting was prescient, because tonight at 5:30 pm, local mindfulness/meditation leading teacher Hugh Byrne will show legal professionals (and law students, I surmise, as well) how to benefit from meditation.

    Also, monthly I coordinate the DC Contemplatie Law Group’s mediation and dinner at Skewera at 7pm.

    Be well. Jon

  14. OS, Thanks very much. I gave a brief history and description for the young people in attendance. For them, the term gentleman means “Gentleman’s Club” which is the antithesis of the real meaning. Ray had all the attributes but he was a zen master in the quality of making everyone comfortable in his presence, making them feel like the center of attention. Amen to the WW2 generation leaving us. On my dark days I fear we’re f@cked.

  15. Nick,
    Condolences on your loss. Sounds like a true gentleman who carried himself with dignity to the end. The numbers of WW-II vets are diminishing by the day. At our local National Cemetery they seem to have two to three services every day. I have heard Taps played way too many times in the past five years. May he have Godspeed on his journey to forever…

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