On the Pursuit of Happiness

During my own search for happiness I have come across various sources of insights and advice that have been very helpful to me. In this post I would like to share the best texts, videos and books I have found and also put forward some of my own ideas about happiness.

So ... what is happiness?

Maybe being with a loved one? The intensity of a crazy party? The peace of wandering in nature? Or laughing your ass of because you accidentally kicked your roommate in the balls?

And what makes up its importance in our society?
Is a life of maximum happiness a successful life? Would it be justified to measure a countries success through the average happiness of its citizens as the Happy Planet Index does? Should one agree to Jeremy Bentham, founding father of utilitarianism, saying:

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong

If you are inclined to agree, you should mind the following experiment:
In 1956
 neuroscientist James Olds connected rat brains with an electrode the rats could activate through a switch in their cage. Whenever the rats activated that switch, they received a mild electric shock to their brains reward center and that's what happened: They got so crazy for receiving those shock-rewards that obsessively activating that lever they completely forgot to eat, to drink or even to copulate. In their pursuit of happiness they put up with their own death.

With this experiment in mind, the question should be asked if happiness is anything more than a chemical motivator to trick us into certain behaviors? For instance, as sex is highly useful for the survival of our genes, naturally it is rewarded with a flood of dopamine and therefore happiness.

There is a thought experiment called the happiness machine: Imagine you could install some gadget in your brain that released endless feelings of happiness and joy. Would you want to use that machine?
If yes, how is that different to a junkie hammering heroin in his veins?
If no, the view that happiness is the ultimate end in itself would be questioned.

A further argument against the central role of happiness is that as there is no light without shadows there is rarely joy without pain. The more intense and ecstatic a relationship, the worse the fights and the tougher a potential breakup; the higher one is climbing up the ladder of achievement, the deeper the potential fall; the more exciting and special the moments one lives through, the grayer a normal day might seem.
Yes, getting drunk with friends is often lots of fun but the problem is nicely illustrated in the saying that "when you drink alcohol you are just borrowing happiness from tomorrow"

Buddhists even go so far to make one of their ultimate truths that "life is suffering".

But before this gets too depressing, let's go back to the definition.
What I find important is to differentiate between two forms of happiness: First the kind of happiness that is intense, ecstatic, moment-driven, the kind of highs that come from drugs, having fun. The other is long-termed life-satisfaction, the peace and contentment that comes from living a meaningful life in accordance with one's values.
While I am sceptic regarding too much focus on the first kind, I propose to concentrate on the second, on long-termed contentment and overall happiness. I'm still not sure if maximising this should be the ultimate goal in itself, but I see that most things of importance are intertwined with it like love, freedom, purpose, health or wisdom. Therefore I would argue that long-termed happiness is an important goal (among others) and also a reasonable measure for success in ones life in the same way as GDP is an imprecise measure for a nations well-being but still a valuable indicator (because many things of importance are connected to a high GDP).

Following this definition, on a scale from 1 to 10, how happy would you generally describe yourself to be?

If there is room for improvement, I hope the following can be to some value for you as it has been to me:

Just a few days ago, I stumbled on a visualization of The Science of Happiness that pretty perfectly sums it all up and gives a grand overview of the basics about happiness.
So make sure to have a quick look at that link (additionally I recommend watching this awesome TED talk The happy secret to better work).

Reading it, what stroke my attention was how circumstances make up only 10% of variation in happiness among people. While such an exact number is obviously always questionable, thinking about it, I would generally estimate this low share to be plausible and in line with my own observations.
Have you ever had the rather sobering experience of how getting a dream fulfilled (for instance getting the longed for accomplishment/relationship/aquisition) doesn't actually change that much? Of course there is the initial bliss but then - life goes on. After a while the mind bounces back its default mode of happiness. And if there's no improvement on that, no improvement of circumstances will bring lasting contentment (This psychological process oficially got termed "Hedonic treadmill"). Knut.

Nevertheless most people focus all their energy and time on improving their circumstances - their wealth, their looks, their status. This seems uneffective at best, tragic at worst.

During my exchange at UC San Diego there were especially two guys I met that sticked out with their positive charisma and happiness. The surprising fact here, both were bound to a wheelchair (one of them here). I'm sure both of them would be more than happy if the progress of science ever let them walk again but still this might not just be a weird coincidence. Maybe sometimes the hard experience of getting your life (-circumstances) crash down on you lets you experience the deeper insight that there is more about life and happiness.

So instead of improving circumstances, it seems much more effective to focus one's energy on improving the mental state and the thinking.

In the extremely deep and brilliant commencement speech This is Water by David Foster Wallace he pictures the misery you can find yourselve in if you don't learn

how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

Sad thing: Despite these insights Wallace himself didn't seem to succeed in this and suffering from depression hanged himself, thereby becoming the ultimate memorial to his own words.

However training the mind shouldn't just be about stopping the demons.

There is a beauty in life everywhere – but the eyes are useless if the mind is blind.

While it is always easy to propose positive thinking (with a considerable amount of self-help literature doing just that) directions that show an effective way to get there are rarer. The maybe inconvenient truth seems to be that the will for positive thinking is not sufficient. Changing the mind requires considerable effort as it functions like a muscle: The way to strengthen it is through effective training and dull repetition.

In the following are three technics that are scientifically proven to be effective:

1)    Meditation:
Growing in popularity but in my opinion still massively undervalued is the practice of meditation. I made extremely positive experiences with meditation myself and regularly manage to literally reset my mind when it is going negative. Still the regular practice requires lots of effort and discipline but what you seed is what you get. I’ve already written an extensive post on my experiences with meditation that also links some further resources here.

2)    Gratitude
Regularly practicing gratitude makes you see the positive in life and gives you a new perspective. The question of the glass being half full or half empty. There are two popular gratitude habits:
Habit 1: Keep a gratitude journal
Habit 2: Integrate a daily habit in the morning or before going to sleep where you consciously think about 3 things you can be grateful for. I’ve gone for this routine and have put 3 juggling balls on my pillow as a reminder when I go to bed. Without those balls I've found it too easy to forget the habit when tiredly going to sleep.

It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.
— Charles Spurgeon

3)    Purpose
Seeing an overall purpose in ones life, a deeper meaning seems essential for reaching real satisfaction.
There is a great book by Viktor Frankl called Mans Search for Meaning where the author describes his life and survival in a German concentration camp. One of the core messages is that what makes all of the difference between an inmate braking under the suffering and one standing through unimaginable pains was having or not having a deeper purpose and meaning.
It seems though that many people stumble through their life without having one, without seeing real meaning of their own existence.

The search for finding meaning is a difficult journey and I can recommend three insightful blogposts from my favorite blogger, Mark Manson:

One more thing.
Because of my own experience as a meditating vegetarian-minimalist slash weirdo, I'd like to end with a quote by chief of medicine Bob Kelso:

Who the hell cares what anybody else thinks. Just look into your heart and do whatever the hell makes you happy