I think it’s a safe assumption that we all want to be happier. Ok, great. We now know what we want from life. All we need to do now is figure out how to get it. What do we need to do? Are there different ways to be happy? What are the most effective methods reach them?
To figure this out we need to find a language in order to talk about the different ways of being happy. Once we have that down we can attempt to measure it. That is what this article is about.
Obstacles to measuring happiness
It goes without saying that happiness is subjective as well as relative. It’s hard to compare one person’s self reporting of happiness with another’s. Only you can be the judge of how effective actions and states of mind are in making you happy. Never let anybody tell you what you need to do to be happy. This is something we all simply have to figure out for ourselves. And vice versa. You can’t tell anybody else what will make them happy.
Biology is relevant. Fundamentally happiness is the firing of neurotransmitters in the brain. Our brains are all different. Some people seem to need very little positive reinforcement in the most horrible situations to feel inner peace and joy. Others struggle with seemingly perpetual depressions no matter their fortunes in life.
The philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that the promise of happiness is the neurochemical engine by which our brains push our bodies to do things at all. This means that whenever we achieve a state of happiness our brains immediately adapt in order for us to be pushed ahead for the next task at hand. We are so-to-speak programmed by evolution to never feel satisfied over any length of time. Therefore it would be folly to even aim for perpetual happiness. By its very evolutionary design happiness is transitory.
The biologist and science writer Matt Ridley makes the same arguments and expands it with the genetic aspect. Triggers for happiness (and pain) has been programmed into our genes by evolution in order to steer us into ways that keep us alive and eventually lead to us spreading our genes. But evolution is slow and this is a very blunt tool for control. Humans are clever and self-reflective. So we are quicker at developing ways in which to fool our genetic programming. To trigger happiness neurotransmitters faster than evolution manage to compensate for it. This we can and do use to our advantage. An example would be condom use for sex or triggering endorphines by watching comedies on television. So we arguably have a greater capacity for happiness than what the basic design was built for.
So now we know what happiness is for. The next step is to define it.
The definition of happiness
Happiness can be defined in many ways. All useful in their own way. For simplicity I’m sticking to the happiness philosopher Bengt Brülde’s definitions. He separates happiness into the following types:
Euphoria, peace of mind, experiencing pleasure and satisfaction.
An ecstatic intoxication of joy.This type of happiness is associated with succeeding with a long or difficult task in life, like graduating, being in love, finishing a race, getting your dream job or getting long longed for recognition. Can be induced by doing the unexpected and joyful like suddenly racing outside and euphorically dancing in a summer rain. Also the type of happiness we get from using drugs. By it’s nature this type of happiness is rare, ephemeral and fickle.
Peace of mind
I think we can all agree on that, in general, the less we suffer the better. We have all suffered at some point in our lives and we are all well aware that no matter at what stage we are in life we will most likely suffer some more later on. This knowledge can give us fear and anxiety. In this case there is no solution to the source of the problem. We will suffer. The fear is real and often realistic. The best we can do is manage the symptoms. Religions around the world have come up with solutions.
For example Christians attain peace of mind by praying regularly to God. Why not give it a shot and see if a Christian prayer does the trick for you? I’m pretty sure you don’t need to believe in God in order for their prayers to help you achieve a peace of mind. To get you started here is an example of a popular Christian prayer.
The Serenity Prayer
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.
/Written by the evangelical Christian Reinhold Niebuhr adapted for use by Alcoholics Anonymous
To get maximum effect from your prayers the evangelical Christians at prayers-for-special-help.com) has offered some advice. I’m presenting them here unbowdlerized:
Set aside a few minutes in the morning or in the evening to pray your devotions to God. Ask God for serenity on a daily basis using this prayer as your guide.
1. Try to memorize the words to the prayer.
2. Speak directly to God. Don’t just blindly repeat the words you’ve memorized. You need to speak directly to Him and truly mean the words you’re speaking.
3. After praying, write your reflections in a prayer journal. Over time you’ll be able to track your progress towards serenity and happiness.
Note! This is not intended to promote Christianity or Christian beliefs in God. This is only as an example of things we Syntheists can steal/borrow/use from other religions. As a Syntheist any reference to a god (or anything supernatural) should be seen and interpreted as a metaphor. If the idea of praying to God makes your atheistic mind uneasy, simply replace those lines with something your secular brain is more comfortable with.
Good wine, a great massage, the rush of shopping pretty things, eating cake, sitting in a comfortable bath, having an orgasm, a jacuzzi, sinking into a water bed, having a dishwasher, travelling in first class instead of second class, staying at a hotel with wifi by the pool.
The only real problem with this one is that we’ll get used to it no matter the level. To experience this type of happiness we have to deny ourselves our pleasure for a while to miss it, and then indulge again once we’re well and truly starved. It is important for our peace of mind that we are aware of this cycle.
One strategy is to not indulge at all. To opt out of the cycle. Which is what Buddhists try to do. Another is to apply moderation which is the typical approach in most religions. For example, Jews are encouraged to indulge their desires to their hearts content during the Sabbath while abstaining from pleasures the rest of the week.
When we see newspapers claiming that country X is happier than country Y or people with such and such a job are happier than people with another job this is the kind of happiness that is implied. This is based on surveys and self reporting. People who say they are happy give stuff like this as an explanation; being physically active, having a social life, having close friends, being in a relationship, having a job that is adequately challenging. Being rich sure is nice but is rarely given as a reason for happiness. That comes back to pleasure. We can’t buy friends. Money can buy pleasure. See earlier heading.
The religious typically score high on this simply by being part of a religious community. This is arguably even more important than any of its philosophies or teachings. The mere fact of doing things together, sharing an identity and having a common goal is important for humans and always greatly satisfying.
General principles on maximising happiness.
Don’t have euphoria as your major goal in life, and don’t expect it. It will only come when you aren’t trying to. Be in the moment. Pay attention and do plenty of introspection.
Peace of mind can be attained through calming one’s thoughts overall. Praying, meditation or mindful physical exercise, (like yoga) are excellent tools by which to still the mind. Try to fit less things into your weekly schedule and set time aside for being alone with your thoughts. But even simpler things like removing clutter from your home. Paint your walls at home with calming colours. Buying plants and take care of them. Or just making sure you’ve got a good house insurance.
People like to be around us and we attract friends by letting go of our ego, our egotism and self centeredness. We have to learn to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us and be ok with that. This also brings about peace of mind. If all else fails you can always buy a pet.
There’s countless studies that show that by generously giving to others you are also making yourself happier. This is the lesson Scrooge learns in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s a popular story because so many can relate.
The Golden Rule isn’t just for other people’s benefit. You too will become happier if you make a point of treating others like you yourself would like to be treated. If other people take advantage of it, you at least can feel secure in the fact that at least you are overall happier than them. To get respect you need to give respect.
Indulging in a guilty pleasure is perfectly fine as long as you don’t make it into a habit. Any pleasure we take for granted and is routine will stop making us happy. And longing for something can also be a source of joy. Knowing that we will indulge a certain pleasure once we’ve finished some necessary yet gruelling task.
So what about measuring happiness? Didn’t I say in the beginning that this article is about measuring it?
Yes, I did. But I must admit that I’m not going to be much help. Happiness is subjective and only you can be the measuring stick of what it is that makes you happy. What do you usually do when you are happy? Or what state of mind are you in then? Are you doing that or feeling like that more or less often today? If less, what can you do about it? Do you know what to do about it?
Those are questions only you can answer.
/Tom Knox, a member of the Stockholm congregation.