The last three centuries have displayed a remarkable breakthrough in progress. Globalization has given remote villages access to resources like never before, technology has created unimaginable accessibility to information, and, for the most part, people today own more than their great grandparents could have ever dreamt. This progress has completely transformed how we work, how we interact, and consequently our psychology.
Given this unbelievable progress in wealth, health, and information, it should be safe to assume that we have become happier as a species. But have we? Do we now possess a new tier of contentment that our ancestors lacked?
Historians have explored the fields of economics, politics, disease, sociology, food, and clothing yet rarely do they stop to ask how ‘progress’ in these fields have influenced human happiness. If we are in a better place today compared to three centuries ago, why has stress-related health issues, anxiety disorders, and depression skyrocketed over the past six decades?
The Biology of Happiness
To understand happiness, we need to dive into its mechanics on a neurobiological level.
From a biological standpoint, the only thing that can make people happy is the pleasant sensation caused by various hormones flowing throughout the body. Winning the lottery, obtaining the dream promotion, getting married, or any pleasurable event for that matter, cannot change our biochemistry. These external factors can alter it for a period of time, but it soon returns to homeostasis. Things or experiences don’t determine our mood, biochemical substances, like serotonin, do. Our well-being is not determined by external factors but rather by the brain and body’s complex system of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters.
Let’s explore how this can be applied.
Let’s say you have a twin sister. You are a banker and she is an elementary school janitor. It just so happens that both of you are in the market for buying a home. Given the financial situation, your sister is looking for a modest apartment in the suburbs, while you have your eyes set out for that three-story, four-garage home just a ten-minute drive from the city core. When you make your purchase, your serotonin levels – among other biochemical substances – reach a height of X. When your sister makes her objectively inferior purchase, her serotonin levels also reach a height similar to X. To the brain, the present level of serotonin is what determines both you and your sister’s current state of happiness. Objective conditions – the size and quality of the home – make no difference. Where things start to get interesting is when we begin to understand how subjective expectations come into play.
When analyzing our objective conditions, we compare our many variables of happiness against other people. We don’t want to be rich in an absolute term but richer than our peers. Likewise, we don’t seek to be happy, but to be happier.
If your sister’s peers are all still living at home with their parents or sharing a run-down apartment with five other strangers, her subjective expectations will be much lower, increasing the happiness she receives from the purchase. Conversely, if all of your banker peers live in five garage homes with an indoor basketball court and have a second home in Florida, your subjective expectations rise, reducing the happiness of your purchase.
A brilliant study of Olympic medal winners demonstrated that the athletes who won bronze had a higher level of satisfaction than those that won silver. If happiness was determined by simply an objective level of achievement, how could this be? The study concluded that the silver medal winners were disappointed for not winning gold, comparing themselves to the single athlete superior to themselves, while the bronze medalists were happy to win any medal, contrasting themselves to the athletes left off the podium.
Most people forget that our entire reality is rendered and created within our own heads. The expectations we set for ourselves govern the happiness of our perceived reality.
The Pressure of Performance
Though most written reports on happiness have the conclusion that happiness is derived from human connection and community, our modern-day tools have led us to seek more from technology and less from each other. Mass media and advertising – two pillars of our society – continue to deplete our personal reservoirs of contentment. It has grown the list of people you compare yourself to, altering your subjective expectations and affecting your relative happiness.
For example, if you were a successful thirty-year-old craftsman in ancient Greece and you just built yourself a beautiful mud-brick home, you would feel pretty rich. This may be because the other men in your village were either too poor to afford one or possibly enslaved, and there were not many of them to begin with. But if you were a thirty-year-old middle-class worker today, you are much more likely to feel inadequate. You do not measure yourself against those in your community, but to those in your country or Facebook feeds; against the movie stars, athletes, and business moguls who have 20,000 square foot mansions. Our subjective expectations have been inflated dramatically from our current state of ‘progress’. Being average has become the new standard of failure.
Therein lies the problem. Heightened subjective expectations, coupled with the abstract latter of social rank, is the key to the perceived happiness of your objective reality. This problem is a strong predictor of many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status.
Progress in sociology has bred a generation of people who believe that having negative experiences – anxiety, fear, guilt – is unnatural and that exceptionalism is normal. All you have to do is scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feeds and get bombarded with hundreds of images of your peers happier than you to realize how much better their lives are, making you feel like the standalone citizen with negative experiences.
The tools created to bring us closer together have manufactured abnormal social needs and expectations. The connection it is supplying is not nourishing, like a bag of chips fabricated to contain the perfect amount of salt, fat, and crunch to keep you eating. Our social tools are the digital equivalent of the empty calories found in a bag of chips, equally as addictive, placing our brains on a mental diet of junk food.
Happiness Requires Struggle
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” // Bruce Lee
Our current assertion is that happiness is algorithmic, that if I achieve X or earn Y or look like Z, then I can finally achieve happiness. We seem to identify happiness only with pleasant feelings and thus sadness and suffering from unpleasant ones, aspiring to obtain more pleasures while avoiding pains at all costs.
According to Buddhist teaching,
“The problem is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So, if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even If I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without even getting any lasting reward for my troubles.”
The excitement that comes with the purchase of the first home makes way for the anxieties of maintenance. The bliss of the corner-office promotion gives way to the stresses of handling additional responsibilities. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as hedonic adaptation (or the hedonic treadmill): no matter how pleasant something makes us feel, we drift back to our initial emotional state.
For example, a famous study on lottery winners demonstrated that although these winners experienced an intense euphoria initially, the winnings came with the burden of ordinary pleasures – like walking your dog – becoming meaningless and extreme pleasures – like purchasing a new car – become less valuable. Habituation of your new conditions causes a return to baseline (hedonic adaptation).
The Buddhist philosophy teaches that,
“The root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. During the pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them.”
We are all searching for that next dopamine rush that comes from achievement – as you should. Without it, we would not move forward as a species. Your goal should still be to constantly raise the bar of your status quo, but never forget that once you do reach your goals, the next one will be lying further ahead. Therefore, search for the small wins in daily life and respect the pain that may come with it, not allowing your happiness to be subject entirely to achievement.
Psychological pain, like physical pain, is an indication of something out of homeostasis and is necessary for adaptation. For example, the emotional pain of building a business only to have it fail before you teach you how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Wisdom comes from experiences of poor judgment and discomfort.
This is what is so dangerous about a society that prides itself on exemplifying and rewarding only pleasures and labeling the discomforts of life as unnatural or misplaced, disconnecting us from reality. We have become too obsessed with outcomes – becoming rich, getting fit, finding the perfect spouse – that we forget that it is the process, not the outcome, that makes us happy. The climb, not the summit.
What generates our positive experiences will define our negative experiences. Taken from author Mark Manson, the real wisdom on how to live a great life is not to ask, “What pleasure do I want in life?” but “What pain do I want in life?” True happiness only comes when you find the problems you enjoy having, not by idolizing or perusing what others have that you don’t.
So What Now?
People want to build a successful career, but you don’t end up with influence unless you find a way to suffer through the long work weeks, repeated failures, and inevitable risks. People want the perfect body, but you don’t get chiseled abs unless you love the pain that comes with putting hours upon hours in the gym and micromanaging what you eat. It is what we choose to persevere through, not willpower, that determines our successes. Negative experiences are not just normal; they are a critical part of life.
I am not concluding that progress is bad. No one can argue that the discovery of penicillin made those with bacterial infections and their family members happier. I am simply noting that we cannot associate progress with happiness. Who is to say that you are happier than an ancient hunter-gatherer thirty-thousand years ago? Progress is necessary for improving our environment and standards of living, but real happiness comes not from the outcome, but rather the process. Not from the pleasures, but the pains as well.
How can this be achieved? I am no expert in happiness, hence why this is an amateur’s guide. I can only speak to what has improved my life and those of my peers who share the same habits.
The key is awareness. Awareness of your actions, awareness of your emotions, and awareness of your environment. Once you become aware of how different external factors alter your emotional state, you can learn to manage those states much more effectively. You cannot control your environment or what happens to you, you can only control how you react to it.
Meditation has resurfaced as an important tool in the arsenal of the successful and the happy, as it gives you the superpower of awareness. Daily gratitude, being thankful for the book you are reading or the barista at the coffee shop, and communicating your gratitude will also better your emotional state. Finally, build an awareness of what you consume. Too many of us mindlessly scroll through our various feeds like a gambler at a slot machine, pulling the lever waiting for the next high. You have limited time in the day, so attribute it to your real priorities and to readings that make you think more intellectually. From this starting point, there is no limit to where you can go.
Your goal should not be to accumulate things but to clear away the noise to concentrate on inner peace and contentment. Progress and improvement are necessary but develop the awareness to derive the true root of your personal happiness.