An exploration into the phenomenon of happiness the dichotomous nature of the human condition.
Over the next few weeks on Sunday Letters, we will explore the human pursuit of happiness, what it means, and whether or not we can indeed finally achieve it. We will examine its diametrical opposite, unhappiness, and try to understand how they interplay in human experience. Happiness and wellbeing researcher Professor Peter Warr suggests that happiness and unhappiness are central to human existence, underpinning every thought and action. As such, we will take a look at what science has found in its attempt to understand the human condition. In all, over the next few editions of Sunday Letters, we will bring together the findings of artists, writers, philosophers, scientists and everyday people and ask if the pursuit of happiness is a valid one, and if not, what might be our alternative.
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The Sunday Letters subtitle reads; “…articles on life, work, & the pursuit of happiness”. I didn't plan that subtitle, it kind of grew organically. But it's no less accurate. It captures broadly the essence of my curiosity in a single line and that curiosity finds satisfaction in many fields of interest. It is an always wanting and only temporarily satisfied curiosity. However, it is a curiosity nonetheless, rather than an angst ridden striving to fill a deep seated vacancy. You see, I learned some time ago that the answer is not “out there”, and someone else doesn't have it. It's not in a book or a conference or the words of some guru or other, and it's most certainly not in material gain, reward or applause. But in those things there are clues. That being said, do I really know myself? Do I really know what I want? Arguably not.
The question often goes unsaid, expressed through human behaviour, in relationships, in work, play, sport, addiction, abuse, war and every interaction we have with each other and the environment. Some of us take gratification in our personal discomfort and lack, perpetuating our unhappy conditions and wallowing in our own unpleasantness for lifetimes. It's an indulgence in the obscene. Others of us don't realise there exists something better. A running friend once told me that he didn't realise he was depressed until he wasn't. Such was the dull monotony of his life prior to finding the thrill of athletic training and competition. That's often the trouble–the normality of life conceals the opportunity that exists to lead a better one, and that better one is only better by comparison to the former. Therefore, is there not merit in the unhappiness?
What Happiness Looks Like
In all human affairs we continually ask, “how can I find happiness?” or some variation of that. We like to think that we know what happiness looks like, that we can design and premeditate it. We look upwards in comparison to celebrity, friends, neighbours, or some socially ideal character and wonder how these advantaged others became happy. They must be happy, look at their life, it's perfect. If only we had their system then we could be happy too. Well, that's just naive, is it not? The truth of the matter is that the moments where we find ourselves in the middle of a joyous experience are spontaneous. They come upon us when we least expect it, and for the most magical of them, we are changed forever. They are not things we can design, and instead, they are consequences, the results of momentum.
Its diametrical opposite, unhappiness, seems to have the same attributes. But is it so clean cut? Are we certain about what qualifies as happiness and unhappiness? Is there indeed a universal experience? I don't believe so. If there were, and we could design our lives towards those ends, what would be the purpose of life? We would merely be automatons, cogs in a machine churning out actions and measurable results to someone else's rule of thumb. In fact, does this not resemble how most of us exist in the world currently?
What Psychology Has Discovered
Studies from all over the world have found that happiness is considered the most important and most valued aspect of a life well lived (Warr, 2019)1. It is not untrue to suggest that psychological research, in broad terms, is the study of happiness and unhappiness. Motivation, satisfaction, personality, personal values, social interaction, health and wellness and so on, are at their base, examinations of human thought, feeling and behaviour. Within psychological research, there are considered three levels of happiness experience.
Psychology reagards subjective happiness as ‘psychological wellbeing' as distinct from physical wellbeing or spiritual wellbeing. We can consider happiness a composite of these individual applications of the term. When we speak about happiness or unhappiness, we generally attach the feeling behind it to an experience, a person or a thing with which we engage in ordinary everyday life. From the idiosyncratic like and dislikes we generate feelings that come and go throughout the day. These narrow aspects of happiness researchers refer to as ‘feature-specific happiness'. We could perhaps consider them trivial likes and dislikes, but they contribute to happiness nonetheless.
Beyond the feature-specific likes and dislikes of everyday life–I like coffee with sugar, but not with milk–lies ‘domain-specific' happiness. This second level of happiness and unhappiness reflects our feelings about work, home life, social group, religion, politics and those aspects of life that are of a broader nature. They generally involve other people and can reflect biases and prejudices towards other groups.
Context-free happiness can be considered a global feeling about life. It is a standing back from the specifics and an appraisal of how we feel about our life all things considered. Taking this into account, we must be careful when interpreting those global happiness reports that so frequently make the headlines. From the perspective of this self-investigator, there is little merit in generalised measures of happiness derived from populations in the measure of my own particular feelings.
Context free happiness is a sum of all the parts. It is a consequence of momentum in different areas of our lives, both feature-specific, and domain-specific. We are merely touching the surface here, and over the next few weeks we will dig deeper into the material.
A Broader Theory of Happiness
For the purpose of this exploration, I will bring for your consideration a broad view of happiness. We will examine the perspectives of art, psychoanalysis, traditional psychology, and philosophy. We will take accounts from Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, Emanuel Kant, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Annie Dillard, Charles Bukowski and many others. And we will consider their views on the benefit of challenge and adversity and their role in bringing about happiness.
As it stands, and at the risk of giving the game away, I consider the pursuit of happiness to be a fruitless one. Because for me, happiness, at least in its romantic form, is a non-entity. It is fleeting and uncaring for the wants and needs of human beings, so to chase after it is a thankless undertaking. It is foolish. Pursuing happiness is to spend our lives either lamenting the past or anticipating the future, and neither past or future exist except in the minds of us. So perhaps it is our fantasies and imagination that propels us forward as a species? Maybe without our idle imaginings, wants, desires and anticipation of a better life that actually creates life?
Let's see. Maybe my mind will be changed having researched and written on this topic for a number of weeks.
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- Warr, P. The psychology of happiness. New York: Routledge.