Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Truth About Happiness (3 of 3)

Happiness is a state of being — not a state of mind.


Have you ever ran into one of those people when you were feeling down who insisted that you could just magically pull yourself up out of your depression and just feel happy? Have you ever looked on with envy at one of those people who always seemed to be in a chipper mood only to have them pass on one of their secrets to happiness to you in a very condescending way? Well you should probably know that most of those people are rather shameless frauds.

Here's why:


Fallacy #7: That happiness is imitable

One of the most lucrative cons ever created in the last hundred years is the motivational speaker. They are these guys who stand on stage in $3,000 Armani suits and pin stripe ties yammering for two hours about how they were depressed and found happiness and how you could find happiness in the same way they did. Don't believe a word of it. It's all a beautiful lie.

These pinheads are no different from the evangelical con men who share their opinion as God's word that could change your life — for a price. They are merely pandering to your psychological vulnerability by telling you that you too can achieve the same great sense of purpose if you only follow their guaranteed twelve step guide to perpetual joy and happiness.

...and then they charge you $200 for it.

Nothing that they're telling you couldn't have been interpreted for free from one of your local guidance counselors. All they've done is repackaged the same motivational schlock in a very sensational package and marketed it to you with a bright, shiny, colourful TV ad that would immediately spike the serotonin levels in your right brain, causing you to start believing in it.

But you will quickly realize when you open up your eyes and the jerk travels to the next state to sell his ideological nonsense to the next gullible, desperate-to-be-happy crowd, that his fool proof techniques on how to be happy aren't working for you. Do you know why? It's all because happiness isn't imitable. What is making this charismatic speaker happy is the same thing that makes all televangelists, politicians and movie stars so happy: Attention and Money.

Lots of money.

You can't successfully imitate someone else's pursuit to happiness unless both your brain architectures are nearly identical. When you factor in environmental conditions, you will quickly realize that it is impossible to think that there is a silver bullet for happiness. The complexity of the human brain makes it impossible to generalize philosophies that would work for everyone.

This is consequently why you should beware the appeal of religion.

Different things make us happy because we are genetically different with varied environmental conditioning. We can't imitate other people's path to happiness and get the same result. Therefore no motivational speaker will be able to tell you how to be happy because they can only speak for themselves. They can't possibly know about you the individual to make their advice work consistently. If you extrapolate for life experiences, you will see the same thing.

So here are a few things to consider:

You probably won't be able to be happy by going to college like everyone else did. Maybe you need to start your own business and make millions on the internet. At least that way, you won't spend the rest of your life paying off your college tuition for an Ivy League education. Maybe that would make you happy instead of paying four lifetimes' worth of savings for only four years of education and spending an eternity in a jobless economic limbo doing nothing.

Sending your kids to a private school will probably get them the best education that money can buy, so long as being broke every month doesn't affect your mood. Going to church might temporarily relieve your depression, but it probably won't make you as neurotically happy as your college flat mate who invited you. She was most likely that way before she found Jesus.

Selling all your belongings and living a life of ultra-simplicity might work if you are a neat freak. It would probably make you a bit miserable however, when you start to develop withdrawal symptoms for the little things in life that made modern living — well, modern. You could chase your dreams of becoming a famous movie star or signer. Just make sure you can sing and act.

Never believe Justin Beiber's never say never. He's a natural born genius — you're probably not. He's happy not because he says he believes in himself, but because he's white, naturally charismatic, talented, likeable and good looking. That is extremely rare for any single human being — somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in 20 million. He would have been famous either way.

The rest of you will have to deliver horrible auditions on American Idol.

In fact, believing in yourself is probably one of the worst pieces of advice you can learn from television. It will almost certainly set you up for a horrific disappointment. Rather, I would advise you to know yourself before you can believe in yourself. The vast majority of the people pursuing happiness have no idea who they are, and only set up themselves for certain failure.

Knowing who you are makes a huge difference. Everything else falls into place once you discover yourself. Then you will realize you can ignore what others tell you about being happy.

...because then, you will have already found your path.

Fallacy #8: That we can all be equally happy

Look at that goalkeeper. Do you see how happy he is? Do you think you'd be that nuts if your team won its first match in decades? For most of you, probably not. However, some of you would love to be high on whatever it is that he's smoking, right? The truth is that there are some people in the world who can have this experience naturally without inducing any drugs. Take the following guy for example who has a total emotional overload for a double rainbow:

Now I've been gob smacked about some pretty awesome things. I was once utterly blown away by the intense beauty of a woman I saw once. That was the most intense sensation I have ever had. but I think it's fair to say that I will never have an emotional experience quite on the same level that this guy did over anything in nature. It's probably the same for you too.

So why can some people experience such powerful emotional throes of happiness and others can't? That's really a function of our DNA. Whenever I tell people that pentatonic chords strung over an arpeggio progression gives me a sweet tinkling sensation in my spine, they look at me weird. Musicians however could translate that and derive a similar sense of intense euphoria.

Some people take pills that can alter the way their minds interpret information, thereby giving them a very different sensation when they listen to music like House, Progressive and Trance. People like the DJ in the above video have a brain that is already wired to interpret all those types of repetitive music forms in remarkable ways that others simply could not understand.

Are these people crazy? Hardly. Their brain chemistry is just so fundamentally different that they interpret external stimulus very differently from most others. This means they may be able to be happier than others with the same stimulus. This is one of the reasons why one man can see a double rainbow and wax emotional about it, while most others would utter nothing more than a paltry "that's pretty cool", before moving on to the very next distraction.

In my recent posts on the precursors to suicide, one commenter said quite frankly that they wish they had my self confidence. The truth is, I couldn't respond to that comment without sounding like I was patronizing them. I do realize that my self confidence possibly borders on narcissistic and that's probably why I would never think to kill myself over an obnoxious bully.

Then again, you also have to realise that my self confidence is very typical of most males. Men with a more feminized constitution are more likely to whine about their love lost and toss themselves off an office building. Still, other men would put a bullet into the woman who broke up with them. Me? I'd just walk away. I have the clarity of mind to chase after other females.

So what makes me different from a guy who would commit suicide over some bully and yet another who would kill his girlfriend for trying to leave him? Biology. My girlfriend constantly whines about my nauseating sense of happiness. She actually complains that I am always in a good mood and she finds it disturbing. Well have no fear my dear, there is a reason for this.

Happiness is a state of being — not a state of mind. Your ability to be happy is biologically determined. Yes you read correctly. You literally inherit the ability to be happy from your parents. My brother is equally neurotically happy and usually for no good reason. We would both likely go dancing at some rave in Amsterdam five minutes after our house burned down.

I don't even tear up at funerals. Neither does my dad from whom I inherited the trait. I even vividly recall him saying at the graveside of his own mother that he wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. But before you envy my seemingly inexhaustible source of happiness, I want you to understand that there are very real side effects to being this high all of the time.

The trouble first presented itself with a friend I only recently met. Apparently, she was going through some issues that triggered her depression. Being the empathetic friend that I was, I consoled her during her emotional duress. However, she quickly realised that only five minutes later, that I was happily head banging to Armin van Buuren's "A State of Trance" on the radio.

Of course, she got mad because she felt that I could not empathize with her. I didn't admit it then, but I know that my easily triggered sense of happiness actually reduces my ability to empathize with the suffering of others. In fact, this was one of the inspirations for my series of posts on Suicide, because I once naively thought it was only committed by delusional cowards.

As it turns out, my friend hated my initial response to suicide and so challenged me to educate myself about the psychology behind it. It appears that she too was once in a psychological state where suicide crossed her mind. Reassuring her that I would abscond her funeral if she had killed herself (a poor attempt at reverse psychology, I admit) only made matters worse.

An investigative visit to the doctor showed why I appeared to be so ignorant of other people's suffering: My brain naturally produces more serotonin than the average person. By contrast, a psychologist determined that my girlfriend suffers from clinical depression as her brain makes less serotonin than average (which would explain why she finds my happiness nauseating).

Both our conditions are biologically determined. So I have to be especially careful about how "happy" I am around her at times and she has to equally watch for when her insecurities trigger another spell of the "cold shoulders". I've since been privy to a great deal of research on the subject. Happiness is not determined by how much money you have, how religious you are, how many friends you have or how great your love life is. It is determined by our biology.

You were already born with a set of precursors that will determine, based on environmental conditions how happy you can be. Your happiness could be triggered by winning the lottery or by discovering a new comet. It could be triggered by finding enlightenment while meditating on a lonely mountain or by receiving a piece of candy from someone you may have a crush on.

The bottom line is that we were all designed by a set of instructions imprinted in our DNA that predetermines just how happy we can be based on environmental stimuli. It will automatically wire itself up by the time you get to age six when you develop 85% of your personality. In other words, there is already a genetically pre-determined extent to which you can be happy.

Fallacy #9: That everyone can be happy

Vancouver, Canada — While others rioted about losing a hockey game, this intrepid couple kissed instead. If we aren't all inclined to be upset by the same things, then why do we assume that we can all be happy?

One of the greatest fallacies ever propagated in our understanding of human nature is the notion that happiness is the ultimate ideal and thus, that everyone is able to attain it. If only most people realized how incredibly naive that idea is. From this flawed thinking, we wrongly believe that the point of life is to achieve happiness. This presents a fairly obvious problem:

How can you remain satisfied if you were to achieve happiness?

Because we believe that happiness is a state of mind, we are locked in a perpetual race to repeatedly activate the external triggers for happiness. We then mislabel this primitive act of repeatedly activating that trigger as "being happy". We go to work, pay our taxes, raise our kids, go to church and stay faithful to our wives and husbands. This is not very different from a rat in a Skinner Box that has been behaviourally conditioned to touch a lever for food pellets.

By the same idea, removing the rat from the box would make it unhappy, just as how taking away the "American Dream" from some Americans would make them less happy. But is it really that simple? Why would a man who is happily married to the woman of his dreams, with three beautiful kids, a great paying job and a picket fence simply toss it all away for some illicit sex?

Look at a man like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most men wouldn't exactly toss his wife out of bed and his kids are genetically well off. Arnold has more money than God and an iconic status in movie history. So why couldn't the American Dream satisfy him? Was not all this good enough to make him happy? While the answer appears to be temptingly simple, I assure you it's not.

Men like Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer and most recently Anthony Weiner, had it all going for them and they were still not satisfied. The truth is, men with a great deal of power and wealth will never be happy for all the same reasons women collect shoes they will never wear. It validates the expression that happiness is really 80% pursuit and 20% reward.

We can never be happy because happiness is an unattainable target. That's why we obsess about it. We pursue happiness for the momentary bursts of delight along the way, not to be completely satisfied at all. For to be completely satisfied is to once again become unhappy. For this reason, a wealthy man will more likely become bored with his marriage than a poor man.

For the same reason, a poor man would not pass up the opportunity to bang as many women as Tiger did. They just wouldn't be stupid enough to get married sitting on well over a billion dollars of sports endorsements. Similarly, no matter how horrid the sex scandal, women will continue to line up around the block to marry these men and divorce them for their payouts.

The reality is we enjoy being a little bit happy a lot more than we do being totally satisfied. For the only thing human nature abhors more than unhappiness, is boredom. Therefore if total happiness were a thing that we could achieve, then we would not query anyone's status on it for all the same reasons we would not query how far along they are to being male or female.

No one can be happy without being unhappy. That's the point of unhappiness. It creates an effective differential through which happiness can be deployed (even if it isn't). This is why the true measure of a hero lies within the strength of his villain and why light can only be effective in darkness. Oddly enough, that is also why the pursuit of happiness is simultaneously the cause of unhappiness. For if everyone could be happy, there would be no point in pursuing it.

That brings me to the final fallacy:

Fallacy #10: That unhappiness is abnormal

Pakistani Schoolboys in Peshawar — their faces tell a tale. Photography by Damon Lynch.

If you ask most people, they will tell you that they are unhappy. Usually they will also be able to give you a very specific reason why they are unhappy. Usually that reason turns out to be something relatively trivial. Some may say that they lost a lover. Others will cite money issues, that they hate their job, the economy, the president, the government or something else prior.

The interesting thing about people's reasons for being unhappy is that they are usually about things that most people who are happy don't already have. Most people who live in advanced westernised cultures will say that they are unhappy. People who live in less sophisticated cultures have a much higher probability of being happy according to the Happy Planet Index.

The vast majority of the world's population is unhappy. Yet, we are bombarded by the media with messages that would seem to suggest that it is abnormal to be unhappy. Some people will even go as far as to say that happiness is our default state of being and that we drift into unhappiness. Not only is this idea untrue, it is as remarkably naive as others about happiness.

We can easily dismiss that idea as follows:

In the flood ravaged Sindh Province, this 7 year old Pakistani boy still finds something to be joyful about even as he and his family have been displaced by the Pakistani floods. © 2010 Akhtar Soomro (Reuters).

Do you notice how happy children are? Do you know why children appear to be so happy? The reason is literally very simple: It is because they have simpler brains. Children typically have such a primitive intelligence, that things that would bother an adult (such as paying the rent or grieving over a death in the family) would be positively lost on the vast majority of them all.

Children aren't happy because of their innocence or their ability to see beauty. Both of these popular explanations are the stuff of poetic garbage. Children are happy because their limited brain power renders them ignorant about life — and ignorance is bliss. That is the reason why as children become adults, their happiness index goes down with age. As their brains become more complex, they know far more about their world, gradually increasing their unhappiness:

High school students protest against environmental pollution by local production plants in Chicago.

With that said, by the time a gleeful child hits adulthood, things that they wouldn't normally care about as an 8 year old would get them all mad, because they understand it now. An eight year old doesn't preoccupy itself with with fiscal policy, justice, health care reform, environmental pollution or national debt. An 8 year old cares about food, Xbox and YouTube.

It is no small wonder they're always happy.

As an adult, the complexity of our minds robs us of a default state of happiness. In fact the very idea of a default state of happiness is absurd precisely because it presumes that all human desires are satisfied by default. The truth about happiness is that human nature is driven by desire. At the time a desire erupts, one is not happy, as the desire is still unfulfilled.

It is for this reason why alcoholics like to be drunk. Alcohol inhibits the success of electrical communication between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain. The result is that your "sense and sensibilities" are temporarily unable to communicate with the rest of the brain effectively. This reduces the number of things that the brain is able to process, effectively reducing it to the processing capacity of a child's mind. The result? Quick and dirty happiness.

So is unhappiness abnormal? Far from it. If you tend to be more happy than unhappy, then it is very likely that you simply have fewer things to worry about (even as an adult). In fact, I think it's fair to say that worry defines adulthood. However, adults living in more westernised civilizations probably have more to worry about than adults living off their lands in the jungle:

Happiness is proportional to simplicity: A Kayapo Tribesman in the Brazilian Rainforest. © 2011, Reuters

We can safely conclude then that ambition is the enemy of happiness and desire is the mother of discontent. Ergo, the more we are conditioned to want, the less we are likely to be happy. This is central to the success of Capitalism in the west: It involves the creation of want where none exists. Large corporations thrive on the collective unhappiness of the unsuspecting lot.

This is why people who live more laid back lives in poorer countries are much more likely to be happier than people living fast paced lives in richer countries. They simply have less to think about. It is interesting then that people living in less developed Caribbean countries prefer to migrate to the cold north, where most of them as black people become second class citizens.

This is a classic example of where want predicates unhappiness.

Either way, while being unhappy is directly proportional to the strength of our desires, it is also a measure of our personal fulfilment. For if you were happy with not having any tertiary education for example, you wouldn't desire to go to college. Then again, if your desire is to study theoretical physics but you hate math, you may need to lower your expectations a bit.

As I had stated earlier, when people say they're unhappy, they usually cite things that don't matter — but I didn't qualify why. When someone has a well developed sense of emotional intelligence, they usually trace their unhappiness to an internal, personality oriented matter. Less emotionally intelligent people are much more likely to cite external factors as the cause.

The point I'm making here is that the expression that "happiness is an inside job" is actually correct. People who are unhappy with a leader's policies for example may be unaware of personal prejudices they may have. People who are unhappy with their job may simply not like the pay as opposed to the nature of the job. An emotionally intelligent person can trace their unhappiness to an internal factor that may influence their attitudes towards external events.

Theoretically, so long as our primal needs are met, it is possible to be quite content. We lose that contentment when we take on additional needs. Cavemen were probably much happier in their primitive mountain side hollows than modern men in their glass and steel towers. Cavemen never had to worry about car payments, taxes, stock prices, or fleeting job security.

Most mature adults today are not happy — usually because they are very much aware of the complexity of their needs. Being less aware is usually more dangerous. Why? Because we don't live in a caveman's world anymore. We've replaced our Mammoth hunting parades with Supermarkets, which are now controlled by the national economy and a finicky stock market.

We've replaced our furry animal hides with complex carbon polymers that are designed in specific patterns depending on the weather and our complex social expectations. We've replaced our sprawling savannahs and humid jungles crawling with deadly flora and fauna with environmentally controlled concrete jungles. So yes, we are a lot more sophisticated now.

Apropos, it is fair to say that the more complex we become as humans, the less likely we are able to be happy. Given the inherent complexity of our psychology, our default state of being is to be unhappy. That is precisely why a newborn child comes into the world screaming and kicking instead of with a zen like placidity and a wide grin on its face. It is unhappy by default.

Unhappiness is similar to pain in that it occurs when a desire requires fulfilment. However, it is simultaneously unlike pain in that the presence of pain is not a normal default state — which is why thinking of happiness as being a default state is inherently flawed. A person cannot be happy all the time as it requires that the brain constantly exude copious amounts of serotonin.

There is only so much serotonin that the brain can produce at once. Once it has gone through those reserves, we experience what is called an emotional "crash" — a powerful surging onset of depression that is powerful enough to incite thoughts of suicide. People who take MDMA drugs like Extacy know what that feels like. So unhappiness is actually a good thing.

Most adults around the world are unhappy. This man may be forlorn, but he is a among the over 90% of people worldwide who live on less money per month than you would spend at the grocery store in one visit.

So in your quest for happiness, try not to worry about being unhappy along much of the way. That's perfectly normal. It's your brain's way of routing you towards fulfilling the desires that would make you happy. The next time someone asks you if you're unhappy, you don't need to feel ungrateful if you said "no" as now you have a better understanding of why. You could say that you are relatively happy, but you would rather not complain as it could be far, far worse.

I would tell you to cheer up, but I don't wish to insult your intelligence.

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

No comments:

Post a Comment