Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Truth About Happiness (1 of 3)

Happiness is a conceptual ideal, not a perceptible reality.


Are you happy? Do you even know what happiness is? Most people have absolutely no idea what it means to be happy. In fact, there are several fundamental flaws in how we collectively perceive happiness, and that's why we all tend to be miserable most of the time. While I was reviewing the topic of suicide, I inadvertently discovered something curious about happiness.


What is Happiness?

In the simplest terms, happiness can be defined as being synonymous with contentment, or being in a state of not having want of anything. The trouble with this definition is that so long as we're alive, human beings are always in want of something. This means that we can never actually be content, which therefore ultimately renders happiness something relatively elusive.

Happiness is a conceptual ideal, not a perceptible reality. It is a lot like the concept of "world peace", "justice", "perfection" and "equality" — none of these things exist, except as concepts in our minds. If such ideals did exist, we wouldn't have bothered to coin words for them in the same way the concepts of light and darkness mean nothing to someone who was born blind.

Human beings have the ability to conceptualise ideals towards which we all strive. It is the striving process that is useful to us, since the ideal is unattainable. The act of striving towards an abstract impossibility is an essential part of our survival mechanism. These impossible goals act as a guide that steers us through a path of self development that makes us better people.

With that said, it is fair to say that happiness is not a thing — it's really an idea. No one can be perpetually happy, just as how equality will never exist, why justice will never be served and why no one is going to heaven. Our failure to separate idealism from reality is why we often unwittingly propagate the ten greatest fallacies that were ever conceived about happiness:

Fallacy #1: That More is Merrier

There's an old saying from the 1980's that essentially goes "more money = more problems". The rationale is very simple: The more money you have, the more problems you tend to use it to buy. People rarely use their money to solve problems. They tend to spend most of their money creating them. When most people come into lots of money, they complicate their lives.

Think about it.

If you got 250 million dollars right now, how many of you would invest all of it and live off the interest? None of you, right? The first thing you would do is go off on a splurging campaign, seeking momentary highs that which are no doubt very thrilling — but will ultimately leave you wanting more and more. It will never actually end and therefore you will never truly be happy.

If plants were self aware, they would describe themselves as being in a state of pure bliss. Why? Because plants do not require anything more than sustenance. They generally have a much shorter cycle of flux than animals and thus remain relatively the same from the point at which they attain adulthood. Pop a plant into soil rich in nutrients and it will be good for life.

Even if a human being was born into wealth, it doesn't mean they will be happy. Plants can easily outlive any animal by millennia precisely because of their relative simplicity. This is likely because complexity (particularly in animals) is inversely proportional to the probability of the attainment of happiness. In other words, the simpler the creature the easier it is to be happy.

When you extrapolate for humans, the problem remains exactly the same. People who live simple lives and have little are generally much happier than those whose lives are defined by much possession. This is why suicide and depression is significantly higher among the wealthy than the poor. While these things are largely contingent on the individual, the logic remains.

I remember talking to a young man some time ago who happened to have won the local lottery. He pocketed 60 million dollars. After he bought some real estate for his mother and put his siblings through college, he went off on a spending spree. After all, this was his pay day after a lifetime of poverty. It was as if he was, as they say, "taking vengeance on poverty".

He picked up lots of loose women, partied endlessly, and hired an entourage of people to watch over his six cars and three houses. To cut a long story short, he acquired HIV, burned through much of his cash at the time to get treated (this was during the 1990's). Eventually he had to mortgage one of his homes to pay for treatment, finally putting himself into debt.

Now that is obviously a very extreme example. One can be rich and responsible. But his story is not unique. There are many athletes, business people and entertainers who have a very similar story. They all define their happiness by their ability to consume indiscriminately — until they loose that ability. Those are the people who commit suicide when they lose their wealth.

When your happiness becomes defined by the ability to consume, you are putting an intrinsic limitation on your capacity to be happy because consumption requires material maintenance. This implies that you will be required to consume even more to maintain this state, which is why you are less likely to be satisfied — unless your happiness is defined by the pursuit of it.

Carlos Slim Helu — The richest man in the world. He doesn't drive a BMW.
This is why the richest man in the world lives in a very simple house, drives the same car for the last 24 years, flies coach and never books the presidential suite in a hotel. His frugality is perhaps the stuff of legend. He understands that consumption is an addiction, not a route to happiness. He achieves happiness from something considerably more immaterial than wealth:

Hard work.

When your happiness is based on something that can never be exhausted, will never cost anything material and cannot be measured in dollars and cents, then it doesn't matter how much more or less you will ever have. You will always be able to achieve almost inexhaustible happiness. Of course, that is also highly contingent on other factors which we will cover later.

Fallacy #2: That money can't buy it

The notion that money can't buy happiness is positively false. It's just not true. People do it all the time. Just ask anyone who has made it big. They generally tend to be happier than when they lived mediocre lives defined by a fair amount of struggle. The real problem is that most people once they happen upon money use it to eliminate all forms of struggle in their lives and fail to replace them with more constructive ones. That is a perfect recipe for imminent disaster.

Just ask Charlie Sheen.

This is why the well to do often inexplicably find themselves indulging in narcotics and other dangerous thrills. The thrill of being successful only exists in the shadow of failure or want. If there is none of the latter, then the former won't exist either. You can neither appreciate light without darkness, nor joy without suffering. Similarly, one can't feel success without struggle.

When people are poorer, everyday is a struggle. Therefore whenever relief comes along (even if it is just a once a month reward — such as a pay check), they appreciate it a lot more than someone for whom such struggle no longer exists (such as when they receive pay checks so large that they receive no sense of relief from being paid). Because money has solved their subsistence struggles, rich people need a newer strategy if they are to experience happiness.

That is why so many Hollywood celebrities throw themselves into charities and humanitarian causes. They are so wealthy, that their struggle is no longer defined by receiving a pay check. They no longer check their bank balances to see if they have enough to go to the grocery store. They need something bigger to give them happiness — so they tackle bigger problems.

That's why Angelina Jolie is a UN Ambassador along with husband, Brad Pitt. That's why Bill and Melinda Gates have founded an organisation to take care of the distribution of food and medical supplies to stricken areas of Africa. In fact, most A-List celebrities in the United States are affiliated with some cause. Leonardo Decaprio for example, is an environmental activist.

Every one of these people are relatively happy. In fact, one can safely say that they are happier than the people who have simpler lives, living from pay check to pay check. Money is what enabled these people accomplish what they have in their lives and derive satisfaction from it. The trick is thus finding a newer source of happiness when money becomes irrelevant.

This is why others who indulge in charitable acts and give away their money find greater joy and purpose in life. They have discovered happiness in making others happy. Therefore money can indeed buy happiness — particularly when you buy it for others. But of course, giving your money away requires a particular kind of mind. But we will discuss that later on in this series.

Fallacy #3: That friends can provide it

Human beings are social animals. What this means is that some portion of our degree of happiness comes from having other human beings around us. Yet, there are some people in the world who would thrive living by themselves, far from the nuisance of other meddling humans. There must be something else that we receive from others that triggers happiness.

One of our most primal desires is simple social interactivity. It usually manifests itself in the desire for approval, recognition, affection and empathy from others. What we often fail to realize is that the desire for such things is often a manifestation of some deficit in ourselves. That is why there are people out there who can thrive without needing the company of others:

Because they don't have such emotional deficits.

Have you ever seen someone who is so driven that no matter what others tell them, they pursue a desire to fulfilment anyway? Have you ever seen some people thrust themselves into situations that most people would normally retreat from due to the likely social consequences? What is it about these people that drives them to such extremes, despite the obvious risks?

When I studied psychology years ago, one of the themes that was a recurring factor, was that "character is destiny". In other words, the nature of a man determines the outcome of his life. The reason why some people depend on others to be rewarded with happiness while others find all the happiness they need from within themselves is largely a function of their biology.

Some people are more happy when they are alone. They enjoy being consumed in their own thoughts and all the trivial little solo activities that brings them the greatest joy. These people are often the sort that pursue solo hobbies such as establishing collections, writing, painting, design, hiking and other such activities that usually require very little or no human interaction.

Then there are the people who need to have five or more friends within short reach at all times. They need to be out on a Friday night. They need to have a drinking buddy or two, a gal pal or four to hang out with, a wife to travel the world with, a husband to pursue exotic interests with. These people are happiest whenever there is someone else within their world.

The people in the former category almost never feel lonely. In fact, they would consider it a bother if they had to share a living space with anyone else. They could hop on a plane to the most remote places in the world and would have a total blast — so long as they are alone. They typically don't get married (and even if they do, often get divorced shortly after ward).

The people in the latter category would feel lonely even if they walked into a supermarket and there was no one else there but the cashier. They are the ones who always need to be at the latest party, dancing it down with the newest stranger. They tend to marry very quickly if not very often. They just cannot fathom the banal thought of being at home alone watching TV.

It is important to know which group of individuals you broadly fall into, because having many friends may or may not be the best thing for you. People who are natural loners are much more discriminative about who they classify as friends. They typically desire only one person in their lives: a person they can be intimate with. Even then, that is not always the case. They certainly don't need gal pals or wingmen to complement them. Their social needs are minimal.

People who are natural social butterflies are the exact opposite. Not only would they feel the need for a lover, but they may also feel the need for a second or third as well (more on this in the next section). They also need to have many, many friends. You can tell who these people are by the magnitude of people they tend to have added as friends on their Facebook profile.

However, social butterflies have a nuanced way of convincing natural loners that they need to have friends to be happy. Make no mistake; even if you are a loner, having people around you who resonate with you can be very addictive. If one or more of them is a social butterfly, you will find that they contribute to feelings of inadequacy whenever they have their social outing.

This is an illusion. It is a momentary high that is more of a novelty that you will only feel once. If a lone wolf goes to enough parties, they will find them to be intellectually unsatisfying or will find the necessary social gymnastics of facilitating "small talk" with total strangers to be more of a chore than a joy. Loners are far better off with short bursts of interactivity. Less is more.

Social butterflies are happiest in the opposite scenario because they are easily amused with any kind of attention. They need lots of nondescript, human interactivity. Their simple minds mean that they tend to become preoccupied with simple things. For them, happiness is more about quantity and less about quality. They all tend to have the attention span of a housefly.

Compare the social butterflies who've befriended one or more loners. They will notice the passionate creativity of lone wolves, whether it is expressed in their art or their wealth of knowledge on a subject. They too will feel a sense of inadequacy when lone wolves show up their intellectual short comings. Again, this is an illusory effect that's only a temporary novelty.

Either way, one needs to understand that the popular notion that friendship somehow directly correlates with happiness is an incredibly naive idea. It assumes that all our brains have the same synaptic architecture. What nobody will tell you is that friends are equally capable of providing happiness and frustration, directly proportional to the number of friends involved.

Having one friend being there when you fall is better than eight, even though eight is better when you succeed. The converse may be true depending on your personality. Lone wolves are better at managing failure with fewer observers than social butterflies. Conversely, all social butterflies handle success more poorly than loners if there aren't enough friends involved in it.

Happiness in friendship is highly contingent on who you are. We largely fail to realize this because pop culture is driven by social butterfly personalities who unwittingly inundate the masses with the misleading idea that one can only be happy in the company of many friends. 

Since lone wolves are considerably more interested in personal discovery than the discovery of personalities, we never hear their side of the story as they are like emotional black holes. They're happy too. They just don't feel like telling anyone about it — and they're fine with that.

Up Next: Part 2Happiness in love, religion and freedom.

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


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  2. How do personalities work in relationships?

    Like attracts like or opposites attract?

    I've wondered whether a social butterfly and a lone wolf could work in a relationship. As a lone wolf, I have come to the same conclusion. Outgoing friends and people tire me with their need to go out and interact with others. If I got into a relationship with a social butterfly, I wonder whether that would work for (complement each other) or against (conflicting interests) me.

    I'd like to get your take on it.

  3. Hi,

    Lone wolves and social butterflies CAN indeed work out. It's all a part of a relationship dynamic where polar opposite personalities are the best fit for each other. Lone wolves are generally Not attracted to other lone wolves. Social Butterflies are usually drawn to the mystique of lone wolves.

    I've actually written a post that goes into far more detail about this. You will see it up here soon enough.

  4. very well stated, and i agree with most of it - particularly the part about how one does not find happiness in friends. actually, i find most human beings to be somewhat sloppy and exhausting do to their lack of consciousness about who they really are. many of them think themselves somehow unique in their struggles. and they place themselves in discordant situations so often that there is rarely enough energy left over to engage in anything that isn't about their microcosmic discomfort of the moment. i often get bored with this scenario, as i consciously avoid many of life's pitfalls by remaining conscious of my self, and, thus, have more energy to explore other things the world has to offer. i have come to prefer my own company over that of the average human being. i do not consider myself "better" - just "more"somehow. i recognize that they have the same right to exist as i do, but i have often found my own imagination or the imaginations of a handful of creative, thoughtful, or personally secure people preferable to running into brick walls with the masses.i don't know if you would agree with what i have written, but you somehow seem to be an "awakened"kindred spirit. i hope you will keep writing this blog, as it is better than any book i am reading at the moment!