What Really Makes Us Happy?

The study of happiness is not just the domain of social scientists; biologists use the same questionnaires but correlate the answers people give with biochemical and genetic factors. Our mental state is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Our biological system is not concerned about whether we get a promotion or if we find true love unless they create pleasant sensations in our body. We are deceived into thinking that we are reacting to external stimuli, instead it’s just hormones in our bloodstream and electrical signals in our brain.

True love is not destined by the stars or Cupid, it’s just a certain combination of electrical signals and biochemicals inside of you. So the next time your partner asks you whether you love them or not, tell them that you hope so but you first need to measure your testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin and vasopressin levels. If you have elevated levels of oxytocin and vasopressin that indicates attachment, on the other hand, elevated levels of testosterone and estrogen would indicate lust, not ‘true love’. Valentine’s day will never be the same again.

Evolution has been careful to mould us to be neither too happy nor too miserable. Sex, for example, is accompanied with pleasant feelings. If it wasn’t, few people would bother, alternatively, if orgasms were to last forever, we would die of starvation or insomnia. It’s also worth mentioning, that we are born with different biochemical systems – some are more cheerful than others. Think about your family and friends, some could break a leg and still be up for an exciting night out, others could win the lottery and still moan. We tend to believe that if we could just get a well-paid job, buy a new car, get more likes on Instagram, find a beautiful girlfriend or boyfriend, we would be on top of the world. Yet when we get what we desire, we don’t seem to be any happier. Getting plastic surgery or going on holiday will not change your biochemistry. They can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it’s soon back to its set point.

Despite their limitations, happiness studies conducted by social science departments have their place. Biology tells us that we have strict emotional boundaries but there’s flexibility for movement within these boundaries and that’s where the social sciences fit into the picture. For example, money will not make you permanently happier but it can make it more likely that you will experience pleasant sensations as opposed to being broke.

This is all well and good, but how do we know that biologists and social scientists have got the definition of happiness correct? Is happiness just the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant emotions? Do we not want our lives to be meaningful and worthwhile? After all, our values can dramatically change our outlook on life and a meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible fate, no matter how comfortable it is. The issue with saying the solution is simply finding your purpose is that most of us don’t know who, or what, we really are. In order for the meaning of our lives to be less of a self-delusion, we need to find the truth about ourselves. But entering a relentless quest to find meaning doesn’t really differ from pursuing feelings like happiness. Is there a way to break out of this cycle?

For 2500 years, Buddhists have studied happiness, hundreds of years longer than any psychologist or biologist. The problem, according to Buddhism, 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 confused. To get those good feelings back, we have to chase them while fighting off all negative feelings. It’s exhausting and when we finally succeed, we have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for our troubles. Imagine playing a Playstation game for many hours, you are seconds away for completing it, then your progress resets and you lose everything. You would erupt in fury and possibly even throw your controller at the TV. So why do we struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears as soon as it arises?

According to Buddhism, 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. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, you are not content, because you fear that these feelings might soon disappear. You are liberated from suffering when you understand the impermanent nature of your feelings and stop craving them. Unfortunately, we are killing ourselves emotionally and mentally on a daily basis. In our busy lives, we don’t have time to be still or to meditate, therefore we never get to closely observe our mind and body, witness the arising and passing of our feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them.

By meditating, the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. You will still feel anger, sadness, boredom and lust but you can now accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been. Perhaps then it is not so important whether your expectations are filled or whether you enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether we know the truth about ourselves. Are we asking the right questions and observing ourselves, untangled from our emotions? We need to be able to admit that we don’t know ourselves as much as we like to think we do. Remember that we have only made significant progress in our knowledge of the universe because we have admitted ignorance. Being able to admit ignorance is a value that will serve you well throughout life. Einstein, Freud and Darwin all admitted ignorance, they understood that we did not have all of the answers, and that provided them with the foundation to make their discoveries. Now it’s time to make yours.

Inspiration: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari


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