The pursuit of happiness is a universal human goal that we all crave. But nonetheless, people have problems. The role of us interested in Psychology or Philosophy is to bring them from broken, depressed, and lost up to feeling more fulfilled, purposeful, and happier.
Objective human flourishing has massively improved over the past 250 years. Throughout most of our history, society has suffered enormously from undernourishment, vulnerability to diseases, and devastation of family members getting torn apart or killed in battles.
From the Christian Bible, Conquest, Death, Famine, and War are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 'Peace' was merely a breather between the wars of empires & states for centuries. Affected by the instability and frequent external shocks, about 1/3 of children did not live long enough to see their 5th birthday, 1% of mothers are vulnerable to death in childbirth (maternal morality), and economic growth of countries pretty much didn't exist for more than 1,000 years.
But things have started to get better in recent decades. Over the last 50 years, countries in the West have done an incredible job of escaping from deprivation while most of the world has been rapidly catching up. The world has never been more democratic (freedom of choices and human rights) than before; totalitarianism has stopped expanding (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan). The corruption in government, rates of homicide and sexual assault have all plummeted by factors of hundreds ('Justice!').
From the general pattern, extreme poverty 200 years ago was about 90% worldwide. But for today's population, it applies to 9%. People are fed with more calories to fill their bellies than ever! Although inequality has reached a historic new level, so has social support for redistribution that countries are transferring to the poor, sick, and elderly.
So, let's now come back to the question, ' did all these improvements make us any happier? ' According to research, it did not. To figure out the reason behind this puzzle, we have to distinguish between objective well-being (freedom, prosperity, peace) and subject happiness (joy, delight, elation).
"The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily." – Plato, The Republic.
Happiness cannot be single-handedly measured by macroeconomic factors such as real GDP per capita, life expectancy, or infant mortality. Instead, happiness has its basis on subjectivity. An individual can live in a rather objectively tragic circumstance (lost an arm from WW2, suffered the loss of a child, wife divorced him thinking he died on the battlefield...) but be grateful for God's small mercies. Meanwhile, a millionaire may be a morose prat who doesn't appreciate the good fortune he inherited despite everything going well for him.
Living a Happy Life
In the last century, people were much lower paid in their job positions ('Cheap labor... Have the riches ever cared about us?'), did not eat as well ('Beef, lamb, shrimp, when did they have those?'), and were more vulnerable in hundreds different ways ('Yes, I'm aware of COVID, but smallpox, malaria, and Cholera weren't jokes!')... As the new blood, we are healthier, better fed, and more protected than any other generations in history, BUT WE ARE NOT ANY HAPPIER!!!
Why is it that we don't seem to be happier even with all the gains in our lives?
"Everything is amazing and nobody is happy." – Louis CK
- "How happy are you in general?"
Studies asking people about happiness have been around for a long time. For example, in a survey, random people on the street were asked, "on the ladder from 1 to 10, the worst to the best possible life, where do you stand?" The most common response, surprisingly, was 7 or 8. Most people think they are above the average: 'the countrymen are less happy than we are!'
"We are happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate (married and have regular sex), and in love." – Steven Pinker.
Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, summarizes the keys to happiness in this nicely evocative passage. In his account, happiness is a goal state that we have evolved to pursue. If we are happy, it signifies our needs have been satisfied. Analogically, happiness is the carrot we are running towards that makes us take on our lives.
But if happiness were really like what Professor Pinker said, then why, for the most part, would those people in those poor African countries who are not sheltered with comfortable houses, ignorant, illiterate, and live with a lack of sustenance (food needed to stay alive) be nearly as happy as we are?
One controversial finding on happiness is that it doesn't change as much as you think; your happiness isn't as sensitive to your environmental changes as you might expect. There appears to be a solid heritable basis. Just like personality and intelligence, your natural happiness set point is, to some level, pre-genetically determined. To put this proposition in extreme forms, some people are intrinsically predisposed to be sour, cheerful, or outgoing...
Now, think for a moment, what's the worst and best thing that could happen to you right now? And how much would it change your happiness level?
The instant thought I came up with was to be paralyzed from a car accident, lying on a hospital bed, unable to enjoy the outside world. If that were really gonna happen to me, I'd be miserable for the rest of my life (before I start to feel sorry for myself, I'd have already turned into a suicidal mode)!
But happyologists suggest that my gut feeling would probably be wrong. Yes, I would be terribly depressed, shouting 'my life is freaking over!!' more than 5 times a day. But not for that long! After about a year of being involved in a tragic accident, people's happiness returns to where it was before, indicating that the detrimental effect is temporary instead of permanent.
- Mega Millions
"How does it feel to win a Mega Million jackpot?"
"It makes me happier obviously, it's common sense!"
Indeed, winning millions of dollars in a lottery does make you happier. When you check the six numbers on your ticket are exactly the same as the display on TV, you will jump off your feet! "Woo-hoo! I've won my first million! Thank God!"
But about a year later, your mood would be no different than before. In fact, winning lotteries may be a horrific case where people get wrenched by the sudden inflow of money – away from their families, loved ones, friends, and work. The mundane moments (ordinary life events) do make you happy, but they don't last.
Buying a brand new Porsche, newly launched iPhone 14, or full HD Sony smart TV📺 makes you feel happier than ever before. But after you've opened up the package and set the machine up, that happiness almost fades immediately. The purchase of material goods doesn't seem to have any long-term effect.
- A Harvard acceptance letter
I know many people would be shaking their hands at this point, but this finding is true: we think consumption will have a profound, if not permanent, effect, but often they don't.
Another Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert introduced us to the term "affective forecasting." We are bad at predicting how happy or sad we'll be in the future based on what's happening to us in the present. Why? Because in our nature, we fail to appreciate any day-to-day 'irrelevant' events.
If I received an email from Harvard informing me that I got accepted, I'd be sensationally happy! "Whoa, the best university in the world. I'm the luckiest person on the planet Earth! I'm going to get a good job, have a good career, and it sets me off to run for the president of the United States of America one day!"
Then, a month later, I'm standing on Harvard's campus. I still get bad sleep at night (homesick), I still can't figure out how to make friends with those rich kids, and I still keep failing my math tests! The fact that "yeah, I'm in Harvard now, how about that?" does not really matter... From statistical reports, about 31% of Harvard undergraduates experience depression or anxiety disorder, that's 5 times higher than the national average!
Many things in life that we think will make us happier actually don't have that day-to-day effect. Right now, I'm a guy without a single acceptance letter from any college in America, but I kind of have adapted that fact. If an Ivy League school had accepted me, I'd be happy entering my freshmen and feeling proud of myself for my achievement, but then I would get used to being there.
The Pursuit of Happiness
I hated life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. I took a good look at everything I'd done, all the sweat and hard work, it's smoke. All was vanity and a striving after wind, and there is nothing to be gained under the sun. – Bible
A story from Ecclesiastes of the Bible puts a pessimistic view of life well. A king had it all – gardens, vineyard, castles, slaves, concubines... But it didn't make him happy. From what he saw, life is meaningless – full of frustration, distortion, and inequalities. Nothing in life is a promise except death. Whether you're wise or a fool, you will die shortly.
If we can't make the ending of life satisfying, at least we can search for its meaning (happiness) while living. And the first thing we need to deal with is the loss of value. On a treadmill, no matter how fast you run, you stay where you are in the same place. By continuing doing the same movement of stepping your feet forwards, you get habituated and bored with the activity.
How should we deal with the situation that though we aspire to accomplish great things, those things will eventually lose their value once we get used to them?
The first trick is endless novelty – always do something different. Bored at your partner? Have sex with somebody you've never had sex with the next week! Bored at doing your repetitive job? Go climb Mount Everest. Bored at playing ball games? Go surfing! If you keep changing what you do, the probability is that you'll never get used to anything. So you will always be happy on your way to discovery!
"The universe is a cruel, uncaring void.The key to being happy isn't to search for meaning.It's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead." – BoJack Horseman.
The second alternative is to GIVE UP chasing the whole idealized happiness idea and instead seek
more substantial goods, such as developing social relationships, learning to appreciate the work of
Shakespeare📖, and building a company! Those might not give you instant pleasure, but sur they'll
serve you well in the long term.
- How to live a happy life.
“The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates.” – Marcus Aurelius.
'What's the meaning of a good life?'
Live in a big mansion? Have a Lambo parked in your garage? Or have $100 million sitting in your Swiss bank account?
We live in a materialistic culture. The media constantly exposes us to the lives of the rich and famous (glory), Tiktok ruins patience by distracting us with instant 15 seconds of pleasure (a battle of self-control), and the hypocrites around act as material possessions is the secret to happiness (seeking praises from other people).
From the account of Plato, a life committed to knowledge and virtue are the key to reaching a state of eudaimonia, in another word, self-fulfillment. Rather than pursuing physical wealth in life, we should learn to build our character, be kind, educate ourselves, and work hard. That's when we place our happiness in the hands of ourselves and not others. After all, nothing really belongs to us; everything can be taken away – our friends can leave us, our phones can be stolen, and our business can run into bankruptcy. But what's the one thing that will never leave us? Our character. It is only our character that defines us and carries us purposefully through life.
In today's world, not everyone is happy, but certainly, everyone is better off than before. Often, people don't appreciate the things they have. The direction of human progress is simple, and it starts small: stop eating unhealthily, write your gratitude in your diary daily, and strive for happiness🙏.