Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What makes us happy?

We have spent a lot of time recently extolling the virtues of enjoying life. However, it is important to stress that you don't need particular things or experiences in order to do so. So while we (for example) "enjoy" good food and wine, we also know we are no different from the characters in The Matrix who mistakenly believe they are experiencing "life."

Consider the following premise. Two men are sitting in a restaurant eating steak. One man has a high-paying job, a wonderful wife and children, and drives a nice car. The other man has just lost his job, seen his wife run off with his best friend, and had his car repossessed. We all, of course, assume the first man should be "happier." But should this be so? Both men are sitting in the same restaurant, eating the same steak. The only differences are the self-imposed shackles in their minds.

Indeed, this analogy is a bit misleading in that it assumes the "cause" of the men's happiness is their current environment. In fact, why should we assume either is "happier" than a starving child in Africa? We do, but why? What makes us assume one is "better" than the other?

Take another example - two men are told they each have only one week to live. The first collapses in anguish, screaming "I don't want to die!" and spends the next week desperately searching for a cure. The second, on the other hand, smiles and accepts his fate, choosing to spend his week sitting peacefully and perhaps visiting with friends.

The twist, of course, is that the second example applies to all of us - we each have a finite lifespan, whether a week or 100 years (and whether we choose to accept it or not). The concept of "happiness,' meanwhile, is basically shorthand for the biological processes that have enabled us to survive - the reason we enjoy eating, drinking, and having sex is that people who enjoyed such activities in the past (i.e., our ancestors) left more offspring than those who didn't.

So eat, drink, and procreate if you want, but remember those things won't make you happy any more than selling your company for $100 million. Indeed, when discussing such matters we are often reminded of the Buddha's famous answer when asked to describe exactly what he was:

Are you a god? “No.”

Are you super-human? “No.”

Are you an ordinary man? “No.”

What are you then? “I’m awake.”


  1. Wonderful read. Put very well. One only wishes that the issue of happiness were more deeply studied than what has been put forth in the article (I am not criticizing the article, no way). I wished it provided answers to whether happiness is another name for generation of a cocktail of chemicals in our brain? Or the cognitive side of it, such as one cannot know happiness strictly, but can only contrast it to a related state of unhappiness?

  2. That's just the point - there is no "answer" as to what makes one happy (although to your point about physical processes in the brain - yes, we certainly believe the feeling of happiness is simply a chemical reaction). Sure, things may make us temporarily "happy" (food, alcohol, sex, etc), but in so doing they simply create new desires which ultimately create conflict and lead to future unhappiness.

    The absurd man realizes (and embraces) this reality, and is thus content to just be.

  3. Thanks for this article. I appreciated it. You should post your links in more places. =)



  5. Read Viktor Frankl's book "Man in Search of Meaning." it sold 10 million copies worldwide (2.5 million in the U.S.)

    He lived through 4 concentration camps and observed those who lived meaningful lives at the lowest level of existence—even at death's door.

  6. thanks, meaningful post.

  7. Very nice. I have been reading up on Budhha's teachings too.

    Just to be clear there are things that make us happy even though in theory we should be able to find happiness without them. These things then become shortcuts -- easy way to get a dose of happiness. I am conviced that there is a way to get happiness without these things but I have not mastered that skill yet. More fundamentally, why is it so important to be happy? Budhha also said to embrace your suffering.


    I just came to say that it is ridiculous that if a parent had a suffering child that he/she really loves, and an otherwise "perfect" life, that parent would still be happy.

  9. Is pleasure the same as happiness? Pleasure comes and goes. Buddha seemed to be implying that happiness is possible independent of vagaries of pleasure and pain. Learn that chasing pleasure, avoiding pain doesnt work. Fully accept what you have, no matter what, and what is there to to be unhappy about?

    If your child has a mental illness, does it help to reject it and become unhappy? Which serves your child better, happiness or unhappiness?

  10. There is no satisfactory answer to this question, because the question itself is a false one. The question presupposes the existence of an 'I' that can be 'made' happy. There is no evidence to support either of these.

  11. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree