What is happiness? A generally accepted definition is a feeling of “subjective well-being”. To me, this suggests that it describes the emotions we induce to produce this describable feeling. The emotional cocktails we experience as happiness are highly context dependent, based upon our expectations and values, just like any other emotional response.
We commonly impart additional meaning to happiness because it signifies we’re doing something right, our needs are being met, or we’ve found some kind of advantage to enjoy. This translates to the person experiencing these emotions choosing to induce a stronger emotional response than they may have otherwise, lacking the meaningful context of the emotion. This is an example of our expectations at work.
Beneath that, happiness represents at least a temporary satisfaction of our more instinctive needs. Somebody came up with a wonderful term for the feelings experienced by a couple in a new relationship. They called it “NRE” or “New Relationship Energy” and it’s very apt. In such a state the person chooses to induce extremely powerful emotions, often for prolonged periods. Further, when people fall in love they both choose to induce very strong and prolonged emotional reactions designed to validate those of each other. This feels both incredible and potently addictive in the moment, and I believe this particular emotional addiction is responsible for the durability of human pair bonds. Traditionally, we do this to pair bond, though some people repurpose the emotions for less self-honest purposes. It is as undeniable that such emotional states impair our judgment as it is that the emotions in question feel very good and compelling.
For all of these reasons and more we value happiness more highly than most other emotions we experience. We value it so highly that we measure the success of nations by the reported happiness of their citizens. We value it so highly that our global entertainment industry dwarfs our climate crisis response by orders of magnitude.
As I’ve stated once or twice before on these pages, I believe we govern our emotional responses with our held values, which in turn are based on our expectations and our beliefs. What we’re seeing so much of in the world today is what happens when we base our happiness on false beliefs and expectations while continuing to value it as if it were honest.
Anybody with a few dollars can find a dose of some kind of happiness that is tailored to suit their cravings. I’m not just talking about drugs or alcohol, but also entertainment options of all kinds. Even tasks that shouldn’t feel like entertainment can by adapted to accommodate our desire for more emotionalism, such as shopping. There are also myriad sources of “free” happiness, as evidenced by our collective will to sit scrolling on our phones, looking at videos for hours, trying to get a giggle or a gasp out of ourselves. We most commonly value our level of happiness as a kind of cumulative total or sum of the feelings we experienced recently, coloured by those we’re concerned about feeling next. We have short attention spans on this scale and our subjective happiness may vary widely throughout a day or a week. We also have a very common tendency to forget about prior emotional states, or at least some of them, and this causes us to misremember how enjoyable or not a period of time really was, when we were in the moment. We also commonly lie to ourselves directly on these scales because we do not want to see just how fragile our good fortune may be.
So, if for many people happiness has been reduced to deceiving ourselves into “feeling better” throughout our days in order to poorly cope with what’s really going on, why do we continue to value it so highly? As if it were some beacon of human wellness?
I view happiness much like I view junk food — empty calories — though I indulge in happiness less often. And with little intensity even with junk food, come to think of it. I get far more enjoyment from cooking, the task of it and the tactile and other sensory experiences of it. Perhaps this preference suggests a common theme in my values. I derive so much enjoyment from my photography due to the task and the tactile experience of it, too. The “work” of it. The creative process explored, a little. To me, this makes happiness more reasonable, and less frequent than I might otherwise experience with less selective application. I’m vigilant of the addictive power of happiness and the dangerous lines of thinking that can result from thinking “If only I could be happy, more.” This is the threshold at which the pursuit of emotion supersedes the pursuit of the creative process. Pursuing emotions directly is the behaviour of a helpless, or perhaps hapless, addict.
To change on collective scales would necessitate that we re-evaluate our emotional addictions. To devalue happiness would necessitate changing one’s worldview quite drastically and making very different choices, going forward. Ask me; I know. Most people refuse to consider the possibility of engaging in such an act while many of them refuse to accept that it is even possible. Many people have such screwed up expectations that they genuinely believe that if they pursued happiness differently, in such a way that it were less frequent but more honest, it would be tantamount to making themselves feel bad deliberately. To them if you’re not happy all of the time, you’re sad or angry or whatever else, because they cannot imagine not having an emotional response running, all of the time. This is not how we’ve developed to live and it signifies a truly detrimental state of emotional addiction.
I’ve had some very interesting reactions from people to whom I’ve suggested ideas such as perhaps people should try to feel less, both in intensity and frequency. Interesting in that their responses differed from any expectations I could have imagined. The most telling is anger. People who resort to anger in response to this idea are betraying their hapless, addicted state.
I do think we would benefit from teaching each other to feel less and less often, but I think it’s equally important we begin to correct our values, expectations and beliefs so that we become naturally more selective about the emotions we induce and the emotive contexts we choose to value. How we value happiness seems like a good place to start because we currently let its pursuit rule our continued destruction of our environment.