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How to Find Happiness

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Happiness is not pleasure, joy, love, or the absence of suffering. Happiness is not an emotion, but a state of being.


Sunset in the Atlantic.
Sunset in the Atlantic. Photo by Hermes Solenzol.

Should we be happy?

Happiness has a bad press, particularly among intellectuals.


Most religions tell us that we shouldn’t look for happiness in our current life. There is too much suffering in this world; what we should do is to live a righteous life and wait for a reward of incommensurable happiness after we die. Even Buddhism is based on the idea that life is full of suffering, that can only be remedied by achieving Nirvana. This would involve a lot of toil and meditation, and probably will only come after several reincarnations.


Philosophies are not better. The ancient Stoics and Epicureans taught that looking for happiness is futile. The most we could hope for is to avoid suffering by reaching a state of equanimity called ataraxia. Other ancient philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, emphasized cultivating Virtue. More modern philosophers focused on duty or social order, when they were not utterly pessimistic.


There is a reason for that. In the ancient world of limited resources and constant warfare, you had to keep the populace in a state of resignation. If people thought too much about happiness, they may decide to do something about their misery, which would inevitably lead to rebellion in a struggle to achieve a more just apportioning of resources.


With the advent of democracy, education and the ideal of social justice during the Enlightenment, the goal of being happy irrupted into collective consciousness. The “pursit of happiness” was written into the Constitution of the United States. That was the first time that happiness was officially recognized as a goal of the state.


And yet, many voices today criticize pursuing happiness as an unworthy goal. Chasing happiness is hedonism, a dirty word. They warn us that it would lead us to craving and perpetual dissatisfaction. There is also a lot of confusion about what happiness actually is. After thinking a lot about this, I want to examine what happiness is, and is not.


Is pleasure happiness?

The first confusion is between happiness and pleasure.


Pleasure - like its opposite, pain - is primarily sensations and the emotions associated with those sensations. When we hear the word ‘pleasure’, we immediately think of sexual pleasure, perhaps because it is the most repressed. But there are many other physical pleasures: eating, drinking, being caressed, exercising. The satisfaction of our biological drives to survive and reproduce is pleasurable.


But there are other forms of pleasure that gradually move us from the terrain of the purely physical to the mental realm. Music, for example, is one of the pleasures that has been greatly amplified in modern society. It’s something really basic: hearing a nice sound. And yet, it can be educated and developed to evoke the most sublime of mental states. The same can be said about reading, watching movies, and enjoying other forms of art.


We live in the most hedonistic societies ever. Never before have so many pleasures been available to so many people with so little effort. Songs, movies, TV shows, books, photographs, paintings, dances, and other pleasurable things can be found everywhere. And this is undeniably good, isn’t it? Why would living a rich life be a bad thing?


The philosophers frown and shake their heads. “You should not pursue pleasure,” they say. “It would leave you unsatisfied, empty and full of cravings. Pleasure is addictive, like a drug.”


There is some truth is that. If all we wanted is pleasure, why don’t we just shoot heroin, which produces the most intense pleasure of all? Surely, pursuing pleasure cannot be the whole story. There has to be more to life.


However, it is not true that pleasure inevitably entails dissatisfaction and craving. Precisely by studying the effects of addictive drugs, neuroscience has revealed that pleasure and craving are entirely different things. You can enjoy something pleasurable in a detached way, welcoming it when it comes and letting it go when it stops. When pleasure stops being scarce, we are much less likely to crave it. Conversely, we can crave things that are not intrinsically pleasurable, like revenge, fame, virtue or money.


The main difference between pleasure and happiness is that pleasure is something that we experience in the moment, while happiness seems to be something that applies to our entire life. Another difference is that, while pleasure is just sensations and emotions, happiness seems to go deeper than that. But what does that mean?


Is joy happiness?

Another thing that gets confused with happiness is joy.


Joy is an emotion, one of the six emotions that psychologist Paul Ekman identified in the facial expression of people and animals: joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. Joy is often the result of pleasure, but can be experienced independently of it. We can see joy in many mammals - think of a dog running free in a park. But joy is particularly rich in us humans, manifesting in our ability to smile and laugh, and branching into other complex emotions like humor, religious devotion and ecstasy.


Joy is wonderful, and is hard to conceive happiness without it, but is not the same thing as happiness. By its nature, joy is energy-intensive and short-lived. Any parent knows that a child running around in a joyous state will soon be crying. Joy has an uncanny tendency to crash into sadness, its opposite. And yet, sadness does not imply unhappiness. Otherwise, why would be watch sad movies, read sad stories, listen to sad songs? We can be happy while being sad. Perhaps it is possible to be unhappy despite feeling joy.


Here is a novel idea. Despite what most people think, happiness is not an emotion. Happiness is a state of being, something that affects the entirety of who we are. Suffering - the opposite of happiness - is likewise a state of being, and not an emotion.


Let’s explore these ideas in more depth.


Is love happiness?

Love is the most hyped emotion in modern culture.


Just like when we mention pleasure, sexual pleasure comes to mind; when we talk about love, most people think about romantic love. The idealization of romantic love is one of the most basic characteristics of our civilization. And yet, in the past, romantic love was not considered necessary for marriage. Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, thousands of romance novels, and Disney movies have created a mass of people who crave romance and suffer without it.


Love is not limited to romance. There are many other kinds of love, some undervalued: for our parents, for our children, for our friends.


Love has also been sublimated by religion and politics into love for God and Nation. So much so that many are willing to die and kill for it. Then, the psychedelic explorers of the 60s came up with the idea that Love is the essence of the Universe and able to conquer anything. “All you need is love,” sang The Beatles.


It has become impossible to separate this basic emotion from all the cultural baggage that we have attached to it.


We are social animals, incapable to thrive in isolation. Science has shown that healthy bonds and a good social environment are required for good health. So, yes, love is an important ingredient for happiness. But, like it happens with joy, it’s not the whole story.


Is happiness lack of suffering, ataraxia, or equanimity?

However, the fact that emotions like joy and love are not sufficient to achieve happiness doesn’t mean that I agree with the philosophers who say that the ideal state is ataraxia, a state of equanimity where there is neither suffering nor happiness.


Positive emotions - like pleasure, joy, love, awe, kindness, curiosity and pride - are necessary for a happy life. We don’t need to feel them all the time, just enough to live a satisfactory life. Conversely, negative emotions - like sadness, fear, anger, shame, guilt and envy - do not necessarily detract from our happiness. But if they become predominant and get out of control, they will surely make us miserable. Emotional hygiene is a requisite of a happy life.


Happiness is not just the absence of suffering. If that were true, why not just kill ourselves? When we are dead, there is no suffering. However, we all have the strong intuition that life is worth living, it has to be worth living. Not having that feeling is considered a disease: depression. I think that, just like there is existential angst - a basic suffering intrinsic to just existing -, there is also existential happiness - a basic happiness that comes with just being alive. And existential happiness, in most cases, beats existential angst.


Happiness and extended consciousness

Let’s go back to the idea that happiness is a state of being.


Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in his book The Feeling of What Happens, proposed that the human mind has a unique property he calls extended consciousness. It consists of being aware that we are a self (the extended self) that has existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future. Although animals have memories, they do not have this sense of being a self living through time. Based on research done by neuroscientist Bud Craig, I think that the emergence of extended consciousness in humans is due to the development of a new part of the brain cortex called the anterior insula, which is able to create hypothetical states of the body and hypothetical emotional states. The anterior insula does the thinking of “if this were to happen, this is how I would feel.” Craig thinks that the neural network formed by the anterior insula, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex gives rise to human consciousness.


While emotions like pleasure and joy exist only in the present, extended consciousness gives us a window to our entire life. What matters is not how we feel now, but how we felt before and how we are going to feel in the future. An animal in pain experiences it as it happens now, while a human in pain remembers all the pain he felt before and worries about the pain he will experience in the future. We are also aware that we will eventually die, and this produces an existential dread that we carry all our lives.


Therefore, human happiness and human suffering have a depth that they don’t have in animals.


Is happiness eudemonia and Virtue?

The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers defined happiness as a life worth living, or eudaimonia, which is achieved by practicing Virtue (arête) and ethical wisdom (phronesis).


This brings a new perspective about what happiness is. It is not just the emotions that we feel in the present, or the emotions that we felt in the past or may feel in the future. Happiness has a cognitive component, a series of ethical values that orient our decisions and determine how we feel about ourselves.


According to this view, happiness is taking a look at who we are, and finding it satisfactory. If we hate our lives and despise ourselves for what we do, we suffer. Ethics, knowledge and values determine if we are happy or not.


While I agree that living according to our values is an essential component of a happy life, that is not the whole story. We can be ethical and still be miserable. A certain measure of pleasure, joy and love is required to be happy. We need to find a balance.


We should also be aware of what I call the Trap of the Ego. The ego is built during our formative years by two powerful opposing emotions: shame and pride. The praise we get when we do good things and the scorn we get when we fail or behave badly build inside our minds, creating an internal judge, the interiorization of all the figures of authority we encountered. This is our Ego. It drives us to achieve more and more, to avoid failure at all costs, to be bigger and better. When we live our lives just to feed our Ego, that’s the Trap of the Ego.


If we just pursue Virtue and wisdom, it’s easy to fall into the Trap of the Ego. We believe that we are acting ethically, when in fact we are just looking to aggrandize ourselves. It’s easy for people who fall into the Trap of the Ego to, not just sacrifice themselves in their pursuit of Virtue, but to sacrifice others as well. This is how Puritanism is born. It deceives us by making us believe that only the mind, ideas and values matter, when we also need to satisfy our physical and emotional needs to be happy.


But there is a deeper problem with Virtue: it is a means to an end, it cannot be an end in itself. Virtue, alone, is as empty and meaningless as pleasure. Because, in the end, how do we decide what is virtuous and what is not? Ultimately, ethical values have to be defined in term of happiness and suffering, of others and ourselves. But if happiness is to be virtuous and virtue is to achieve happiness, we are trapped in circular reasoning. We either decide that happiness is the ultimate goal, and that virtue is a means to achieve that goal, or the whole thing falls apart.


Is happiness finding meaning in life?

So, here is where we are. Happiness is not an emotion - it encompasses our emotions, the way we perceive our lives in the past and the future, and the way we perceive ourselves as ethical and knowledgeable beings. Happiness has emotional, cognitive, social and cultural dimensions. It extents to our whole being. That’s why I say that happiness is a state of being.


Therefore, we could say that achieving happiness - understood this way - is the ultimate goal of human life. This is basically what is stated by existentialism.


Still, this view leaves dissatisfied. If we just live to be happy, does it really matter if we live at all? Would the Universe be the same with and without human beings? Does human existence has any ultimate value?


This is the problem of the meaning of life. It has two possible answers.

  1. Intrinsic meaning. Human life has meaning in itself. We find human life meaningful because we are humans. There is no other, external, meaning for human life.

  2. Extrinsic meaning. Human life has meaning because it is part of something larger than humanity. In some religious views, it has meaning because it is the manifestation of the will of God.

Rejection of belief in God has led to the rejection of the idea that there is any extrinsic meaning. However, modern philosophies like Transhumanism postulate that humans are part of a larger evolutionary process of development of intelligence and consciousness in the Universe that will continue beyond the human stage. If intelligence, knowledge and consciousness have a fundamental value, then human existence has value not just by itself, but because it is a manifestation of those values.


Putting our life in the context of an external source of meaning contributes to our happiness by giving a bigger dimension to our being.


Or, at least, that’s the way I feel.


Can changing our consciousness lead to happiness?

There is yet another way to find happiness, with roots in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and in the psychedelic movement of the 60s. The basic idea is that a change in how the human mind works - a change in consciousness - is necessary to achieve profound and lasting happiness that is not dependent on external conditions and would allow us to face death.


The idea of Samadhi in Hinduism and of Nirvana in Buddhism are normally understood as supernatural phenomena. However, some thinkers like Stephen Batchelor propose a secular view in which Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. Together with author Aldous Huxley, he thinks that Nirvana is not a supernatural phenomenon, but a transformation of the human mind that can be achieved through meditation, yoga and other disciplines. The psychedelic movement proposes that such a state is the same as the one achieved by taking drugs like LSD, mescaline or psilocybin.


In my experience, mystical states are real and can change substantially our outlook on life, increasing our self-understanding and our happiness. Such experiences are accompanied by a special kind of joy - ecstasy - that improves our baseline emotional state. Meditation can also transform ourselves by helping us understand our life and manage our emotions.


Conclusions

  • Happiness is not a given. Finding it takes work.

  • The pleasures of life, joy and love are important for happiness. They should not be rejected out of a prudishness inherited from past religious repression. But we should also avoid falling into attachment and craving.

  • Living and ethical and wise life is another key ingredient for happiness. However, an important part of our wisdom should consist is not falling into the Trap of the Ego.

  • At least for some of us, an external source of meaning is an important part of living a happy life.

  • Meditation and other spiritual practices can substantially contribute to our happiness by leading us to self-knowledge, self-transformation and emotional control.

Copyright 2022 Hermes Solenzol.

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