happiness

The Happiness Hypothesis

The earth is comprised of right around 7 billion people. We all come from different backgrounds whether they are racial, religious, socio-economic; the list goes on. The one common denominator between all of us is this: we want to be happy.

Psychologist Sigmund Freud was once asked what the purpose of life is. I’m paraphrasing here but he said something along the lines of “As to the question of the purpose to life I cannot give you a definitive answer, but what I can do is take a look at the behavior of humans to try to determine what motivates them.” What he came up with is that human beings constantly strive to move towards more intense states of pleasure and to move away from pain. There is not a human being who doesn’t fit this description in my opinion. Regardless of background I can assume that all of us are searching for happiness. The main problem, however, is that most of us are using the wrong mechanisms to find happiness, as is apparent everywhere you go. There are many people who, if they were being truthful with you, feel as if life isn’t panning out the way that it should for them. Why are so many of us missing that certain “something” in our lives? Why do we grow up to be someone completely unrecognizable to the person we thought we would grow up to be when we were younger?

I’ve read and heard the concept that at the age of 14 is when we really had a clear idea of who we wanted to be. Our brains were operating at a high cognitive level and our minds were unimpeded by the stress most of us feel as adults. According to this idea, if you think back to what you wanted to be at the age of 14, that’s what your “destiny” truly is. The validity of this isn’t proven but it’s interesting to ponder. What did you want to be at the age of 14? You were probably just beginning to really learn about the different types of careers out there and you probably envisioned your self to be quite the success. Lets look at your life now; Are you the person you thought you would end up to be? Does your body match up to the images you had of yourself as a teenager? How about your bank account?

The good news is, as long as your alive there’s an opportunity to change things. It may sound cliché but I truly believe you are never stuck in a situation unless you say you are. I think the first thing to do is to figure out whether or not you are going in the right direction. You can be climbing up the ladder, but if it’s leaning against the wrong wall then it will do you no good. Yes, you can even be filthy rich and be miserable. The idea of climbing up the economic ladder to just to climb it is the main reason I think a lot of people get into trouble. Doing something you don’t like just for money to spend in your free time is an equation that leads to unhappiness. I will continue to stress that in one way or another in everything I write.

The book that inspired me to write this article is called “The Happiness Hypothesis” and was written by positive psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt. This book has some amazing insights into what makes us happy and provided me with some ideas that I have found helpful in my own life and I am going to share them with you now so that they will hopefully be beneficial to you.

The main theme of the book is that the main reason that most of us are unhappy comes from the idea that we have one unified brain. Stay with me here. Our problem is that we see everything good or bad in our lives as all coming from the same source, and Dr. Haidt says that this is not true. What he describes is a battle between what I will just refer to as “old brain” and the “new brain”. The old brain is made up of the urges and drives that are rooted in our genetics from past generations. The new brain is the modern day rational thinking brain that uses logic to solve problems. Let me use an example to illustrate:

We all know logically that eating candy and junk food is bad for us, yet for some reason there are times where we cant help but to succumb to the temptation of snacking. According to this logic, you don’t have to beat yourself up about it because it’s technically not your fault. Your ancient ancestors lived in a time where food was very scarce, and the taste buds of your ancestors were made to crave sweet and salty foods, which were very rare at the time. The people who were able to eat these types of foods and store up as much fat as they could were the ones that survived, and these genes passed down from generation to generation. In a modern world these genetic frameworks are no longer necessary, but we still have them, hence why you eat M & M’s when you know darn well you shouldn’t. Here is a second example that I know many of us can relate to:

It seems that for many of us it is very difficult to save money. I read somewhere that the typical American saves around 2-3 dollars out of every $100 they make. Logically we know that saving money is the right thing to do, but the old brain takes over our spending habits. The old brain communicates signals from our ancestors that says, “ You could die tomorrow! Life is Short!” Our old brain doesn’t see the reason to save anything because today could be our last.

The last example that I will talk about deals with the cognitive bias that humans have towards negativity. Our brains are wired to find the negative in everything. Our ancestors used this as a survival mechanism. Lets say your great, great, great, great, great, great, great Grandfather was walking through the woods. He could be living a perfectly happy life in all aspects. Lets also say that he hears a rustle in the bushes that could possibly be a predatory animal. Even though 99 percent of his life was going perfectly well, if he ignored that 1 percent of negativity and ignored the rustle in the bushes, the result could be fatal.

So what are the tools that we can use to overcome our archaic brain? Dr. Haidt suggests three things:

  • Meditation – Dr. Haidt claims that there is sufficient scientific research that supports the benefits of meditation. I myself like to meditate at least once a day and I have found it very helpful. Eastern ideas have become more commonplace in Western culture and many people are converting to a more holistic approach to wellness. I suggest trying it if you haven’t, even if it’s just for 5 minutes, once a week, once a month, it works. I have seen a major shift in my entire attitude towards life and I have been meditating for about 3 months.
  • Cognitive therapy – Cognitive therapy is basically the process of logically talking through some of the feelings we have that may be irrational. I have no background in this but from what I gathered the basic premise is to ask logical questions that lead to a realization of what’s really going on. If you are trying to lose weight but feel that its just impossible, a cognitive therapist may ask questions like “Have other people in your position been able to lose weight?” “Is it really impossible to lose weight?” This process is supposed to bring a stabilizing effect to your emotional states. I’m going to try it on myself.
  • Prozac – I wouldn’t suggest taking pills unless you have first talked to a doctor, but according to Haidt, it literally can make you happy.

The book is very extensive and talks about a myriad of different subjects so I wont delve into all of them. I definitely think you should take the time to read the entire book; But the last two things I am going to talk about, that I felt were relevant to many of us, are work and love. I personally believe that if you get these two wrong, you are going to be in a great deal of pain in life in the long run. Lets first talk about work.

Human beings have an inner drive to achieve, and finding work that is aligned with our strengths is one way that can lead to a happy life. Many of us think we know what we are good at, and usually we are wrong. I would suggest taking a Myers-Briggs personality test, or taking the Strengths Finder 2.0 test created by the Gallup research company. We live in a society that promotes trying to fix our weaknesses in order to be successful, and I think it’s the wrong approach. I believe the best way to maximize your life is to build on the talents you already innately have and turn them into strengths, and then nurture these strengths into a flourishing career and lifestyle. The goal is to achieve what is called a “flow state”. A flow state is where you are engaged in something so challenging that it takes every part of your energy to accomplish, therefore making you “lose yourself” in the process. Another way this has been described as being in the zone. You have to find something that you look forward to doing everyday, something that makes you spring up out of bed. All too often I see the opposite. In some of my past articles it may seem like I am saying to completely abandon what you are doing completely to find your route to success. While sometimes I do believe that is necessary, it doesn’t always have to happen that way. Maybe the answer is moving to a different department that is more aligned with your talents. I do believe that going to a job everyday that you hate, or even dislike, is a disastrous situation that you need to remove yourself from as soon as possible. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face. Next lets talk about love.

From my readings of various authors who study happiness I’ve gathered this thought. No matter what you do in life, if you get the social aspect of it wrong, you’re toast. Finding the right partner, the right circle of friends, and strengthening family ties is a necessity to living a happy life. I think that’s something most of us would be able to agree on. The book says that we should be searching for what is called “companionate love”. Companionate love is built more on friendship as opposed to lust and passion. An interesting thought from the book is that Dr. Haidt claims that a passionate, romantic type of love may not always translate into companionate love. Hollywood and the media portray the passionate type of love as the one we should strive for, and the book claims that this may not be the correct route. It suggests that the foundation of a solid relationship and marriage is built on companionate love and flourishes with moments of passion and romance. I think this may hold true. The fires of passion will eventually burn away and you will be left with someone that you are supposed to be with for the rest of your life. It would probably be in your best interest to marry someone who has grown with you as a friend over a long period of time.

Wrapping things up, I am going to leave you with the idea that stood out most to me in this book. The idea is that “happiness comes from between”. What the author means by this is that happiness is not a goal you reach but something that results in the incremental progress one makes in their life. It’s the journey that matters more that the finish line. Focus on directional momentum, and make sure that your direction is accurate. Lets say you want to make more money; Don’t focus on making x amount of dollars by a certain time; Focus on having more money next year than you did the last. If you want to lose weight, focus on the process and not the end result. I’ve experienced this myself. Knowing that you have put the work in and watching your body change over time is a great feeling. No one thing is going to bring you happiness. Happiness is going to come from a multitude of factors that are integrated together to build a happy life. I refer back to what I call the four pillars of the good life: Wealth, Health, Love, And Fulfillment. Work day in and day out in simply being a better person than you were yesterday. Learn new things and go to bed a little wiser than when you woke up. Continue to strive and remember that it’s the striving that brings you happiness and not the end goal. Hopefully this was of some benefit to you and I was able to share some ideas that will help you find the good life.

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