In search of happiness
I cajoled my spouse into taking me to a presentation with the catchy title “In Search of Happiness: Is there a secret to feeling content?” It was held at the University of British Columbia, my spouse’s former stomping ground. The event was offered to alumni and their guests.
It was also a topic I wanted to write on in my last column for Christian Courier because the one thing I know for sure is that most of us want to be happy. Some people believe North Americans are obsessed with happiness. My belief is that good things happen when people are happy. So why not appreciate what we can learn about this topic?
During the last few decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have taken up the challenge of scientifically studying what makes people happy. The first step in a study of happiness is to define it. One definition of happiness is “subjective well-being.” Happiness, according to this view, is something we feel inside ourselves, such as a sense of pleasure or joy.
In ancient times the Pleasure Theory was popular. It said that humans are motivated to behave in ways that maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Years ago, Hugh Hefner used the Pleasure Theory to justify the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Is this the ultimate key to human happiness?
Two kinds of happy
On the other hand, Harvard social psychologist William McDougall once wrote that people can be happy while in pain and unhappy while experiencing pleasure. To understand this we need to distinguish between two kinds of happy: feel-good and value-based.
Feel-good happiness is sensation-based pleasure. It comes and goes. It is temporary. Value-based happiness is a sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. It could represent a spiritual source of satisfaction, stemming from a deeper purpose and values. Most people of faith, including you and I, will appreciate this world-view category.
Malcolm X – a man I’ve written about before – illustrates both kinds of happiness. In the early years of his adult life, when racial discrimination denied him the opportunity to become a lawyer, he turned to a life of partying, drugs and sex. And while this may have been pleasurable, he was unhappy because his life was inconsistent with his values. When he finally embraced the teachings of Islam he led his followers toward social justice, married and had a family. He may have experienced less pleasure and more anxiety as a leader but he was happier because he lived according to his values.
Lots of research has been done during the last few decades in human biochemistry. Biologists and neuropsychologists believe that our mental and emotional world is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. They have discovered that the “happiness conditioning system” differs from person to person, as each individual develops his/her own “set points.” On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between levels six and ten, stabilizing with time at eight. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilizes at five. Such a person can remain unhappy even if he or she enjoys all kinds of support.
But biologists and neuropsychologists agree that while happiness can be determined by one’s biochemistry, psychological and sociological factors also have their place. And according to University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, we have 40 percent wiggle room to act and live intentionally!
Roko Belic, the director of the documentary Happy (2011) – a film definitely worth seeing – asked Ed Diener, a leading researcher on happiness in the world, if there is a single key to happiness, a secret happy ingredient that every happy person in the world possesses. He said the formula is different for everyone, but the one constant is good relationships. He said every happy person he’s studied in over three decades of research had someone to love and someone to be loved by.
Hmmm, it is a secret all right. It never came up at the UBC presentation. But it has the ring of truth nonetheless.