What is happiness?

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Being happy, the number one goal of human beings. We live our entire lives on the quest for happiness, behaving by default in only two modes. Experience after experience we are either clinging to moments, never wanting them to fade, or whining around about how unfair life is to us, wondering when we will be finally happy. Do you relate?

Well, I can tell you already right now: being happy 100% of your time in life is not realistic! "Why?" you ask.

To begin with, let’s understand why is it that we are constantly searching for happiness. Our human brain is divided into three main parts which work together: the reptilian, the limbic and the neocortex brain. The limbic brain records our memories and experiences, being responsible for our emotions. It is considered the seat of the values and judgments that we create, often unconsciously, and end up affecting our behaviours.

The neocortex, on the other hand, is responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. It has almost infinite learning abilities and it is, with no surprise, which enabled us to develop different cultures.

Last but not least, we have the reptilian or primal brain, the oldest of the three. This brain controls our body vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature. It is an innate and very reliable structure when we are talking about self-preservation or, in other words, survival. This brain part is what asks us to avoid pain at all costs, and because of that, can be quite rigid and compulsive.

Right, but what does this has to deal with happiness? From my point of view, most of us are used to perceive and react to things in life with our reptilian brain, even though we are not necessarily in danger. For a big portion of the population, although unfortunately not everyone, we do not have to fight for our lives every day.

We live in houses or apartments, we have jobs that provide income, we have secured meals every day. There is no big danger out there that we can foresee, only the normal inevitabilities of life. And I dare to say: this is precisely the portion of the population searching for happiness while living in deep sadness without understanding why. Does this mean we are spoiled? Well, not really.

Although our worries in life have changed, we are still accustomed to responding with our reptilian brain. It is reliable, it is fast, it is easy. And this is much more of a reaction, rather than a proper response because it is not thought, it is instinctive.

We substituted the life-threatening events with work stress, information overload, everyday small life challenges, and these are constantly triggering our reptilian brain, which reacts with body misalignment, diseases, more stress, anger, depression. It is a full cycle, and we would do anything not to feel like that. So we welcome any fast reward that can either bring us “happiness”, meaning body immediate pleasure or numbness and relief. To quote a few: alcohol, drugs, sex, status, titles, likes, followers, and so on. We want to constantly feel the happiness rush and therefore, whenever we are not doing anything pleasurable we are unhappy.

I know we are halfway through this blog post, but let me say that first and foremost, we need to make a crucial distinction here: striving for a happy life is one thing (and it’s possible), but aiming at being happy all the time is simply not possible. And more than that, forcing ourselves to be constantly happy could have some serious emotional consequences. And this is because happiness is simply not the appropriate response to every situation in our lives.

Are you confused? Imagine this situation: somebody you love very much died. You feel sad, heartbroken, but at the same time feel the pressure to look at the positive side and be happy for the other people around you. You hide your pain. And here’s the thing: by desperately trying to be happy all the time, we are swiping our feelings and emotions under the carpet and not properly coping with those hurtful situations. 

That’s why it’s important to distinguish that having a positive approach in life, is different from being happy all the time. The extremist positivity movement has also a negative aspect to it: the non-acceptance and complete alienation from our own feelings. Even in a group of friends, we feel afraid of showing what is making us sad with the fear of sounding “too negative”. We are pressured to be happy. 

But we live in a world of duality. This means that, without the bad things, we would not be able to appreciate the good ones. I know it’s cliché, but we struggle to understand this and precisely because of that, the obvious needs to be repeated over and over again.

If we search for the answer of in Philosophical theories, we will find that there are two paths of this quest for happiness: The hedonistic and the eudaemonic.

Hedonists believe that in order to live a happy life we must search for pleasure and avoid pain at all costs. In other words, respond (or react) to life with our reptilian brain. Many external mechanisms such as advertisement and marketing, play at this level, without us even noticing. And as said before, the reptilian brain likes fast and short responses to solve a situation.

The eudaimonic approach, on the other hand, believes that the path towards happiness is to live authentically and pursue a greater purpose. Particularly, it praises the pursuit of meaning through kindness, justice, and courage.

By living in a hedonistic way, we will keep seeking for external things that will bring us immediate pleasure and give us constant happiness. We will run after things that are not necessarily our goals, and hide behind titles, status, money, while avoiding looking at the painful feelings and work through inner stuff.

But if we take the eudaimonic path, we will use our strengths to contribute to something greater than ourselves. We will not dismiss unpleasant experiences, emotions and feelings, and that will lead us to a much deeper level of contentment and peace. It is a longer path, for sure, and that’s why it is seldom chosen. In the eudaimonic way of being, living a happy life is not about avoiding the hard times, but being able to respond to adversity in a way that allows you to grow.

How, then, can we strive for happiness without attachment?

Well, there are some very concrete ways. And I will tell you all about them in this blog post. Meanwhile, tell me: what does happiness mean to you?

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