That Strange Stuff Called Happiness
You would think that something universal would be fairly easy to explain.
For as long as human beings have been keeping track of things, we’ve been keeping track of the basic human quest for happiness. At least as far back as Aristotle there have been attempts to define it, and Aristotle’s own definition is still largely acknowledged as being on the right track by modern neuroscience. By his reckoning, happiness consists of two important ingredients: pleasure and meaning.
Actually, he called them hedonia and eudaimonia, but those are hard to spell.
The important thing is that in order to be happy, one must experience both personal pleasure and a sense of connectedness to something greater – a sense that it’s all for something. And you don’t have to take an ancient philosopher’s word for it: psychology and neuroscience have repeatedly confirmed that both components really are necessary.
So why is it, after all these thousands of years of talking about it, that human beings are so famously terrible at understanding how to be happy? If there are only two ingredients, why can’t we seem to perfect the recipe?
As it turns out, human beings have certain obstacles to happiness actually hardwired into their brains. Both of these obstacles are actually good things, but because they exist we have trouble maintaining happiness. It may even be true that the universal struggle for happiness is, in fact, the uniquely human metaphor for precisely what life is in the first place.
The first obstacle is simply adaptation. More specifically, in the context of happiness, there’s a mechanism called “hedonic adaptation” by which we slowly grow acclimated to the things that bring us pleasure until they no longer bring us pleasure. You might think, for example, that chocolate ice cream is the most pleasurable experience in all of humanity’s known endeavors, but try eating chocolate ice cream every day for the rest of your life. You will change your mind. Neuroscience says so.
The second obstacle is more nuanced, but no less scientifically valid. We are literally wired to want to be helpful. We experience real and measurable positive hormonal changes whenever we help someone else – including animals – and those positive feelings are known to be synonymous with Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or our sense of “a life well lived.” We’re social animals, and we derive meaning from our connectedness to the bigger picture.
These are not merely some abstract philosophical poetry, but quantifiable physiological phenomena. If you want to be happy, you absolutely must find both personal pleasure and social meaning in your life, and going for too long without one or both of these components will cause you to be unhappy. It has been demonstrated through experiment that damage to the part of your brain that processes pleasure will result in the inability to be happy. In the same way, psychology has shown many times that social isolation or depression lead to unhappiness as well. You simply can’t go without either piece of the puzzle.
If you’ve ever struggled to be happy, you’re well aware that it’s not an easy thing to overcome. Sometimes you just don’t know what’s wrong. But there’s good news to be found in what we know about human happiness. If you aren’t happy, we can narrow it down to two likely culprits.
Because of hedonic adaptation, you may just need a change. When your favorite hobbies aren’t doing it for you anymore it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost your love for them; it means you’ve probably adapted.
The solution could be as simple as doing the same thing somewhere else. Your chocolate ice cream, for example, might taste good again if you go to the park and eat it at the picnic table. You might not think there’s any reason for something so minor to work miracles, but you’d be surprised. Break out of your routine and watch the magic happen. No matter how silly it seems, trust me: it’s science.
Another possible solution is to try something new, or something that you haven’t done for a while. We have a tendency to believe that something we were tired of last month can’t possibly be amusing today, but absence often makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. Take a break from your current favorite activity and go back to something you put aside. Or step even further out of the box and try something new that you’ve always wanted to try.
Hedonic adaptation means that you must mindfully put forth the effort to keep things from getting stale. It’s important to take your own pleasure seriously enough to make that effort. Many of us forget this and fall into a rut.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to think that looking for ways to bring pleasure back into your life is a selfish goal. The reality is not only is there no shame in trying to have fun, but it’s actually a necessary ingredient of your happiness.
On the other hand, you must balance personal pleasure with your equally real desire to be socially connected. Your brain demands it.
Sometimes unhappiness comes from isolation. Having friends is not a mere pleasantry – it’s an essential part of your satisfaction with life, no matter how independent you think you are. As surely as science knows that you’ll die if you don’t eat, it also knows that you’ll be unhappy if you spend too much time alone.
You don’t have to cry for help to feel connected, and you don’t have to feel like seeking connection is a cry for help. Sometimes we forget that, too. Stubbornness and pride can often lead us to exacerbate our unhappiness by refusing to appear weak or needy, when the truth is that a simple night out with some friends can make all the difference in how happy you feel, and that need is a very real and very universal one. You aren’t being weak when you want company – you’re being human.
It’s also true, thanks to hedonic adaptation, that going out to the same places with the same people over and over again won’t necessarily work. Although it’s easy to feel guilty about wanting to be around new people when you have wonderful friends and family around you, sometimes your social life, too, needs variety to keep it fresh and meaningful. No one should ever fault you for that: it’s neuroscience.
Social connectedness comes from feeling useful and included. Remember, we’re programmed to want to help others. Getting to know someone new feels great primarily because we get to feel useful and interesting to them. Even brief encounters are significant to your happiness. Try holding the door for a random stranger. Offer to help someone find something in a department store. If you hear a stranger ask a question and you know the answer, answer them. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to be generous.
For all the difficulty in perfectly defining happiness, it’s not as puzzling in practice as it seems in theory. When you struggle, remember: pleasure and meaning. Whichever you’re lacking, both are easy to resolve, and if you aren’t happy it’s only one of those two things that you’re lacking. Take a break from your routine and climb out of that rut.
Maybe all you need is some vanilla ice cream.