Ah, the luminous champagne of human happiness. So effervescent, so uplifting, so giggly-joyous. Whoopee!
But alas, those bubbles can float away, the glass drains, the morning arrives, and – oh, geez – do I have a headache?
You know it’s true because you’ve felt it: happiness inevitably waxes and wanes. No person sings a happy song all the time unless they’re gobbling advanced pharmaceuticals.
But why is consistent happiness so elusive? Why don’t the gods smile down on us always and without hesitation?
The reasons are numerous, but chief among them is that we wouldn’t appreciate it even if they did. We humans are built with an insatiable want. We want, and we get – and we want more. The little child inside us never dies. That new toy? Thrilling! Now we want – we need – a bigger toy!
Meet the concept of hedonic adaption, which means we adapt to things, happy or sad, then feel them less deeply. Our mood tends to bump around a midpoint. It’s a wonderful survival mechanism – it provides stability – but it puts a ceiling on giddy joy.
The result is that over time we have limited appreciation of our good fortune. That beat-up old house or that beat-up old relationship – it’s not always valued in the properly rosy hue. Alas, they sit reliably on our list of Things We Already Have.
So we sail along, blithely unaware of our splendiferous bounty. Even those of us who sit squarely in the sun – with their health, a few bucks, people who love them – often don’t feel it. Instead, you’ll hear them kvetch: we’re struggling, we’re stressed, the level of bullshit is rising.
And those complaints can’t be dismissed. The level of bullshit is rising, faster than the sea water around Florida. Even the lucky have real challenges. Stress and loss and change, not to mention the semi-insanity of life circa 2020’s.
Dude, it’s a bummer: to be human is to feel both pain and pleasure. It’s how we’re built. No one gets out of here alive. You’re hoping for a life of ease and comfort and sweet twinkly music? Fuggedaboutit.
Gratuitous photo of champagne, which adds nothing to the article. But isn’t it pretty?
The Secret to (Partial) Happiness
Given that happiness is such a fickle pickle, what’s an optimist to do?
Plenty of research indicates that altruism – helping others, compassionate acts – supports happiness. A 2005 study by the National Institutes of Health found: “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate…”
We get a buzzy sense of satisfaction from helping others. Paradoxically, focusing on others helps us feel better about ourself.
In a 2017 study in Nature Communications, researchers performed a brain scan on two groups of participants. One group promised to spend money on others; the other pledged to spend on themselves. A brain scan of both groups found correlation between “commitment-induced generosity with happiness.”
Why does altruism make us feel good? Perhaps because helping others boosts our self esteem. We feel larger than ourselves. Altruism’s transcendence of self-interest offers relief from the dialogue of our petty ego.
Hopefully, contributing to something larger than ourselves creates that magical thing called meaning. Meaning provides satisfaction that withstands the vicissitudes of life. Happiness relies on mood, which flutters around willy-nilly; meaning lives deep beneath the daily waves.
So here’s a possibility: if you want to be happy, forget happiness – instead, pursue meaning. At the least, you’ll likely have contributed something to others.
But Let’s Not Indulge in Happy Talk
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Help others and improve your own well-being. Yet as always with the mercurial phantom of human happiness, it’s not that simple.
Research suggests that altruism has its limits. The 2005 study cited above states that helping others boosts well-being “so long as [people] are not overwhelmed by helping tasks.” While some giving creates a happy glow, maximum giving doesn’t create Nirvana – just the opposite.
Also sobering, research published in 2020 by the National Academy of Sciences studied the value of “prosocial behavior,” which is research-speak for altruistic action.
In the study, college students chose between two lotteries. Choosing the first lottery meant they likely received 100 euros. Choosing the second meant they would receive no money, but 350 euros would possibly be donated to save a tuberculosis patient. (The lotteries actually existed, and donated a major sum to fight tuberculosis.)
About 60 percent of the students chose the option that donated to the nonprofit. As expected, they felt a positive effect, “but only for the very short run,” the study noted. “One month later, the effect reversed, and prosocial behavior led to significantly lower happiness than obtaining the money.”
Oh, so being selfless doesn’t lead to a permanent glow of happiness?
The study’s authors acknowledge that a legacy of research “forcefully argues for a positive association between prosocial behavior and happiness.” But their study suggests otherwise. “In practice, resources not spent prosocially can be spent on an alternative purpose from which people may derive happiness on its own.”
So altruism has deep value, yet like everything that sparks happiness, it’s imperfect, variable, time-limited. Damn.
What’s Happier Than Altruism?
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the double dip chocolate fudge sundae of happiness research. Launched in 1938, it studies the factors that create a happy life. Researchers tracked men’s lives over decades, interviewing them about the ups and downs in their marriages and careers, and recording medical records. The study later expanded to include the wives of the men.
The study’s data supports something we intuitively understand: the state of our relationships play a crucial role in our health and well-being. More than career or financial gain, strong relationships are the foundation of a happy life.
The director of the study, Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
In a popular TED Talk, he noted that it wasn’t the participants’ cholesterol levels at mid-life that predicted their health later in life. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
It’s a wonderfully encouraging thought: we can nurture our relationships and so enjoy elevated happiness. Knowing that, who doesn’t want to share a sugar donut with a friend or loved one this very moment?
Oh Goodness, Did Someone Ask Jean-Paul Sartre about Happiness?
At the risk of popping all our party balloons, here’s a reminder of something else you already know: relationships aren’t always easy. More authentically: at times, relationships can be brutal.
Brother, mother, father, sister, friend, husband, wife, next door neighbor – are any of these constant shimmering joy?
A character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit coined the infamous dark aphorism: “hell is other people.” An extreme attitude, but haven’t you felt it? Sartre, in fact, didn’t mean that relationships are always poisoned, but that we’re subject to the opinions of others, which is agonizing. In any case, his pithy line from a 1944 play has resonated across time for a reason.
But let’s try and keep our optimism alive. Let’s push back against the chilly “hell is other people.” Or at the least, let’s reconcile Sartre’s shadows with the Harvard Study’s sunny-side-up belief in social bonds.
How about this theory: perhaps the challenges of relationships are actually a positive? The unavoidable stresses and strains of bonds are what give them their presence, their grit, their realness. Relationships are (sometimes) work, but after we slog through them, we’ve grown, and this growth is the true golden harvest – for all sides, ideally.
Would relationships be so nourishing if they were simply an anodyne exchange of endearments and support? Not likely. (But hey that does sound pretty nice – too bad it’s not real!)
Still, we have to acknowledge that even the greatest source of happiness, relationships, has its limits. Harvard’s Waldinger offered something of a consolation prize. “Nobody is happy all the time,” he said. “That’s important to know because we can end up believing that if we’re not happy all the time, we’re doing something wrong. Every life is filled with challenge and hard times. This idea about strengthening relationships is a way to increase our happiness, but also to build a safety net that helps us weather those hard times that all of us have in our lives.”
Finding Happiness: Our Two Choices
For those of us who remain dogged optimists, those earnest souls who believe that happiness must be possible, what are we to do?
I’d say we have two choices:
First, we can do what we humans have always done: yearn for happiness, pursue it with a naive belief, and endure the inevitable waxing and waning.
Or alternately, we play the low expectations game. Throttle back the dreams of joy. Accept the gray grind as the invariable state of things. Then with bargain basement expectations, any modest dab of sunlight feels like heart-rending bliss. Oh gratitude! Oh loveliest of welcome gifts!
But c’mon, is this a realistic strategy? To expect no more happiness than inmates in a Russian gulag? To never again reach for a glass of champagne – just lukewarm herb tea for us, thank you very much.
Nope, forget it. In my view, our best option is still the first one: to hang on to our beleaguered hopes in the face of all evidence.
After all, isn’t hoping for happiness part of what lifts us up? It’s sheer hope that sends us zombie-walking in search of that elusive sunshine of joy. We humans are inherently hopers and dreamers – it’s how we’ve been built from time immemorial.
We dream of a higher place, of ease and comfort, of elaborate flying machines that soar above earthly obstacles. We dream of days spent in a small Italian village where the light, soft yet crisp, feels like a timeless caress. Oh, waiter? Another chianti, per favore.
Mostly, we dream – if we’re healthy – of loving and being loved. Yup, we know in our bones this is bliss. It’s what makes live worth living.
It’s quite possible that not all our dreams will come true. But let’s not think about that. Let’s keep hoping. Hope gives us psychic fuel, drive us onward, if not upward. Maybe hope – even misguided hope – is itself the closest we’ll ever get to sustained happiness.
So damnit, let’s keep dreaming. I’ll believe in your flying machine if you believe in mine. Who knows what’s possible?
In the meantime, I wish there was a clearer answer – some pill, a potion, something to buy from a loud man on the Internet. But…no. It turns out we’re big boys and girls and we have to find our own way home. It’s dark out there and the scary monsters aren’t just figments of our imagination. We do what we can, and sometimes we succeed.