Researchers at the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis used unobtrusive recording devices to track the conversations of 79 undergraduate students over the course of four days. They then counted the conversations and determined how many were superficial versus substantive, based on whether the information exchanged was banal (“What do you have there? Pop corn?”) or meaningful (“She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”). They also assessed subjects’ overall well-being by having them fill out question naires and by asking their friends to report on how happy and content with life they seemed.
What is happiness?
To start, most people would reference well-being and contentment. For something so vague, “well-being” and “contentment” are adequate, so let us build upon this.
In valuing our state of being, there are two extremes: In [Definition 1], we define intrinsic targets (e.g. certain levels of intimate relations, social interactions, influence and material wealth) and judge ourselves to be happy when we meet them. In [Definition 2], we survey the lives of our peers, and bind our happiness to how much better off we are.
Quite clearly, the latter definition is unfavorable—if we take being happy as being above the mean (of human existence), then a great deal of people will never achieve consistent happiness. I would argue that the majority of us judge our lives against those of others. It is simply the easier route—who wants to spend time determining some arbitrary standard, and will themselves to be “happy” when they meet it?
What do we do then? For one, we can lower our expectations. If we were all content with the 25th percentile rather than the 50th, a fourth of the world would be happier (as is quite obvious). When we shift that down to the 0th percentile, Definitions 1 and 2 begin to merge, in that happiness now becomes independent of all environmental factors (i.e. autonomous).
However, it is not reasonable to believe that we can live as islands. Instead, in drifting to Definition 1, we can choose moderation in all ways (I am quite partial to the Epicurean conception of ataraxia) and choose to be happy.
This is my definition:
Having satiated the physical, happiness is a state of mind to be seized.
To borrow from Freud, are we here because we want to live? Or are we here because we are afraid of dying? It’s always going to be a mixture of the two, but which one dominates?
Recall the famous words of Socrates:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
To build off that, I think it important that we understand why we do the things we do, so that we can extract maximum benefit from our brief lives.
What matters to us: wealth, influence, romance, charity? They all do, but only so far as they contribute to our happiness. (Here, I define happiness loosely, to contain states like contentment, and being able to live with yourself. We’ll be more strict with this in the next post.)
Case in point: Money doesn’t buy happiness; no, money buys goods and services. The consumption of goods and services, be it by yourself, by others, or together with others, affects us in different ways. It may directly lead to happiness, or to situations with potential for creating happiness, or not affect your happiness quotient in any way.
Unless we fully understand what makes us happy, we cannot be consistently happy. And despite how happiness is ultimately a personal matter, I believe it possible for all of us to be consistently happy. To be honest, I’m currently clueless as to how this could/should be done, but I plan on finding out.
I hope you’ll stick around to see it with me.