Is the pursuit of happiness reasonable? What will we find in it? Can we gamify the experience we call life? If we cannot pursue happiness, what is the next best thing? Is it money, experience, wisdom, or something entirely different?
Happiness cannot be measured objectively. At least I do not know such studies. Instead, people can rate their own happiness and rate correlated criteria like stress, job satisfaction, and fear about the future. There are many questionnaires, and on average statistically, they can be reliable if many different people are asked. Politicians kind of want to live in a happy country. I guess we all do. I think that Finland, Denmark, and Switzerland are ranked very high this year.
Measuring personal happiness is even more subjective. A person can rate his own happiness score. The family and the closest friend also can provide some sort of evaluation. However, there is no way to make statistics reliable.
So we have a measurement issue. If on average people who meditate are happier, are they happier because of meditation, or alternatively happier people tend to meditate? The inference is not causality, especially if the underlying mechanism is not clear.
You probably traveled abroad. Where people appeared to be happy? Did it correspond to the happiness score statistics you can find online? Which information was more trustworthy?
Gamified by money
A simple way to gamify happiness is by measuring something which can be easily checked, like financial status. Happiness grows roughly linear with income up to some saturation point, and then as a logarithm of income. The measurements vary, but as a guideline in the top 10% of income doubling your income will make you 5% happier. For comparison, meditation will make you 10% happier.
Rich people can buy luxury products and great experiences. Their baseline comfort and happiness level are fixed, so they need more expensive experiences to get some sort of thrill. If we look at happiness vs income graphs over the years the situation is even more complex. From 1980 to 2004 the average use income rose steadily, but the happiness even declined a little. After 2004 the situation became worse, possibly due to large social disparities.
So gratifying happiness financially will eventually backfire. Productive employees usually are under huge stress, working a lot more, and yet getting slightly more income. Executives and investors may get a lot of money in a short time period, but the trend may revert.
Money is great to enable our search, but it is definitely not a reliable gamification criterion. Try to evaluate how much money do you really need for a comfortable existence. Do you really need to earn more? Which expenses can you cut?
Let us instead consider the skills directly influencing happiness. There are certain studies indicating the following skills:
- Meaningful relationships. It’s not the size of the network that matters, but how deep each person influences us and responds to us. Can include family, close friends, but also less close people with deep emotional connection.
- Acts of kindness. People who help others feel their life has some extra meaning. Helping the less fortunate also provides a positive perspective on everything we have.
- Exercise and physical wellbeing. Sports reduce depression and this is clinically proven.
- Flow. A blissful state of doing something very complex very well. Experiencing flow is one of the reasons we teach productivity. Often creativity is also closely connected with flow.
- Spiritual engagement and meaning. If there is no god, it makes sense to invent one. Spiritual experiences usually increase happiness.
- Strengths and virtues. Discovering the things we do best and doing those things can be satisfying. Being passionate about your work is certainly important.
- Positive mindset: optimism, mindfulness and gratitude. We can basically hypnotize ourselves into being happier or miserable. It is very easy to do that once we understand the mechanics of anchoring and diffusion.
All of the happiness skills above can be managed: learned, gamified, and optimized. These skills can be called stoic. Notice, the skills above do not include the pursuit of peak experience, money, or lack of pain and fear.
Happiness as a bliss
Our language is somewhat poor. There are many kinds of happiness, yet we can hardly differentiate between them. Living an overall happy life can be reformulated as a lack of depression. However, lack of pain and fear applies a different toolset, let us call it bliss. And experiencing peak moments may include yet another skillset. Both of these skillsets include sensory elements.
We should not ignore our senses. The senses always need new and fine inputs. We go to theaters to experience catharsis. Museums are a great place to see truly beautiful images. Do not turn your home into a museum as you will always want new things. Live music and dance performances generate some sort of a vibe that cannot be expressed in words. Regarding food, freshly baked bread with butter can be totally satisfying. Yet, a two stars Michelin restaurant is something mindblowing.
Of course, to experience a full range of senses we need to calibrate our senses. Fine cuisine will not work after a week of fasting and meditation, and it will also not work in case of a hangover. Something similar applies to rock music. If we live simple and productive lives and enjoy some refined experiences say once a week, they can be very satisfying.
Positive psychology is misleading
Love is more important than money. People who value money tend to be less happy than those who value love. They also are not necessarily richer. And consumerism is not sustainable. So we tend to believe in positive psychology as common sense. However, positive psychology is not scientifically sound. We should have heard about companies and countries implementing it and benefitting from unbelievable happiness. Yet this did not happen yet. Instead, we see a lot of hindsight justification.
Moreover, happy people are not necessarily the top achievers. There is some unsatisfiable hunger in the top achievers. No matter how much they have, they work very hard to get more. They love their activities, but they also love the achievements themselves. The most successful people I met are deeply unhappy, as they feel not worthy of what they have and they work very hard to be worthy. Yes, they are in the flow and optimistic and physically well, but not because they heard about positive psychology.
So for now, until further breakthroughs and paradigm shifts, positive psychology is used as a justification of the current situation. “I do not do enough physical activity, so I am miserable. OK, fine. Time to make more money. One day I will retire. Then I will afford happiness”.
You should definitely make happiness-related resolutions, and you should try to implement them. Only if you fail, do not blame your luck. Brace yourself and try again next year.
A lot of people are taking pills to be less irritable, less depressed, or not in pain. There is nothing wrong with a small dose of serotonin or dopamine modulator. However, these medications are addictive. Increasing dosage and more potent pills are dangerous and can have a lot of side effects. People who worry about vaccination, do not worry about taking pills with a frightening array of side effects simply to feel a bit better.
Natural substances are usually as dangerous as artificial, but significantly more expensive. Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are usually more addictive than pills your psychiatrist will subscribe. But do not let the dose go up.
By the way, there is no definite proof that psychiatric drugs can cure for example depression. They may make it more manageable, but also more chronic.
As a resolution, consider your bad habits. Maybe you can cut down on some of them?
Happiness may be genetic or acquired very early in development. No positive psychology or medication can change it. Even luck can have just a short-term effect.
Good luck is not happiness
Fortune and luck are very different things. We kind of hope that being lucky will make us happy. This happiness lasts a couple of days. Then we return to our homeostasis. However, some luck generates a long-term effect.
For example, if you are lucky enough to have a house with a gorgeous view, that view will keep you happier. Having a balcony or a garden to step outdoors whenever you want is quite nice. If you are lucky enough to have a healthy pet, the pet will make you happier.
Things that will probably make you miserable in long run include winning a lottery. Once I interviewed a person who won a Nobel prize. He said it was the worst day of his life. Before the prise, he used to be happy with his research, and after it, he had to say the same boring speeches in front of different gatherings of people he did not care about. All he wanted was to go back and research in the relative anonymity of his lab.
If you feel that others are more successful than you, maybe this is true. Their success does not make them happier. Probably they are more miserable than you are. So make a resolution to feel better about your current level of achievement. Enjoy the path, not the destination.
And do not dream of relocating to a happy country. Maybe your country will win the jackpot next year.