Unquestionably, the perception of happiness is unique to each one of us who experiences it. I could like the ice cream you don’t; and you enjoy the sport I would not spare time for. Yet, there are common threads that interlace this blanket of comfort; which we all want to cuddle up in. We all want to be happy.
So, what exactly is happiness?
Innately, happiness is equated with fulfilment of our basic needs. When we were very little, all we needed in order to feel happy was food, warmth, shelter, and a feeling of being cared for. As we grew, our needs expanded and so did our conditions for happiness. The same toy car or football or doll did not make us happy. We wanted more. We changed our happiness definition, and so different things were increasingly needed to keep us happy. But we noticed that in time, our little cup of happiness that would fill up so quickly initially, now appears to always face a shortfall. Or be in deficit. We dug a hole at the bottom of our cup and no matter how hard we try we are unable to feel happy.
Some researchers define happiness as a feeling of gratification, which comes from the ability at finding purpose in existence. Others insist that happy people are wired differently in their genes — they just know how to feel positive emotions, fight negative feelings and see the brighter side of life.
“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness, and just be happy.”
– Guillaume Apollinaire
Do we choose unhappiness?
While on one side we persistently seek happiness, the human brain also has this corrupt tendency to lodge itself on negative experiences. We tend to ruminate about everything troubling us in our lives and focus on all that can go wrong. We assume that the exam will be difficult or the selection committee will be partial in the debate; that the new friend group will mock us. We imagine the worst. And worse so, we believe it’s the truth! On an evolutionary perspective, slight paranoia is essential for self-protection. We anticipate the negative because we want to be prepared — to not be hurt.
The truth is — when we trust easily, we’re happier people, but we also worry about being conned. Also, on a very practical standpoint, if we believe that happiness is a butterfly, it means it is fleeting, and won’t last. So we ourselves let it go before it escapes from our fingers. Without knowing it, we become cynical, distrustful and pessimistic. And even though we try and try, somehow, we don’t succeed at feeling happy.
Is there a standard recipe for happiness? To assure that we feel happy at all times?
Can happiness be learned?
Humans, like all animals, learn from experience. Imagine this scenario.
- You put your mind to doing something.
- You do it, and realise you like doing this.
- The happiness chemical gets released.
- Your brain says, ‘Hey! Let’s do it again!’.
- Your brain gets trained to feel happy.
- You have learned how to be happy!
This is how, for some, happiness comes from being with animals, while for others it’s sourced in music. To many, exercise is taxing but to the gymnast it is bliss. We each know to go back to our happy space whenever we want. And our brain secretes dopamine right then to keep us joyful. In other words, some of us have a personal recipe for happiness and we can cook it up just anytime. Why can’t all of us learn the recipe?
Do we take happiness for granted?
We get too used to things too soon. We crave for things, and once we’ve acquired them, we don’t find them exciting anymore. This is a drawback of the autopilot mode of existence. We believe that achieving a certain number of marks or friends or awards will thrill us, but we get bored of it.
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
You may or may not have noticed that:
- You can’t enjoy a favourite food three days in a row.
- The initial months of friendship feel like more fun.
- Old jokes are not funny; they’re in fact so boring.
- We want to learn, but studies seem like a chore.
Our needs, demands and desires are going to change. And we will need an all-new recipe for happiness to feel the same. By deliberately practising new attitudes and behaviours, we can change the dopamine source and find new bliss every day.
To see the world as red, wear red glasses
The brain likes novelty. But everything material gets old, worn out or old-fashioned. Positive thoughts, ideas, attitudes and viewpoints, however, keep happiness alive. Things don’t always change because they change. They appear different because of how we see them. Research suggests that genetics and your life experiences have just about 40% impact on happiness. The remainder 60% is really your vision and perception of your own existence. If our happiness controls are set on the inside, we hold the power to regulate it. And we choose how to make positive meaning of our life’s experiences. Painting the town red is hard, but if you wore red-tinted glasses your world would become red in a blink.