The search for happiness can be a life-long quest, but why? We’ve all experienced happiness so why do so many of us struggle to find it? Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places.
If happiness is something we are going to seek our entire lives then we better know exactly what it is. However, many people don’t and subsequently turn their backs on it time and time again. There are hundreds of definitions, but quite simply happiness is the sensation of feeling good; it can range from contentment to deep fulfilment. Now we know what happiness is, how can we find out what makes us happy?
The answer is uncovered by modern brain psychology, which enables researchers to objectively measure happiness. By attaching electrodes to the scalp, it is possible to measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain. This activity is monitored whilst someone is shown images designed to provoke emotions of happiness.
What has been found time and again is an association between the person reporting feelings of happiness and an increase in the electrical activity in the left front of the brain. The opposite is true of unhappiness; when feelings of unhappiness are reported the right front side of the brain saw more electrical activity. This shows the presence of a direct neuronal connection with our emotions, meaning that happiness can be objectively monitored and observed.
Now that we have a scientific method by which we can measure happiness, we have only to tackle the matter of what makes us happy. The complex truth is that a lot of things do. The ancient and philosophical belief is that true happiness comes from within and that attachments to the material world are ultimately meaningless in the quest for happiness. The other belief is that happiness is created and affected by our external circumstances. The probability is that both of these rather opposing positions are true and both contribute to happiness.
Although the happiness we gain from our external circumstances is perhaps superficial and often short lived, it is never the less, still happiness. One of the main things we believe will bring us happiness is money; the ability to pay off debts, live lavishly and provide for our family surely ensures happiness. But it’s not that simple. When it comes to money, our happiness is affected by two things; social comparisons (i.e. how much money the people around have compared to you) and habituation (i.e. the lifestyle you are used to getting). If your colleague gets a pay rise and still earn less than you then your happiness is not likely to be affected but if they get a pay rise and begin to earn more than you, then your happiness might decrease. This demonstrates why external circumstances cannot gaurentee long-term pleasure. So we look now, to within.
A Ted talk given by Matthieu Ricard, former biochemist turned Buddhist monk explains perfectly how our internal state can determine our happiness, or wellbeing. Ricard explains that most of us search for happiness ‘outside’; we believe that we can collect the perfect conditions to make happiness. This might illustrate why we have a constant desire to buy new things, things that we believe can create happiness, and they do, for a while. As Ricard shows we could be in a physical paradise, surrounded by all the external things we desire and still not be happy. This is ultimately because our control over the external world is temporary and extremely limited. So we need to focus on what we can control; our minds.
By using what Ricard calls ‘mind training’ we can nurture the inner conditions that will enable our happiness. We do this when we are experiencing a bad or negative emotion, like anger; by consciously focusing on the feeling we can learn to dissolve it. Over time the emotion will occur less and less, until eventually it will become only a fleeting feeling. This ability to fully embrace our positive state leads to true happiness.
Haidt, J (2006) The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.
Richard, L (2011) Happiness: Lessons from a new science. Penguin.