Two sneaky reasons that make it so hard to feel happy

I recall a certain Prof. T., a psychiatrist I worked with and whom I regard highly, recount how he very nearly left psychiatry soon after joining when the writers of the ye old DSM considered including happiness as a psychiatric condition, being the opposite of depression. How very understandable. Happiness is often touted as the purpose of life and the most important thing, the most important condition to fill: “Sure, so long as you’re happy“, as they say in Ireland. I am tempted to go on a rant how the goal-directed pursuit of happiness has made us unhappy, but I think everyone knows that anyway. My discussion with Terraustralis* revealed an interesting attitude:

Happiness isn’t necessarily the point, but it sure is a good survival strategy. It is easier to get through life when you can see the bright side.

It always seems like a barrier to entry and an annoying obfuscation when a person responds to a question by needing to define the terms of the question. However, as I get older, I find myself joining this school of question-dissection.

What is happiness and why do we need it?

I don’t plan to get too metaphysical here. All I want to say is that there are two things commonly discussed using this term:

  1. The concrete sensation of being happy, such as when

a loved one gets you exactly the present you wanted for Christmas, or

you get an acceptance letter from a purchaser, an employer, a journal, etc, or

you notice the colourful sunset and feel at peace, or

you notice that your coffee is particularly nice

or indeed, you think of examples of when you were happy and your brain isn’t that sure what is real and what is a memory.

2. The abstract greater, non-provoked satisfaction, fulfilment or harmony that represents the bottom line of your emotional climate.

I will discuss happiness (1), of the concrete variety – because I feel that the abstract happiness (2) is a product of concrete happiness (1). If concrete happiness (1) is the weather, abstract happiness (2) is the climate. Abstract happiness is probably more often a subject of rationalisation and by its nature, it is more difficult to get a grip on, so we’ll start small(er).

Happiness is a chemical reaction.

Then again, so is everything else.

However, happiness is very directly a chemical reaction, unlike let’s say someone’s well-considered political views. They too are a series of reactions, perhaps even facilitated by the dopamines and serotonins of this world, but they lack the binary nature of the sensation of happiness.

Sorry for dropping the tone, but is happiness that different from an orgasm? Most of us know not to expect that to last forever.

 

happiness depends on expectations biases and change
A full moon over Dublin Bay as seen from Dun Laoghaire East Pier. It reminds me of the time I spent abroad, where it was sunny and warm. Should that make me sad? Not at all: I am all the happier to be here.

Reason 1: Happiness only exists in response to a change

There is no happiness when there is no change, real or perceived. Lack of volatility takes away the opportunities to feel happy.

As Sigmud Freud put it:  “What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”

This is why learning makes us happy: we see progress (or change). Furthermore, we get to control the change to a large degree. This enhances the happiness. This is also why ambitious people tend to be happier (my observation, do you agree/disagree?) It is like they have the activation energy to take the first step to learn something, to start on something. It is the mildly philosophical who are depressed, but they haven’t thought of the South East Indian history. Or how to start a petrol station. Expanding one’s horizons always leads to happiness (it may not be pure, but it is net positive). Some may call it distraction – and that would explain why we love clicking on stupid links shared on social media**. On the bright side, however, it is a form of learning, seeing new opportunities and changing one’s understanding of the world. Happiness comes free with that.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has influenced me greatly. His economically-related theories, the ones that got him the Nobel prize, are of little interest to me. I am much more concerned of his background work on general psychology that led him to the conclusions he reached regarding our buying/selling decisions. His discussion of happiness is particularly interesting.

how anchoring bias affects happiness
You know the old song by Wham! called “Everything She Wants” where George Michael sings with much anguish: “Why do I do the things I do? I’d tell you if I knew”? Daniel Kahneman knows. Imagine if Machiavelli spoke like Pavlov, they guy with the dogs? This is it.

“For an example, take the following scenarios:

Today Jack and Jill each have a wealth of 5 million.

Yesterday, Jack had 1 million and Jill had 9 million.

Are they equally happy?

… Jack is elated and Jill despondent. Indeed, we know that Jack would be a great deal happier than Jill even if he had only 2 million today while she has 5… The happiness that Jack and Jill experience is determined by the recent change in their wealth, relative to the different states of wealth that define their reference points (1 million for Jack, 9 million for Jill). This reference dependence is ubiquitous in sensation and perception. The same sound will be experienced as very loud or quite faint, depending on whether it was preceded by a whisper or by a roar.”

According to Kahneman, there isn’t just one happiness because there isn’t just one self (the one that resides in our talkative default mode network). There is the experiencing self, a kind of present moment aware self, and the remembering self, including the ruminating sort we so dislike.

The remembering self will focus on the peak and the end of an experience, where the experiencing self, will be, well, experiencing every moment of it. Here is an example:

“People who recently married, or are expecting to marry in the near future, are likely to retrieve that fact when asked a general question about their life. Because marriage is almost always voluntary in the United States, almost everyone who is reminded of his or her recent or forthcoming marriage will be happy with the idea. Attention is the key to the puzzle.

what determines how happy you feel
People’s level of life satisfaction as a function of time surrounding their wedding. Source: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, page 398

The figure shows an unusually high level of life satisfaction that lasts two or three years around the event of marriage. However, if this apparent surge reflects the time course of a heuristic for answering the question, there is little we can learn from it about either happiness or about the process of adaptation to marriage. We cannot infer from it that a tide of raised happiness lasts for several years and gradually recedes. Even people who are happy to be reminded of their marriage when asked a question about their life are not necessarily happier the rest of the time. Unless they think happy thoughts about their marriage during much of their day, it will not directly influence their happiness. Even newlyweds who are lucky enough to enjoy a state of happy preoccupation with their love will eventually return to earth, and their experienced well-being will again depend, as it does for the rest of us, on the environment and activities of the present moment.”

how to feel happy all the time anchoring bias
An nice and heavy anchor is Dun Laoghaire harbour, Dublin

 

Reason 2: Happiness is tied to an anchor bias

What is anchor bias?

Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

For example:

“If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.”

My own tale is that the first “anchor” I’ve thrown was in 1990s Moscow.

I still pause nervously at the thought of the things I avoided. I was very shielded, yet the echo of the various brands of social unrest that surrounded me reached me enough to know I have to watch out. You know how your mother probably taught you to not speak to strangers and not get into a lift (elevator) with people you don’t know? Most of us use discretion with these rules and only put our guard up when something is tangibly “up”. I am used to using these rules verbatim. I still don’t speak to strangers unless I am in a crowded and well-lit place. I still move whenever someone sitting beside me is coughing a lot: you never know, it could be TB. Whenever I am in Moscow, to this day, I always have my guard up. It sounds sinister, but it’s not actually.

It is as if I am constantly anticipating that someone will try to swindle me in some minor way. In a queue, you well get skipped unless you’re paying attention. The florist will inevitably “accidentally” charge for a higher priced bouquet and reissue the invoice once questioned. The radiographer will forget to take the standing X-ray having taken the lying one unless you double check. It’s a mix of carelessness and minor fraud that arises from low wages in a cynically unequal society. This happens everywhere of course, but it is quite consistent in Moscow, or at least is was, in the very turbulent 1990s. You have to be very aware, prepared to stand up for yourself and presume the worst of people. I don’t enjoy being like that. Just to be clear, I don’t hate where I come from or have some sort of overly dramatic story. These are just observations.

Having this 1990s Moscow “anchor”, most places I go to remind me of the pages of a fairy tale book. I may be exaggerating a little, but that’s the crux of the emotion I feel every day. Every day someone is polite to me, I remember that it wouldn’t have been like that back in the proverbial old country.

Whenever things happen without me having to double check that everyone has done their job, I automatically get this wave of bliss, gratitude and a sense of that concrete happiness. It’s like drinking water after a 10 K run. It’s like escaping capture by an enemy.

Why? Because I am anchored to believe that things going smoothly isn’t the norm. Elaborating on Ray Dalio’s formula,

Happiness = reality – expectation (regarding a given event or change in circumstances).

The specific anchor I have is quite low down in the expectation ocean, so happiness is often a positive value. Does it mean I actually have low expectations and take sh*t from people? Somehow it doesn’t. It just makes it easier to be happy. The fact that this isn’t just some idea, but an actual anchor I have been fortunate enough to form makes me see everything though that filter. Biases aren’t always bad.

If I had been reading, not writing this, I would probably think: here goes, be grateful, bla bla, game your mind until you feel happy even though you shouldn’t really. It doesn’t feel like I am forcing this at all. It’s a lucky idiosyncrasy. Can it be extrapolated to other things? So that we can feel happy more effortlessly? Very soon an overzealous extrapolation approach turns into “there are children starving in <remote location>, so you have to value what you have”, which inevitably causes resentment and a feeling of pointless self-fraud over time.

The point is that looking back at our own anchors  and expectations (not those of deprived children in a less-developed country) can help to explain how happy or unhappy we feel.

Understanding that happiness is only achieved through change, it helps to think of our lives as a continuum of present moments rather than an efficient emotionless journey from A to B, where B is full of yummy dopamine***.  It is just another way to understand the context, gain perspective or whatever other fancy term you may want to use for all those things hidden in plain sight.

In short, happiness is fundamentally decided by:

  • presence of change (real or perceived)
  • expectations

It’s also affected by temperament (e.g. the weight one attaches to negative events) and genetics – and I will talk about this another day.

 * A gentleman who comments in English, but blogs in Polish here.

** Procrastination is an avoidance behaviour, but it does make us happy in a short term concrete way. I believe it makes us happy using the same mechanism as learning, though on balance, of course, it is a saboteur.

*** Actually, it is the anticipation of B that releases the dopamine.

34 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Well, at least the tip of the iceberg is being explored. ;o)

    Regarding “In short, happiness is fundamentally decided by: presence of change (real or perceived), expectations” I find this a bit limited.

    Much of my happiness is based upon perspective. As a college student of the 1960’s I often consider my own situation as compared to those in cultures which are more restrictive or less bountiful. I am very, very well-off compared to many other human beings, even though I expected to be much more economically secure at this stage in my life. Many times the expectations of my youth have proven to be things I did not attain, but other things, opportunities unanticipated, have become sources of my happiness.

    I often during any day take a moment or two to reflect on my good fortune. I have had two “failed” marriages but have had the incredible good luck to have run into the love of my life and have been happily engaged with her for almost 30 years. There is no guarantee one will encounter another who mate with them so perfectly. That is something I reflect on often. (I made a little pact with myself that when I reflected on my relationship with her, if I felt “love” specifically, I would voice it. I have never heard the complaint that I do not say “I love you” enough. That, apparently is a source of happiness for my partner.)

    Wonderful post on a huge subject. I hope you continue to post on this topic.

    Like

    1. Thanks Steve. That’s so sweet about your partner, congratulations.

      I use the word expectation meaning “idea of how things ought to be.” My view is that perspective is a form of expectation. When one sees things in perspective, one understands the spectrum of possibilities and how their reality fits into the spectrum. As I see it, it is the same as adjusting one’s expectations by appreciating how obnoxious it is to demand that things turn out it one very specific way.

      Like

  2. KM Huber says:

    “Understanding that happiness is only achieved through change, it helps to think of our lives as a continuum of present moments rather than an efficient emotionless journey from A to B, where B is full of yummy dopamine.” Could not agree more. Thought provoking post. Thank you.
    KM

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anony Mole says:

    Reading this post made me happy. Love the topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems to be a popular one! I will investigate into it more!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Anony Mole says:

        I recall a comment thread on a different post of yours where much was postulated on the topic of happiness.
        Your writing style and assembly of thoughts in this current post show and excellent grasp of the subject. All good stuff.
        While I read it I was reminded of the Monty Python “Meaning of Life” song… I think some of the lyrics go “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it.” But there are other lyrics that others would find more appealing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks! I love Monty Python, will need to refresh my memory

        Like

  4. vinodvv says:

    Never spent or did a long read in my life. After reading your post, I am able to connect to what I have been making these small “changes” in baby steps that make me happy. Thanks for technical explanation 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. GM Wallace says:

    As a reflection on a related topic: there appears to be a general cultural confusion of emotional state identity between “happiness” and “pleasure”. Happiness may be a result no less of chemically fortuitous conjunction than is the pleasure derived from sex, drugs, emotional stimulation, dependence-forming habits off all flavours, etc. Happiness has a more holistic, gestalt quality than does pleasure – the source of much addiction probably lies somewhere in this misattribution of identities. Pleasure is even more transient than happiness. Dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin rush is one thing, but I would be very interested in the other, and to me far more deeply compelling, state which happiness and the catharsis of Enlightenment in Buddhism represents. Have studies been conducted in the neurochemical states of mystics and monks ? Surely, this must have happened ? Personally, I would gladly substitute the low-level ambient joy of spiritual or meditative bliss over the discontinuous, episodic pleasure-rush of a normative, socialised pleasure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s interesting. That’s what I meant by happiness (2). I don’t think any studies have been done that asked this exact question. These monks do have a different relationship with the part of the brain that contains the “self”, figuratively speaking. How they feel happiness would be hard to measure.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. GM Wallace says:

    BTW, by “spiritual” I have in mind something almost entirely secular, if that is even intelligible as a concept. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jamason123 says:

      I believe it is intelligible but not quite common place yet, so it makes it difficult to bring a rational spirituality into secular forums.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. What a funny little video! Feels like it’s only telling a fraction of the story. Do you spend much time on Aeon?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Anony Mole says:

        I’m afraid I do… I’ve left a trail of some snarky, some reflective comments there. Sam Dresser is one of my heroes.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Anony Mole says:

        Oh, yes; Aeon, if that’s what you’re referring to, is a treasure.

        Like

      3. I must read more – and the guy you suggested. I’ve come across some fairly half-baked political theories on it before, so steered clear recently!

        Like

      4. Anony Mole says:

        Well, what is Word(pressed into oblivion) full of but half-baked nonsense (your site excluded of course!). Aeon leans way left, as does Medium (generally). But then so do most techie op/ed sites.

        Like

      5. Haha, well you got my drift there! I really like Taleb’s Medium and Brain Pickings can be nice and lyrical.

        Thank you for the complement. I believe I have a lot of baking ahead of me!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Anony Mole says:

        Well, keep the raisins out of your muffins. Walnuts are okay.

        Another one I subscribe to:
        https://www.hakaimagazine.com/

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Anony Mole says:

        Are you photogenic, or articulate enough to produce video clips of your topics? I have no idea how you derive your daily income, but youtube can be a considerable $ source and from what I’ve read, you’ve got something to say, not to mention quite a bit of it (it being such a broad field — psychology).

        Like

      8. Thanks for the kind comment. I have done some YT videos though in a lecture format. I think that if I try to monetise my musings, I probably won’t do it via YouTube. Are you a YouTuber?

        Like

      9. Anony Mole says:

        Bits and pieces for work. Easy to show how software works using a video. But no, not a YT’r. I do enjoy a number of channels though – sciency stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. I think a lot of people are excited about it because it’s not saturated. These people also claim that the blogosphere is saturated. That may be true, but good blogs are still so hard to find!

        Like

  7. Wonderful article, very inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Love your logo, did you get that made? 💕

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My brother helped me make it using an app called Logopit! It’s absolutely brilliant and I use it for a lot of my blog images and infographs.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Also this was such an excellent post. Loved reading it. x

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s