Sometimes it seems as if happiness and human beings just weren’t made for one another. Our ancestors probably found it difficult to be happy because of the sheer physical suffering and the tragedy that filled their lives.
Until very recent times, most adults had to watch some of their children die, and regularly mourned the deaths of other relatives and friends. They could only expect to live until 40 at the most themselves, and spent their short lives fighting against hunger and the elements, suffering from constant malnutrition, toothache and eye problems, as well as from a host of diseases which modern medicine has now eliminated. There was also a good chance that at some point their lives would be devastated by war, or raids by foreign invaders. Because of this our ancestors’ lives were ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, as Thomas Hobbes wrote.
For many people in the world life is still full of this kind of suffering, of course, but those of us who are lucky enough to live in the world’s richer countries have largely been freed from it. You might expect that, as a result, we would all live in a state of happiness. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Our lives simply seem to be filled with a different kind of suffering. Whereas our ancestors’ suffering was mostly physical, ours is psychological. Many of us seem to carry around a fundamental dissatisfaction and boredom which we try to escape from by treating ourselves to more and more material goods and more and more pleasures and entertainments, by immersing ourselves in distractions like television or our jobs, and by taking drugs. At the same time millions of us suffer from different kinds of psychological malaise – depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation – or else spend a large part of our lives oppressed by anxieties, worries and feelings of guilt or regret, and negative emotions like jealousy and bitterness. Or more generally, many of us feel a sense of being ‘let down’ by life. We strive for happiness but never seem to find it, and feel as if the world has somehow cheated us.
But why is happiness so difficult to find? Is it just a natural fact that the life is hard and full of suffering, so that there’s nothing we can do about it? Is it simply that, in the worlds of Dr. Johnson, ‘man is not born for happiness’?
I don’t believe this is true. In fact I believe the opposite: that happiness (or contentment) is human beings’ most natural state. The problem – simplistic though it may sound – is that we’ve lost our bearings, and have largely forgotten where true happiness is. It only seems so difficult to find because we’re looking for it in the wrong place.
Different Kinds of Happiness
In order to attain a clearer picture of where true happiness actually might lie, it’s perhaps useful to go through the normal ways in which we look for happiness in our lives. Generally speaking, in the modern world we think of happiness as something that comes to us from the outside. We generate it through doing certain things and having certain things. There are several different ways in which we try to do this, which I believe can be categorised as follows:
— Materialistic Happiness. This is the ‘happiness’ which buying and possessing material goods gives us. When we go shopping and buy a new dress, a new piece of furniture or a new car this presses a kind of instinctive ‘pleasure button’ inside us, so that we feel happy for a few hours or perhaps even a few days. And then there is the positive feeling which actually owning these goods after we’ve bought them. (There is also the feeling of status and importance which material goods give us, which crosses over into ‘ego-based happiness’ – see below.) Materialistic happiness appears to have its roots in our ancient past. We can probably trace it back to a time when our ancestors needed to acquire and possess goods to improve their chances of survival. To them this would have meant possessing livestock, food they could store through the winter, or goods they could exchange. This instinct for possession is still inside us, and gives us a feeling of pleasure when we satisfy it.
— Hedonistic Happiness. This is closely linked to materialistic happiness, since one of the attractions of money is that it can enable us to live hedonistically. We’re all instinctively programmed to find certain things pleasurable, such as food, drink, drugs, sex, and comfortable living conditions (e.g. a comfortable bed and furniture, soft, plush carpets, heating etc.). There are also many instinctive ‘thrills’ we get in certain situations, such as being surrounded by crowds of people and loud music and bright lights, driving, sailing or flying at high speeds, or being amongst pleasant climatic conditions. These are all ‘pleasure buttons’ which give us a ‘buzz’ of well-being when we press them. Some of the buttons have been purposely placed there by nature to make sure that we will survive and reproduce – e.g. food is pleasurable so that we’ll want to eat, and sex is pleasurable so that we’ll reproduce. Others are more accidental buttons caused by chemical changes inside us, such as when speed or danger give us an adrenaline rush or produce endorphins.
— Ego-Based Happiness. This is the happiness we’re chasing after when we try to ‘get on’ or ‘make it’ in the world. It makes us strive to become successful, powerful and famous, and to accumulate ‘status symbols’ like expensive cars, big houses and designer clothes (which is the connection with ‘materialistic happiness’ above). On the simplest level we experience ‘ego-based happiness’ when people compliment or praise us – when your boss tells you you’ve done a good job, for example, when your husband tells you you look beautiful, or if you’re an actor or musician and the audience applaud your performance. We don’t always need other people for this though – we can praise ourselves too, as we do when we ‘pat ourselves on the back’ after we’ve completed a challenge or achievement such as passing an exam, climbing a mountain or negotiating a higher wage. In all of these situations we feel a glow of ‘ego-based happiness’ and our self-esteem and confidence increase. And fame and power are so attractive to us because they give us an endless – even constant – supply of ego-based happiness. Famous people are effectively being praised and complimented continually, even when there are no sycophants around them to tell them how great they are – the glances of passers-by are always reminding them of how special they are. Similarly, powerful and successful people – though they may not be famous – are continually being told how special they are by the respectful way other people treat them, by seeing evidence of their power around them (e.g. the hundreds of workers they employ, the premises they own etc.).
— Ego-based happiness probably also has its roots in instinct. After all, as Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ shows, self-esteem is a basic human need, as instinctive as the need for food or shelter. When we are given ‘fixes’ of self-esteem this also, therefore, presses a ‘pleasure button’ inside us.
— These three kinds of happiness make up the basic ‘happiness paradigm’ of our culture. There are other kinds of happiness which we search for and regularly experience, but since these aren’t quite so important to this essay – and I don’t have unlimited space – I’ll deal with these more briefly.
— We also try to find happiness by changing our circumstances (which would probably be called circumstance-changing Happiness). This expresses itself in the constant desire which many of us to change our lives in some way. It’s connected to ‘materialistic happiness’, since it often manifests itself in a desire to become rich, but can be expressed in other ways: in the desire to change your appearance, for example, to move to a different house in a different area, or to get a better job.
— Event-based happiness is what we experience this when we undergo what psychologists call ‘positive life-events’ – in other words, when good things happen to us, such as marriage, the birth of children, passing an exam, getting a job etc. We usually associate it with major events such as these, but we often experience it on a smaller scale too – when you get a raise in salary, for instance, when the sports team you support wins a match, or when you meet a famous person or someone else you admire.
— Future-based happiness is the positive feeling we experience when we ‘look forward to’ things. Often, when the present circumstances of our lives aren’t so positive – when you’re having a boring day at the office, for example – future-based happiness is what keeps you going. You look forward to the meal you’re going to eat when you get home, the programmes you’re going to watch on TV this evening, or the party you’re going to at the weekend – and as a result your present situation seems more bearable.
— Need-Satisfaction Happiness is the happiness we experience when any of our fundamental needs are satisfied – the basic physical relief you feel when you eat when you’re hungry or when you go to home rest after a long day’s work; or the psychological relief you feel when you find a secure job after a long period of temping, or the emotional relief you experience when you find a romantic partner after being alone for a long time.
Some of us are more oriented around one particular type of happiness than another. People who live in a state of ‘need-deprivation’ – who are homeless, poor, or don’t have a romantic partner, for example – usually think of happiness purely in terms of satisfying their needs. A rich housewife who spends most of her time shopping is mainly oriented around ‘materialistic happiness’, while first year university students who spend their time socialising and drinking are probably mainly oriented around ‘hedonistic happiness’.
Most of us spread our search for happiness fairly evenly though. If you look closely at your own life, you’ll probably find that you experience (or at least look for) all of the different kinds of happiness we’ve looked at on a fairly regular basis. You might have ‘fixes’ of materialistic happiness when you buy new clothes or CDs, fixes of hedonistic happiness when you drink alcohol or go to a party, and fixes of ego-based happiness when you catch a member of the opposite staring at you across a bar or when your partner tells you that you’re a fantastic cook. You might experience need-satisfaction happiness when you have social contact after being isolated for a while; ‘event-based happiness’ when you hear that a friend is going to get married; and ‘future-based happiness’ when you think of the holiday you’ve book in a month. You might also look for happiness through changing your circumstances – by re-decorating your kitchen or having a new hairstyle, or by dreaming of moving to a country with a better climate or of winning the lottery.
The first three types of happiness (materialistic, hedonistic and ego-based) are undoubtedly the ones which are most important to us though. Many of us take it for granted that we can find happiness by pursuing the ‘American Dream’ of wealth and success, and think of life as a kind of competition to ‘get on’ and accumulate as much of them as possible. But whether these kinds of happiness actually can satisfy us – even the highest levels of wealth and success – is very debatable. In fact there are many studies by psychologists which suggest that this isn’t the case. Studies of pools and lottery winners, for example, show that their new found wealth has little effect on their level of happiness. After a short period of high level happiness they return the same ‘base level’ they experienced before. Surveys also show that America’s increasing wealth since the Second World War hasn’t been accompanied with increasing happiness. In 1946 38% of Americans said they were ‘very happy’. In the late 50s the figure had risen to 53%, but in the mid-70s it was down to 27%, and in the mid-80s it had risen again to 33%. Surveys of the levels of happiness in different countries also have some surprising results. As the psychologist Michael Argyle writes, they show that ‘International differences in happiness are very small, and almost unrelated to economic prosperity.’
We’ve all seen plenty of evidence for this too. We all know of pop stars, film stars and other celebrities whose massive wealth and success doesn’t seem to have brought them any happiness. We’ve all heard stories of ‘privileged’ aristocrats and other children of rich parents whose inherited wealth seems more of a curse than a blessing, and who experience a sense of emptiness and purposelessness which leads to drug abuse and psychological problems. The richest person in Great Britain, for example, is the Duke of Westminster, with an estimated fortune of 1,750 million. But apparently his wealth hasn’t made him any more immune to unhappiness than anybody else. In a recent newspaper interview the Duke revealed that a year ago he’d suffered a breakdown which had plunged him into ‘a black hole of despair,’ and stopped him working or attending any social events for three months. The experience had only served to forcibly remind him of what he’d always known, which was that, as he said, ‘You can’t buy happiness, you can’t buy health, and you can’t buy inner peace…People think a new video recorder or a fast car can make them happy but they don’t.’
But if we look closely we can see some very obvious reasons why these types of happiness can’t truly satisfy us. One problem is that they are all very temporary. The sense of well-being we experience when any of our ‘pleasure buttons’ are pressed only lasts for a short time. With hedonistic happiness it only lasts as long as the act or situation which produces it – as long as the party lasts, as long as it takes for the drugs or alcohol to wear off, or as long as you can make sex last. Materialistic happiness usually lasts a little longer, since the short-term thrill of buying something is followed by the instinctive pleasure of owning it. And ego-based happiness probably – at least in certain cases – lasts longest of all. If a stranger comes up you on the street and tells you you’re beautiful, for example, or if your first novel is published and is given rave reviews by every newspaper, you might feel a glow of ego-based happiness which can last for days.
But so what if they wear off after a while? you might think. There’s no reason why we can’t give ourselves another ‘fix’ of happiness as soon as that happens, and so keep ourselves in a constant state of happiness. And this is what many of us try to do, of course. But the problem here is that all of these types of happiness are subject to the law of diminishing returns. In the same way that, say, a heroin addict has to ingest larger and larger quantities of the drug to achieve the same effect, if we regularly treat ourselves to these types of happiness we become slowly resistant to them. Every time you buy yourself a new dress or a new item of furniture the amount of pleasure you experience decreases slightly, so that if you want to have the same effect next time you have to buy yourself something a little more special and a little more expensive. Every time you achieve a little success which gives you some ego-based happiness, you need a higher level of success next time around to feel the same. In the same way the pleasure you derive from a casual sexual encounter or from driving a fast car becomes slightly duller every time you experience it. This effect may be so small that it’s difficult to notice, and if you don’t experience these pleasures very frequently it may not take place at all, but people who live very hedonistic lives may find that they need to progressively intensify their experiences until they enter the realm of ‘dangerous’ pleasures like hard drugs or promiscuous bondage-based sex. And they may also find that, after this, they reach a point which I call the ‘end of pleasure’, at which they have become so numb that no amount or intensity of hedonism can stimulate them, and they feel a sense of dissolution and boredom which may result in suicide.
Another similar problem is that most of these types of happiness are subject to what psychologists call ‘adaption’, the process by which we get used to situations once we’ve been in them for a while, and cease to value and appreciate new aspects of our lives. One of the main pieces of evidence for ‘adaption’ was the finding that badly disabled people such as quadriplegic patients were just as happy as other people, and also that – as I mentioned above – people who won large sums of money were no more happy than others. It seems that at a certain point we ‘switch off’ to the past and stop seeing our present situation in relation to the previous, so that we don’t feel lucky or unlucky in the present, but instead a kind of neutral blankness. And it’s easy to see how this would affect the kinds of happiness we’ve mentioned. A high degree of wealth or success might make us happy for a while, but as soon ‘adaption’ takes place we’ll be back where we started. In the same way we also quickly become adapted to changes in circumstances, such as a move to a new area or a newly decorated house, so that they cease to affect us after a short time.
Finally, these kinds of happiness are also problematic because they all come from outside us. This means that they’re all dependent on external circumstances, which are always liable to change in such a way that they can no longer provide us with happiness. If this happens we’re completely helpless. If you’re a person who lives off ego-based happiness, for example, what happens when you start to lose your looks, when the company which you’re head of goes bankrupt, or when your fame or celebrity begins to take a downturn? Or if you live off materialistic and hedonistic happiness, what happens when you lose your job, when a burglar steals all your prized possessions, or when you lose all your savings in a stock market crash?
It’s because of this seeming unattainability of happiness that some philosophers have concluded that it’s impossible to find contentment, and that human life is destined to be full of frustration and suffering. Albert Camus, for example, believed that true happiness is impossible because life involves a continual striving which can never be satisfied – he compares human life the Greek myth of Sysiphus, who the gods condemn to roll a boulder up a hill until gravity forces it down again, whereupon he goes back to the bottom and starts rolling again. Similarly, the German philosopher Schopenhauer believes that happiness is impossible because we look for it in the present, but the present moment is so fleeting that as soon as any situation arises which provides happiness, it disappears straight away.
But there is another possibility, which Eastern – rather than Western – philosophy suggests to us: that there is a kind of happiness which comes from inside us, and isn’t subject to any of these problems.
There is, in fact, a kind of inner-based well-being we regularly experience but which we don’t normally think of as unhappiness because it’s not part of culture’s ‘happiness paradigm’.
The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent over 30 years studying the question of what makes human beings happy, and has also come to the conclusion that happiness is not, as he says, ‘the result of good fortune or random chance,’ or ‘something that money can buy.’ According to him, we come closest to experiencing true happiness when we experience the state of ‘flow’, which he defines as ‘a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in activity.’ When we’re in ‘flow’ we forget ourselves, forget our surroundings and the circumstances of our lives. The negative self-talk which normally fills our minds fades away and we feel that we are one with the activity we’re performing. We experience flow when we have challenging and demanding tasks to do at work, when we play games, sports or musical instruments, or even when we become absorbed in household chores like mending a fence or doing the garden.
Dr Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. For the last three years he has been included (this year at no. 31) in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s list of the ’100 most spiritually influential living people.’ His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Meaning. His books have been published in 16 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Steve completed his PhD in Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.
Eckhart Tolle has described his work as ‘an important contribution to the shift in consciousness which is happening on our planet at present.’ Andrew Harvey has said of his work, ‘Its importance for our menacing times and for the transformation being birthed by them cannot be exaggerated.’ Steve is also a poet; his first book of poems and spiritual reflections, The Meaning, has just been published.
Steve lives in Manchester, England, with his wife and three young children.