What might seem on the surface to be simply the equivalent of all things positive, as opposed to negative about life and the universe, has, in our modern times, become a medical deficiency to be cured with prescription drugs. By definition half of the world is not doing as well as the richer counterparts, so the world looks more negative for all these deprived people. There is no pill to cure poverty or disease, so if they can be made to feel “happy” even if they are physically miserable, are they being sold psychedelics that delude their imaginations? So many problems in the world can be blamed on unhappiness that it is essential to human survival to understand this seemingly trivial subject.
Merriam-Websterdefines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” This suggests a general divide between those who have happiness and those who do not, or the rich versus the poor, or the privileged versus the disenfranchised. Zooming in closer, there is the clinical definition used by psychiatrists, whereas “a happy person is someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger” (Khoddam). How likely is it that an average person will experience joy “frequently”? Is frequently being defined here as at least half of a day?
Before diving deeper into the technicalities, we have to visualize an average person, so that we are all trying to evaluate the happiness of this specific example, rather than pondering our own problems and successes. According to the BBC, the world’s average salary in 2012 was $18,000; the UN reports that 55% live in urban areas. Let’s imagine this average fast-food cashier living in a big city in a tiny apartment with a husband and a couple of children. She wakes up to the noise and shaking from a passing train. She cooks breakfast for the family and they drink sour coffee, and eat somewhat rancid eggs with carcinogenic bacon.
All of them are likely overweight and a bit sore in the joints just from taking a few steps. If any of them have phones or if there is a TV in the kitchen, they probably watch it instead of talking to each other. She goes to work, ringing up orders and flipping a few burgers. She eats some of this discounted food for lunch; it makes her feel nauseous, but also kind of lethargically happy. She keeps checking the clock, dreaming of going home across her shift. The time finally comes, and she takes a congested train through the polluted streets back home. In the evening, the family watches some more TV, maybe likes other peoples’ lives on social media, and then retreats to perform cleansing rituals before bed. She probably cannot easily go to sleep, thinking about all of the rude, harassing and potentially violent customers she dealt with. Then again, perhaps her customers are delightful, friendly people, and her family is extremely affectionate, and maybe she has many joyful moments cuddling, chatting, grooming, and otherwise positively interacting with the people in her life.
Clearly the conditions of life are on average rather miserable, but an individual can choose to interpret their lives as positive or negative. Giving happiness to others in a family unit might create a positive feedback loop, while negativity can poison the entire unit. A single person can independently choose to be happy under the definition that fits his or her personality without being triggered into positive or negative spins by others.
The complexities of choice and circumstances are broken down by psychiatrists into simple judgements of lives by the degree of their happiness. Here is a thoughtful explanation about the interrelationship between happiness and other measures of existence: “Happiness is rated higher than all other personal values such as health, love or wealth. Happiness has also been found to be a highly valued component of life quality, superior to other values such as money, health or sex. Therefore, happiness can be considered the most desirable condition among humans, and other goals may only be valued as potential determinants of happiness.
From an evolutionary perspective, happiness can be seen as a psychological reward for adaptive functioning associated with evolutionary fitness.” (Medvedev)
This definition makes happiness a category among other personal values, life qualities, and condition of life (circumstances), and the main evolutionary goal of life.
Most of these categories within happiness are simple, biological and behavioral sources of contentment “such as family, money, friends, life-satisfaction, natural environment, good health, success, achievement of goal, religion and prayers and sports and leisure.” (Singh)
Another study restates that happiness is “associated with high income and high education levels, self-perceived health and longevity, health insurance coverage and access to medical care, and robust social support systems.” (Sasaki)
While this seems like a simple summary, the words utilized are all controversial when closely investigated. Is a human happier within a family unit or alone? Is the pursuit of money an endless struggle without a finite successful attainment point? Are those who live in the country happier than those who live in the city? Is religion the opiate of the masses or is it a spiritual source of joy? Is it more enjoyable to exercise or to passively watch TV from the couch? Is the pursuit of knowledge pleasurable or boring? Some of these questions are answered in studies examined below, while others cannot be fully evaluated because internal feelings are unseen, and thus cannot be assessed with sufficient scientific accuracy.
Hart’s study examines a few narrow aspects of these sources closely and determines that “living in neighborhoods with higher levels of aesthetics and more water and green space was associated with being very happy. Individuals who perceived their neighborhood to be safer, more functional and more aesthetic were more likely to be very happy… Perceived absence of air pollution was only associated with higher levels of happiness in more highly educated participants. Individuals with a larger social network, more social cohesion and who trusted their neighbors were more likely to be very happy. The association between social networks and happiness was somewhat stronger in men than in women. In general, the associations between environmental characteristics and happiness had similar directions and sizes across socio-economic and socio-demographic subgroups.”
The housing industry has clearly succeeded in convincing buyers that the most expensive houses are best, in part because the giant mowing-heavy lawns around them are joy-inducing. Most house-shopping documentary shows (and media in general) stress the importance of the location and the view, so it would be strange if the value of these elements failed to register in the perceptions of happiness of the intended buyers. Grass subliminally suggests clear air, and yet many people who value these green spaces as luxury-displays do not “believe” in global warming (even as the air in San Francisco is currently being dusted with pollution from our mutual failure to take actions before forest fires reach environmentally catastrophic proportions).
More importantly, are all of these studies affected by liars? This is not meant to insult, but rather as a technical question. Anybody who believes their neighbors and people in general are trustworthy is either naïve or lying. The volume of identity and various other types of frauds, as well as theft, murder, and numerous petty crimes we face in America is astronomical (especially with the largest imprisoned population in the world). There have been enough Bernard Madoffs in our society as well for even the richest neighbors to be suspect. Is it an evolutionary survival advantage in this hostile climate to believe that our neighbors are good, or is healthy skepticism about everybody’s motivations more likely to assure a long and happy life?
Are many of those who maintain a large social network grifters? By “grifter” I do not mean a person who is out to criminally defraud. Instead, I am asking, are most people who throw parties and maintain social ties attempting to move ahead through these connections? And if women are said to be the ones more interested in forming close friendships, why are men the ones who find happiness in social networks? It seems that “social networks,” in this context, stand for bonds formed for the purpose of mutual enrichment, rather than friendships that aim to share personal or emotional interactions.
The topic of aesthetics brings up a component of happiness that is frequently sold in advertising and entertainment, so that it has become a necessity to claim a happy existence. Are you or your partner beautiful? If one or both of you are not beautiful, then the message is that you must be miserable with yourself, with the other, or with each other. If a study of your own or your partner’s body fills you will disgust, you are sold solutions such as plastic surgery, facials, gym membership, and a myriad of supplements and other highly questionable fixes. Ideal beauty is impossible because even the outlying beauties on the big screen are photoshopped. Anything that is unattainable is a marketer’s dream.
If it is impossible to be just perfectly skinny (without occasionally slipping into being too skinny or too fat), a diet-product marketer has a client for life. If a human body naturally has lines, bumps, pimples, and other asymmetries, a plastic surgeon can keep a patient indefinitely as the best procedure cannot make a nose perfectly symmetrical without replacing it entirely with plastic (which is unalterable with age or disease, unless, of course, it is melted). Some of these marketing gurus sell dieting as a path to happiness. I might even buy into this latter notion myself, as I have been vegan for nearly two years now, and having lost 91 pounds, I would like to believe that being lighter has given me more energy, health, and therefore, surely, some added happiness.
Stepping out of this pursuit of beauty, is it possible that we are all primates rather than inanimate and idealized cartoons? Look at a few monkeys in a picture (if not live in a zoo). Is one of them more beautiful than the others? You might feel strangely more attracted to that one monkey, but is it because that monkey is more symmetrical or because of its expressive look or muscular and therefore healthy physique? I am asking because I have never been attracted to beauty in any human before and I am really curious to learn what significance a flat or a hawkish nose makes to an aesthetically picky observer.
It is surely more difficult to evaluate our own happiness than to judge our own beauty. Those who refrain from questioning if they are happy are likely to be the happiest among us because touching on this matter shows doubt about one’s life that is surely a sign of dissatisfaction. Only miserable people wallow in ennui as they cast doubt on the joy they have found or lost through their choices. Still, this article’s aim is to figure out what happiness is and how to measure its extent, so what tangible, objective or subjective methods can we apply to determine whether or not we are happy? I read through thirty or so essays on happiness and found four frequently cited methods: the 15-item Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS), the 29-item Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (OHQ), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index, and Lyubomirsky’s Sustainable Happiness Model. The Geriatric Scale focuses on late-life patients, and utilizes a questionnaire on feelings felt across the previous week, aimed to spot serious cases of depression in this vulnerable population. These questions include: “Are you basically satisfied with your life? Have you dropped many of your activities and interests? Do you feel that your life is empty? Do you often get bored? Are you afraid that something bad is going to happen to you? Do you prefer to stay at home, rather than going out and doing new things? Do you think that most people are better off than you are?” Are these really fair questions to ask to determine if an elderly patient needs to be medicated for severe depression?
The elderly are likely to be consuming prescription drugs that might interact negatively with anti-depressants, so a misdiagnosis via this questionnaire can lead to physical complications. Would it be normal for an average person to be satisfied with one’s life as a life is ending? Let’s return to the hypothetical woman we reviewed before. If she is now 80 years old and living in a nursing home with minimum care and without resources for any luxuries, does she have cause to believe that her 60 or more years of employment in the fast food industry were worthy of joy and fulfillment? Wouldn’t her diagnosis be one of delusions of grandeur or mania if she expressed extreme satisfaction with her life? I volunteered temporarily in a nursing home.
I spent a good deal of time knitting and interacting with the elderly as they attempted to chat, play bingo, listen to a piano performance and other little enjoyments. If they did not feel that this existence was boring and empty, they would be very lacking in imagination or comprehension of life’s possibilities. On top of this, there are plenty of stories going around about the elderly developing bed sores, infections and other complications due to neglect or just from communal living in hospitals and nursing homes. Is it just to use the real threat this population faces of something pretty bad happening to them in this environment to stop them from complaining about poor living conditions under the threat of being medicated for depression?
And why is it a negative if a somewhat disabled elderly person prefers to stay home and engage in intellectual or artistic pursuits (if not simply to enjoy relaxing in old age) instead of venturing out into potentially icy roads or hot summer steam to spend money (which is lacking) on… dancing and singing in large groups?
Only in a purely consumerist society, where introspection, reflection and other intellectual pursuits are valueless can make such extroversion a requirement for happiness. Nothing is more important than making the elderly happy. Burdening them with the accusation that they are guilty of depression for the misery they are suffering at the hands of society is as hostile as the infliction of such misery. Surely, a better set of questions can be deduced if we reexamine our social values.
This begs a digressive question of if independence and self-reliance is a case of negative alienation or if these are positive characteristics. I have personally been a fan of Henry David Thoreau’s Waldensince high school AP English class. The idea of escaping into a quiet area to write and work has inspired my own current little isolationist project, wherein I have purchased a little house to do some scribbling (like I’m doing with this essay), and some dissemination of ideas via my remote publishing venture.
If it is acceptable for a philosopher to retreat to contemplate the meaning of life, surely the elderly can retreat into their own little ponds to reflect on the good and the bad life brought them. These ideals are contradicted by the notion that being interdependent on a community brings satisfaction and happiness. If all members of a hypothetical community are benevolent, being a member of this kibbutz can be a socialist utopia.
However, if anybody in a community has harmful intentions, they can quickly infect most in the circle with great misery. Becoming vulnerable to the influences of dependent relationships means opening up to potential disturbances in one’s equilibrium. Even if no fraudster is lurking in the group, interacting with a community means a higher chance of exposure to the suffering and unhappiness of others; whereas, there is only one set of miseries in the life of a loner. More women are killed by their partners than single women living on their own by men they do not know. There are things to be fairly afraid of in the modern world, so it is not a clear choice if community or independence is a surer path to survival and, ideally, happiness.
England has introduced a similar metric in its Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (OHQ), which considers the following items of comparison: pleased with self, interested in others, life is rewarding, warmth for others, wake up rested, optimistic, find things amusing, committed and involved, life is good, world is good, laugh a lot, satisfied with life, look attractive, done things wanted, very happy, find beauty in things, cheerful effect on others, can organize time, feel in control, feel able to do most things, mentally alert, joy and elation, make decisions easily, life has meaning and purpose, feel energetic, good influence, have fun with others, feel healthy and happy memories.
I gathered these from a summary table in one of the reviewed essays.
Once again, if somebody believes they or the world around them is miserable, hellish, brutal and short, he or she is likely to be classified as clinically depressed, unless they choose not to complain about it, and to see everything from death of a loved one to theft of a fortune by nursing staff as stuff that all has a bright side. Across much of human recorded history, monarchs have been working to prove to peasants that religion guaranteed that being obedient and working hard across a life guaranteed the reward of eternal happiness in heaven. Now, employees are being convinced by overseers that on top of serving obediently, they now have to tell their masters that they are happy with their lot even after this work is done or be branded as depressives.
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade’s “Sustainable Happiness Model” is explained in Gupta and Singh’s essay. According to them, happiness is determined by three factors: genetically determined set point (50%: fixed happiness level to which a person returns after a significant event, or an individual’s generally happy or sad disposition), life circumstances (10%: including demographics, such as gender and ethnicity, personal experiences, such as traumas and triumphs, and life status variables, such as marital status, education level, health and income), and intentional activities (40%: activities deliberately engaged in to attain happiness: kindness, exercise, smiling, flattery, respect, experience, empathy).
Once again, while on the surface this is a simple breakdown, the details are troubling. How can we fairly evaluate a disposition? Are we all to smile constantly or make other declarations of joy to fit with the happy model? It is even more confusing to ponder how gender and ethnicity can determine one’s happiness level. What is this suggesting? Are women or men, or members of some ethnic groups innately less happy? Are married, rich and educated people happier? In fact, many of the studies I reviewed have found that rich people are happier. If wealth determines happiness, then at least half of the world is 10%-depressed from the get-go.
A few of the suggested activities for happiness-attainment suggest a new path of inquiry. Can empathy, kindness and respect give our miserable lives joy? We are all going to die. A death in one’s sleep at 134 after a perfectly healthy existence is statistically improbable. All of us go through some physical suffering from illnesses, injuries, or other painful bumps in life. A joyful reaction to suffering is defined by psychiatrists as abnormal, and can be a sign of psychosis, or can betray self-harming predilections. Unhappiness in times of suffering does not preclude an individual from being classified as a happy person. Grief and other expressions of compassion for the suffering or loss of others is also acceptable. However, sadness can easily slip from a temporary display of mourning or the like into clinical depression. Given the slipperiness of this slope, can be it the best interest of members of elderly and other vulnerable populations to avoid engaging in feeling compassion and sympathy, as these are innately unhappy feelings? When we sympathize, we take on another’s suffering as if it is our own. Detaching from connections that might experience hardships can be a useful shield to such emotional turbulence. However, the tests would find such isolation to be a symptom of a lack of social engagement, and therefore depressive.
Thankfully, Kadela performed a study on this difficult subject and “concluded that compassion was significantly correlated with health, happiness, personality, emotion work and presumptive life stress among resident doctors of government hospitals. (Kadela)
In other words, compassion increases happiness rather than causing distress. It is mysterious how this process works. Doesn’t this mean that these doctors are happy at seeing misery in their patients? What is compassion if it is a positive emotion in response to somebody else’s distress? Pawar might help to explain it better: “Our true happiness lies in those rare moments where we forget our selfish interests and individuality and start living for something greater than ourselves.”
The doctors did not feel happy because their patients were miserable, but rather they became selfless and engaged in helping them to recover, and it was this assistance that gave them a sense of satisfaction with their own moral character. Morality is clearly intricately linked with happiness, but is it an inverse link? Can an evil person, or specifically one who had committed a criminal act, be happy? Does the guilt of evil actions always burden the culprit with depression? Alternatively, are some wealthy or “successful” criminals much happier than counterparts who spend their lives in thankless labor? Our culture is twisted enough that criminals might imagine that they have society’s respect more so than an impoverished, principled emissary of good. Isn’t it more logical that following moral imperatives should reward adherers with self-respect?
Bazrafshan’s study brings a useful point of view: “social happiness and adjustment had a significant and inverse relation with vandalistic behaviours appearance.” This might seem obvious to most readers, but it is significant for this analysis that vandals are likely to be socially unhappy and ill adjusted. Here is scientific proof that evil people are miserable. Perhaps, they commit crime because they are miserable, or they become miserable after engaging in destructive behaviors; either way, society can justifiably argue that moral people are likely to feel self-respectful and happy with their good decisions (even if they are impoverished).
Meanwhile, happiness and sadness frequently co-exist in responses to life’s triggers (traumas and triumphs). For example, can it be pleasurable to feel angry? Some people are constantly shouting and display aggression and hostility. Are they making these displays because they are miserable or because exerting their will on others makes them feel powerful, and therefore happy? And can it be that when psychiatrists ask if an elderly person’s life has been satisfactory, they are displaying an intolerance for a life of hard-working suffering? Is it not more morally correct to view a life of struggling toil as one full of quiet and hopefully-respected dignity? Let the old woman tell us about the harsh and unforgiving world, and how she managed to survive despite its evils. If the world is a violent and dismal place, it is not a disease to know it is so.
What of pleasure? Is it painful to feel an unsatisfied desire? Should we all be chasing sexual partners, or the pastries we never tasted before to fill a perceived lack? On the other hand, is it more pleasurable to refrain from succumbing to animalistic desires? Is it a survival advantage to say “no” to potentially deadly sexual encounters, or to disease-causing sweets? Answering these questions is surely a matter of individual preferences.
Given all of these complex moral, psychiatric and philosophical uncertainties about happiness, it would be absurd to conclude that any combination of chemicals can solve these imbalances. A pill such as Prozac has been proven to increase suicide risks and tends to make the user feel flat or emotionless. Based on earlier definitions, happiness includes feeling joy most of the time. No definition claims that happiness is a state of stunned emotionless, icy callousness. Once again, marketers and the big businesses they represent have kidnapped the debate to sell happy pills, only in this case they are literally selling happiness in pill form.
Why are these anti-depression drugs causing a grouchy lack of emotions? Why aren’t they stimuli or uppers? Isn’t the opposite of depression, mania or hyper-activity? But, this other extreme is also defined as a mental illness, and thus the pills attempt to establish a level between these extremes. Surely, a healthier solution for somebody who is feeling lethargic or unenthused is to drink more caffeine or other energizing, non-prescriptive stimuli. A cup and you can be off to work: it’s cheaper and there are no suicidal side effects.
I personally believe that happiness is found in the pursuit of knowledge and in dispelling the cloud of ignorance. I also put my trust in rationality over emotions. And I believe that my constant struggle to succeed makes me happier than if I had already succeeded. The awareness of past smaller successes is also important, but only in so far as it allows a person to trust their ability to persevere, otherwise known as self-esteem. I have also chosen (at least this past year) to exit the rat race in favor of independent and creative employment, which I find to be more enjoyable.
The term “rat race” is a pejorative for the modern labor market, wherein each “rat” struggles in repeating and seemingly meaningless revolutions. The problem with this race is not just the lack of fair compensation or interesting employment, but rather a lack of meaningful labor that serves a higher social or artistic purpose. Studies have shown that those in the upper class have jobs that lead to happier lives. And intellectually stimulating lives are likely to be more fulfilling than physical labor. Retired people with sufficient savings to live in pleasant circumstances are happier than counterparts without this safety net. Women have been convinced to stay home with the kids instead of working for a long stretch of modern human history; perhaps, they were happier at home than their men in the rat race. Clearly, we are not going to make people happy until we make their lives happy.
I hope that I have said so much here about happiness that after reading this essay, none of my readers will ever want to think about it again. Let’s just take joy in fleeting memories, watching a dramatically lit sunrise, or the first snow of the season. In the long-term, let’s be happy alone or in a community of good people. While I hope none of us wallow in the meaning of happiness, I hope psychiatrists will revisit their very old, in science-years, tests of happiness to come up with measurements that fit a fairer and more inclusive perception of human emotions.
Mohammad-Rafi Bazrafshan, Alireza Abdi, et al. “The Relation of Social Happiness and Adjustment with Vandalistic Behaviour of the Children and Young Adults in the Families under Supervision of Welfare Office”, Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 2018 Aug, Vol-12(8): LC05-LC09.
Arti Gupta and Dinesh Singh, “Happiness: An overview and the ways of enhancing it”, Indian Journal of Positive Psychology(2017), 8(4), 583-6.
EAC Hart, J. Lakerveld, M. McKee, J-M Oppert, H. Rutter, H. Charreire, et al. “Contextual correlates of happiness in European adults.” PLoS ONE(2018) 13(1).
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Rubin Khoddam, “What's Your Definition of Happiness? Learn from other people’s happiness and see what reflects your own happiness”, Psychology Today(June 16, 2015).
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Varsha Singh and Prerna Goyal, “Ways of being happy: Discerning sources of happiness among young adults and adults”, Indian Journal of Positive Psychology(2017), 8(2), 208-13.
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