On Happiness

Happiness is an intensely personal phenomenon. What makes me happy might not make you happy at all; the reverse is also true. And this is strange, because science tells us that biomechanically, happiness works pretty much the same way for all of us — a wee little protein goes slip-sliding around in our brain meats, bumping into all kinds of things and triggering good feelings of contentment and even joy as it goes. What starts that protein on its journey is the tricky bit of the equation; it is to be wondered if we have any control over the process at all.

Robert Holden is a British psychologist, and one of the world’s foremost experts on happiness. He advises people that each and every day, we get to determine how happy we’ll be that day; the expectations we have shape the experiences we have.

I think he’s on to something here. I’ve seen this happening, and so have you: in advance of just about any event, people have a tendency to voice aloud what they think is going to happen. Some people will go into a party eager to have a great time and have fun with their friends; other people, going to the same party, predict that the food will be cold and the music too loud and at least one person is going to look at them in the wrong tone of voice. After the party, more often than not, both groups will turn out to be right: the ones seeking something to celebrate find it, and those searching for complaints are equally satisfied.

If we view happiness as an internal response to external stimuli, it’s prudent to know what kind of stimuli trigger the happiness response. That’s why it’s important to try new things; while you may have suspicions about how an activity or experience might make you feel, you never really know until you try.

We are a mountain family. My children have lived their entire lives in a world where granite scrapes up against the belly of the sky, no matter which way you look. We took a trip to the coast of Maine; for the first time ever, my eldest went out into the waves. On her surfboard she found a joy she’d never even suspected possible. The world is full of wonderful things, and you have to be willing to leave your mountaintop to find them.

Happiness comes in a variety of sizes. We tend to focus on the big huge happy — those moments when the balloons start dropping from the ceiling and the crowd goes wild and it turns out we’ve won the Nobel prize, the lottery, and a daytime Emmy all at once — but it’s the smaller, more ordinary sort of happiness that is both more common and more important.

Recognizing little happinesses is a skill. We spend so much of life rushing around doing everything we need to do that we forget to pay attention to how we’re feeling. Baba Ram Dass wrote a book called Be Here Now; if you read nothing but the title, you have the starting point for recognizing more of the little happinesses in your life. Every now and then, stop and ask yourself “What is good about this experience I’m having?” If there is nothing good about the experience — I mean absolutely nothing good, no discernible benefits at all — then it’s time to figure out why you’re having the experience in the first place and what changes need to be made.

It’s okay to stack the deck in your own life. Purposefully including things that make you happy into your daily routine is a good idea. This is much easier with the little happinesses. You have to go to the meeting and take notes, for example. Give yourself the wee joy of using your favorite sparkly gel pen. Experiences matter more than stuff here: there’s a reason people are fanatical about their morning run or boy’s night out.

Happiness isn’t always noble. The Germans have a word for taking delight in other’s misfortune, schadenfreude. I think schadenfreude is a lot like whiskey. It can be yummy, but too much of it will make you sick, and devoting your life to the stuff will wreck your life.

Every now and then, ask yourself if you’re happy, and what kind of happy you are, and what you’re doing to make yourself happy. The answers you get can help you determine what you need to do next; the problems creep in when we go far too long between asking and answering the questions.