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photo credit: Rob Bates

Are Humans Built to Be Happy?

These days, the concept of happiness seems ever-present on our minds.

We reflect on the things that give us joy and how to incorporate more of it into our lives. We talk about how to deal with mental disorders and depression. We battle isolation, criticism, and negativity on a regular basis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 4 percent of the world’s population suffers from depression. Global economic losses amount to over $1 trillion a year due to decreased productivity. When people become fatigued or stressed, they find it hard to resolve problems at work and in the home.

If we’re so obsessed with happiness, why are we so unhappy?

Our Obsession with Happiness

Ironically, our happy-oriented culture could be the source of our unhappiness.

In one study, three groups of participants were asked to solve a set of problems. One group was led to the “happy room”, which was filled with books on happiness, motivation, and photos of people vacationing. Here, they were asked to solve a set of impossible tasks.

The second group was also asked to complete the same set of tasks, but in the neutral room, which contained no happiness books and posters. The third group was asked to complete a set of tasks in the happy room, except the tasks were solvable.

In the end, the group that couldn’t solve the problems in the happy room was three times as likely to dwell on their failures compared to those who had tried and failed the same activity in the neutral room. The first group experienced more negative thoughts as well. The third group, who successfully completed the solvable tasks in the happy room, did not experience negative thoughts or dwell on the problems.

When we put these findings in the context of society, we can see how our environment affects our moods. Advertisements show groups of people laughing, friends post images of themselves having a good time, and motivational messages encourage us to stay upbeat and positive.

Feeling any different creates a sense of isolation and loneliness. Like the participants in the study, being surrounded by happiness when we’ve failed increases our sense of negativity.

The question then becomes: How should we approach happiness? To answer that, let’s take a look at its origin.

The Origin of Happiness

Happiness has been discussed widely in many cultures, ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Buddhist and Hindu religions, to the Vikings. Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato first discussed the concept of happiness around 400 BC, which Aristotle built upon later.

Interestingly, the word that Greeks used to describe this phenomenon was “eudaimonia”. The first part “eu” translates into “good” and the second half “daimon” translates into “spirit”. Although it translates into “happiness”, a better way to describe the word is “human flourishing” or “good life”.

While we commonly think of happiness as excitement, contentment, or feeling the urge to smile, the ancient philosophers saw happiness as a virtue. According to Aristotle, happiness is about fulfilling one’s purpose. For humans, this means participating in rational activity and thought while living with honesty, justice, courage, and confidence.

photo credit: Nils Huber

In Classical philosophy, happiness is not about emotion. In fact, someone can go through intense hardship and still be happy based on their actions and thought. Eudaimonia is about living well as a human, regardless of the circumstances.

This differs quite a bit from the modern concept of happiness. We tend to see happiness as an emotional state, where we ride the highs of an achievement, or feel safe from the stresses and suffering of the world. It’s exciting and euphoric, yet also fleeting. Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is a perpetual state of being.

If we follow the ancient Greek definition, happiness was not achievable by the vast majority of people. It took understanding, discipline, and hard work. Where many aspire, few achieve.

What Humans Are Built For

We crave satisfaction. We want to reach a permanent state of elatedness, where all our problems are solved and our worries dissolved. While a nice thought, it’s unrealistic.

You and I can’t stay in the same mood forever. Emotions naturally go up and down, regardless of the changes or lack of changes in our lives. So if we are not built to be happy, according to the modern definition of happiness, what are we made for?

Consider this: Humans are not built to be happy. Humans are built to survive.

We are not meant to be stuck constantly in one emotional state. Think about it: If you are constantly happy with the state of things, any motivation you had would get sucked out.

Picture the last time you were really excited about something. Maybe you were ecstatic when you received an offer for your dream job, completed a marathon, or got married. Maybe you were on an adventurous trip to Iceland or out until the early hours with friends.

We want moments like these to last forever. If we could, we would prolong them as long as possible. Yet, they don’t last. Even if we could keep reliving our fondest moments, we would tire of them sooner or later. Doing something once is exciting. Doing something over and over becomes routine. While routines provide comfort and certainty, they can also be mundane.

Eventually, we want more. We tire of our current role, so we aspire towards a promotion or a new job. Going out all the time becomes boring, so we start thinking of settling down.

When you think of our purpose as survival, the motivation behind our actions make sense. We explore the unknown to bring back knowledge and resources that enrich our lives. We start a new venture, and in return we hope for a better quality of life for ourselves and our families. If we don’t fulfill our need to experience something new, we get restless.

As a result, we strive towards things, pushing through obstacles and hardships to experience that fleeting moment of euphoria. When we get to that moment, it’s thrilling. But after a while, it cools off. Then, we’re back at the beginning again in the vicious cycle (or depending on how you see it, virtuous cycle) of happiness.

A Realistic Way to Be Happy

Throughout the centuries, happiness has undergone various definitions: as an action, a way of life, and more recently, as an emotion. The problem with the last one, though, is that emotions don’t last. Situations change. You can only feel content for so long.

But when you look at happiness from a philosophical perspective as a way of thinking and living, you can be happy no matter your state. In the prehistoric past, happiness came by helping the tribe last another winter, whether it meant foraging berries or assisting in the hunt. In modern day, happiness comes through treating others with kindness, or managing the family finances to save for your children’s education.

As Buddha once said: “There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.”

Feeling ecstatic at achieving a desired outcome is not the end goal. Why? Because feelings of excitement, disappointment, and sadness eventually pass. The only thing left is to keep acting and believing in ways that better the lives of yourself and others around you.

And if something does happen to bring a smile to your face, appreciate the moment while it lasts.