The Complexity of Happiness

Josh S. Rose
Oct 16, 2019 · 10 min read
Left: Rodin’s Prodigal Son laments. Right: John McEnroe celebrates.

My mother had a joyous sparkle for life’s little things. She loved to read, watch movies, have friends over, walk on the beach. And she seemed to really find joy in the kitchen, cooking. I can remember nice youthful days, smelling great things permeate through our little home. However, despite her appreciation over the details of her life, her overall outlook on life was bleak. She had little hope for society, complained often about the “dumbification” of everything, the health of the world and even her own prospects, long-term. There was little surprise in her voice when, at 68 years old, she called to tell me she only had a few months to live. In many ways, she’d been expecting cancer, or something terrible, for most of her life. Was my mother a happy person? In retrospect, the answer to that is: it’s complicated.

My mother was what I call a near-term optimist and long-term pessimist, but the world varies on this. In fact, many people operate in the exact opposite realm; as near-term pessimists and long-term optimists. For them, it’s hard to stop and appreciate the world as it is right now because of stress, anxiety, work or relationship issues. Yet when asked, they’ll tell you that things will probably work out just fine.

As the Tom Petty song goes, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

It’s exactly this variety of mindsets that makes happiness such a difficult thing to define. Someone who is mindful may still be struck with ennui or a sense of foreboding. While someone who believes in a heavenly afterlife can still have a hard time finding peace in their time on Earth. We are complex beings, searching for answers to life’s deepest questions, and that’s not easy. So, for this exploration, I want to embrace the complexity, rather than try to simplify it. Because perhaps the problem with the quick solutions for happiness is exactly in our attempt to solve it, one-two-three. Maybe the key to happiness is in our deeper understanding of its complexities. As you read, you can be the judge.

The Complexity of Macro

The connection between happiness and better, freer socio-political environments is nearly as self-evident as the connection between watering holes and the abundance of life that gathers there. But what are we talking about — happiness or democracies? Are we really to believe that only people in Nordic countries are truly happy? Common sense tells us that’s improbable. What are those of us outside Finland left to muse on, aside from the complex differences between policies. And, worse, what is the ill-feeling person in Finland to do??

So, the macro view of happiness is usually not about happiness at all, but about the larger, outside-our-humanness factors that influence us. And this is an ongoing, philosophical, historical area of study that one could spend an eternity on and still not feel any better about one’s own life.

The Complexity of Micro

Among the many theories about this are “actual” formulas, like H=S+C+V, which translates to: H (happiness) is equal to S (your genetic capacity for happiness) plus C (your circumstances) and V (factors under your voluntary control). But also looser interpretations of formulaic happiness, like “Letting Go + Acceptance + Gratitude.”

What are these things that appear like tablets from the mountaintop? Guides? Reports? Every word used in these formulas are enigmas. How do I let go, accept and have gratitude for an abuser? Our minds race back and forth over these, trying to determine whether we’re looking at math or scripture. How do these mathematicians know these formulas work or that they apply to all people? Did all these people get laid off from the same job you did? Do they all have the same abandonment issues you absorbed as a child? Do they have a fourth child on the way, also???

For a formula to work, you need something concrete to add up to. A thing that doesn’t change. And, of course, there is no constant in the world of happiness. We all know that happiness is an ever-flowing state of changing criteria that evolves as we grow and is different for different people. What made us happy as 14-year olds isn’t what makes us happy as 50-year olds. And what makes a Vietnamese woman at marrying age happy is different than what makes a same-aged woman in Canada going through chemotherapy happy. We intuitively understand this, because we are humans with good big brains capable of feeling and embracing our complexity, and so it calls into question any formula that would solve, or even define, happiness within a set of easy criteria.

The Complexities of Belief Systems

Belief systems follow us along in our journey and have the ability to list the ship in the right direction when it tilts. Belief systems can re-wire us, too, letting us re-learn how to deal with the negativity bias of our naturally-worrying minds.

Many belief systems can emanate from a stable compass point, too, in terms of defining happiness — often as some form of innate feeling that we were born with — and therefore most helpful in addressing what happens to us as we un-learn our innate happiness, whether you believe we were given it by nature or by the divine. This sets in motion a set of tools to use as self-soothing techniques that combat life’s difficulties and help return us to our base mode of being generally happy. This is much different than the approach that says happiness exists as some kind of reward, to be achieved after an accomplishment or height of some kind.

Even as affective as the use of a belief system may be, they are also deeply complex in both understanding and application. Many people spend lifetimes attempting to incorporate a belief system of any kind. These kinds of systems often do best when a guide of some sort helps onboard it — and not all guides are of equal competence. And then to add to the complexity, there are splintered sects of beliefs within any larger principle. Many kinds of Christianity, many kinds of ways to meditate, chant or pray. Many interpretations of a Bible. And this is where a community of people can help. From Alcoholics Anonymous to bowling teams, we often are able to thwart off our demons with the help of others. But finding one’s own helpful community is not always easy, either.

But the true difficulty of a belief system is that it’s all an attempt to use our thoughts to control our brain. And our brain has its own thoughts on the matter. And so the ultimate struggle is, really, the one we pit against our own selves.

The Complexity of our Selves

But the intensely complicated brain is where we really find the biggest battleground for our happiness. The limbic system, which is an entire set of interacting areas of the brain, help manage our emotions; everything from motivation to learning to memory are tied up in the limbic system. These dopamine rewards that guide our motivations happen here and these are long-ingrained physical behaviors that we only have partial say in. And of course our innate fight/flight responses happen in the amygdala, an integrative part of the limbic system.

But it’s even more complex as you look at what else this part of the brain interacts with — our intentional movements, posture, ability to solve problems and deal with social processing.

Yes, you can “hack” certain functions of these systems, on occasion — sitting up straight and smiling are a kind of reverse order limbic hack — but a hack is just that… a hack. It doesn’t rewire you or solve anything in the long-term, in terms of how your brain processes things or how you register on the happiness scale. Like a Band-Aid, they are momentary fixes to symptoms.

In the end, our sense of happiness, which is already a fairly difficult thing to describe, is pushed and pulled from two sides. On the one side, our emotional triggers pull us toward a negativity bias that seems to run rickshaw over this vague emotion we call happiness. And on the other, we embrace a reward system that tells us that happiness exists after an arduous process of… name your endeavor: getting into college, making a six figure salary, owning a boat, having your home team win a championship, etc.

Both of these drivers have the same issues — they are very difficult to control and they both live in a constant flux. The endeavor of getting into college becomes the endeavor of getting through college becomes the endeavor of finding a job becomes the endeavor of rising up the ladder… and on and on. Likewise, triggers pop up like a whack-a-mole game through life, with each new relationship, living situation, political environment and news cycle.

Our bodies are complex and our emotions are intertwined with our body.

The Simplicity Of Metaphors

And speaking of metaphors, in my experience, metaphors are the best way to deal with complexities. The metaphor brings our understanding of one system to a new one that we struggle with. And, in fact, a version of metaphorical application is exactly how the brain learns at a very early age. Parts of speech are learned, not by memorizing every instance of it, but by applying our understanding of one usage of it to all the others. We are predisposed to learn through metaphor.

It seems you can do quite a bit for your own mindset if you develop your own metaphor for happiness. One that works for you. A metaphor ticks off a whole lot of boxes — it simplifies both the macro and the micro. It’s a study and a guide. And, more likely than not, it embraces the complexity of what you’re trying to get your head around. A good metaphor might even solve the issue of triggers and rewards, having addressed certain unknowns through another lens. Or, at the very least, validate whatever feeling you are having by giving it context.

And if you need a starting place for a metaphor, you may borrow mine…

In my own life, I use the meal metaphor all the time when issues of my own happiness come up. A great meal satisfies a lot of things — it satiates my hunger, it tastes good, it’s a time to gather with family and loved ones. But it also takes work to accomplish and it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, I’m hungry again and the work starts over. And I don’t always have time for a good, healthy one.

Likewise, my happiness follows a similar path to my meals. It takes certain ingredients, I’ve discovered, to get that feeling. But I can create it through a recipe of sorts — something like: having all my day’s to-do’s done, a bit of time to myself for a creative endeavor, a happy family to return to and being free of physical pain. And those things all do come together, with varying frequency — and I have to work at it. The to-do’s aren’t easy. The family has its own stresses. And the world deals you blows. But when I achieve it I can fairly say, “right now, I’m happy.” And it’s a fantastic feeling. Then it eventually gives way to the needs of life and the preparation begins again.

Thinking about my happiness within the context of a meal helps me understand that when I’m not actually feeling consciously happy, that just means I’m working toward it, healthily. It means it’s on the horizon. I’m cooking. And if I’m paying close attention, the smell of the ingredients can often be divine — like those wonderful youthful days, awaiting my mother’s great meals.

Thanks for reading. If you have a great way of looking at your own happiness, please share it in the comments below.

Josh S. Rose is a photographer and writer, living in Los Angeles.

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Josh S. Rose

Written by

Josh S. Rose is a photographer and creative director living in Los Angeles.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +567K people. Follow to join our community.

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