In case you don’t already know, I am a strong advocate of the biology of human behavior. I believe that every psychological experience can be understood in physiological terms. Unfortunately, technology has restricted us in our capacity to identify where complex emotions such as anger, surprise, or joy occur in the brain. What’s even more restrictive is that it’s made it difficult for us to define this thing we call “happiness” in terms of something that we can readily feel, posing the question, is happiness also a complex emotion? In other words, does happiness come and go, or does it stay with us?
How you answer this question depends on a number of factors, including your past experiences, religious beliefs, values, and how you derive meaning from your existence. Personally, I define happiness as the sum of subjectively pleasurable experiences that a person accumulates in his or her lifetime, but even this definition isn’t enough to do the word sufficient justice because to many, happiness means so much more than that. Without happiness, what’s the point of even living? For reasons that I will discuss, I’m quick to treat happiness as more of a state-of-mind and less of a fleeting emotion.
You’ve probably been taught that happiness is meant to be pursued, and that it could later be obtained if you make all the right decisions. According to this logic, after you attend school, work for an X number of years, get married, have children, make millions of dollars, then and only then will you be textbook happy. The problem is that it places too much of an emphasis on waiting for happiness and hardly any emphasis on choosing to be happy right now.
I can tell you with confidence that, by virtue that I have clothes on my back and air in my lungs, I am happy. But alas, I don’t have a million dollars in the bank, so I’m not as happy as I could be. Have you noticed a contradiction yet? I complained about how I haven’t made enough money, yet at the same time negated the things that enabled me to make the money in the first place.
Such contradictory logic could be the result of erroneously mixing happiness with hedonism, which are not the same thing. They don’t even fall under the same category. Happiness has to do with the state or quality of being subjectively contented over an extended period of time. Alternatively, hedonism has to do with superficially indulging one’s self in pleasurable activities in a fixed period of time, like getting wasted at the bar, eating large quantities of Taco Bell, or playing a match of Call of Duty. These activities are indeed fun, but they are too short-lived to foster a conventionally happy life.
The question remains as to how happiness can be reconciled with hedonism. How do you will your mind into being happy when pleasure is so finite and intermittent? It’s simple: enjoy the high points in life as much as you can, but don’t be so discouraged by the low points. Because they, too, can be pretty special.