The science of happiness
By Francine Pirola
We all strive for happiness. One would think that it would be a fairly simple project: minimise pain and maximise pleasure. Turns out, it’s not that simple and instinct often leads us in the wrong direction. We expect that money, comfort, possessions and power, for example, will deliver happiness and that more of them will deliver more of it.
While there may be some transitory delight in these things on initial acquisition, none of these things are capable of providing enduring happiness.
Beyond a sufficiency in the basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, more resources don’t add up to more happiness.
This is borne out in research: citizens in wealthier countries are not happier than those in poorer ones provided that basic needs are met.
The popularity of the ‘Happiness Movement’ was preceded by extensive study across multiple disciplines from philosophy, religion, and sociology. Called ‘Positive Psychology’, the insights are extremely helpful in explaining how we experience positive emotion. One of the key insights is that there is more than one type ‘happiness’.
The Happiness Experiences
This is a kind of positive experience that results from the satisfaction of a desire, such as desiring a delicious food or consumer item. The experience of happiness tends to be transitory.
This is the experience of being ‘lost in time and space’ when fully engaged in a task. Sometimes called ‘flow’, it may also result in emotions of satisfaction and pride beyond the event itself.
This is the experience of fulfilment associated with living a ‘good life’, sometimes called virtues or spiritual strengths. It often involves the activity of service of others and is generally more enduring in its impact.
The Happiness Paradox
Surprisingly, one of the best ways to experience happiness is to NOT directly pursue it. Happiness can be more reliably experienced as a by-product of focussing on making others happy.
Joy or Happiness?
Joy is counted among the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23), and is different to happiness.
Happiness can be defined as the feeling of pleasure when a need or desire is met. Unhappiness results when we expect that need or desire to be met, and it isn’t. Happiness is a superficial, fleeting emotion. It fades quickly unless the need or desire is met again and again.
Joy on the other hand, is a deep seated attitudinal emotion. It is associated with spiritual values and is more lasting than happiness.
The joyful person knows their value and goodness and remains positive about their life even in the face of great suffering.
Thus, it is possible to be unhappy and joyful at the same time.
Too many people, including married couples and parents, focus on happiness rather than joy.
We focus on satisfying superficial desires and overlook the deeper longings of the heart.
An obvious example is the parent who caves in and buys their child a new toy, when really what the child desires is more attention and time.
Attention and time (in other words, love) gives a child (or a spouse) a sense of their value, of their inestimable worth. It develops within them an attitude, a certain perspective that sees and experiences life as a privilege.
We say, ‘we just want our children/spouse to be happy’, but happiness really is a very low goal. Rather, aim for joy: a lasting and empowering perspective that gives us meaning and fulfilment that endures.
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