Are you happy? Are you both happier now? Are you happy living over there?

By | Tue 26 Jul 2011

(i) “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle
(ii) “An immense hatred keeps me alive…I would live for a thousand years if I were certain of seeing the whole world croak.” Louis Ferdinand Céline

Are you happy? Are you both happier now? Are you happy living over there?

Can you answer any of these questions, with clarity, certainty…? with a sense of stability? Happy (from Middle English hap, meaning luck): adjective, abstract, over-simplified, bursting with meaning, yet sometimes chock-full of nothing you can easily describe. Your level of happiness right now might have a reasonable cause: I bought a new iMac, I was the recent recipient/manufacturer of an orgasm, I ran around a lake…I lost a laptop, a lover, a leg. You may wake up endeared to humanity, deliriously devoted to an other, whistling to the tune of a song that forges an army of serotonin hormones, and yet, you may find yourself rooted to the comedown of this contentedness when you go to bed, twisting and turning to the tune of its antithetical dread. Happiness is a spring not always easy to tap…it suffers from bouts of aridity.

Happiness can be precarious, ephemeral, frightening, paradoxical, obtuse, and perhaps even painful. Iconic suicide, Kurt Cobain once sang, “I miss the comfort in being sad,” which is testament to some people’s peculiar penchant for playing – and perhaps enjoying being – the victim. Michael Caine, in the film Alfie, was a perennially happy, but actually quite sad, wide-boy who was repeatedly prey to melancholy after doing things, or acquiring things, he thought made him happy – this is called the pleasure paradox. Alfie is epicurean but never quite satiated, incandescent but lonely and, in spite of his seemingly devil-may-care attitude, unable to escape from melancholic introspection: “My life’s my own. But I don’t have peace of mind. And if you don’t have that, you’ve got nothing… So, what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about?”

It’s inhuman not to want to feel all sorts of bliss, to achieve the rarified state of unadulterated happiness. But to achieve happiness, and to sustain it –or at least keep anguish/pain at a comfortable distance – is a life’s work, and purportedly much harder for some than others. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that by 2020, depression will be the second highest cause of DALY (Disability Adjusted Life Years) in the world. Our lack of happiness, we are told, will be an even more formidable serial killer than heart disease in the future, becoming the “biggest health burden on society both economically and sociologically.” Brand new abbreviated medical terms pop (up) into our consciousnesses every year, stirring up alphabetic nightmares for new generations, and while some imaginative parents may really take up Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (or MSbP/MSP), what used to be just weird or unique is fast becoming classified as disease. Maybe in the future we’ll all be sick. Does this mean that contrary to our ‘better’ standards of living – in most countries – progress in technology, cultural developments, etc., we are worse at being happy?

Our brains are a chemical factory, and what we choose to do, eat, drink, think, breathe, all the substances, nutrients, memories, that go through us, will affect the output of this factory. Dr. Paritat Silpakit, Director of Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital, explained that the chemical dopamine is released into specific areas of the brain when we do certain activities or achieve things; “This is part of the brain’s reward system,” says Dr. Paritat, “to repay us for vital activities, which is necessary for the survival of the species.” Without the brain’s reward system we might not procreate, try to complete Mario World, invade countries, or ask someone on a date. But dopamine highs, he explained, are short lasting. For a general feeling of well-being, the chemical serotonin establishes our “mood/affect” and it is this chemical that determines our general levels of contentedness. Endorphins that bind to our opioid receptors in our brains also give us a high. “They are like a pain killer,” says Dr. Paritat, “they relieve us and restore us in times of hard activity or danger, sometimes working with dopamine.”

But can we achieve longer-lasting happiness, a sustainable buzz? How do we keep our heads, when seemingly, statistically, all about us are losing theirs?

In one of many attempts to understand happiness, a now famous happiness study at Harvard University in the late 70s showed how people who had become paraplegic as a result of an accident were equally as happy as lottery winners after the initial cataclysm of their life change; their ‘happiness quotients’ after one year were very similar. The theory of the ‘Hedonic Treadmill,’ a term often used in positive psychology – the psychology of making life better, more fulfilling – tells us that ‘50% of our feelings are determined by genetics, 10% by outside circumstances, and 40% by intentional activities’. Your happiness level is homeostatic, which means it returns to a constant after an elevation or decline. Even though you can return to your ‘happiness equilibrium point’ after material loss, amorous rejection, redundancy, etc, the death of a friend or spouse might irreconcilably reset your general level of happiness – your factory settings. Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle, along with modern psychology, generally agree that there are two forms of happiness. Hedonic happiness: pleasure, memory recall, excitement, malarkey, etc. Eudemonic happiness: well-being with longevity, due to self-realisation, fruitful relationships, goals.

“Every living creature adapts to change, whether it is positive or negative,” says Paritat. “Right now brain research shows the brain’s special ability to adapt, they call it ‘brain plasticity’. If we can’t swim, the brain learns to swim, if you have a genetic disorder, you can compensate by practice, or you can overcome your handicap.” He explains that some people will be born with less genetic advantages concerning how happy they will become, “You can see that in newborns,” he says, “some have a tendency to be happier than others, and some families also have histories of suicide and depression.” Though he insists that, “happiness is a skill” to be learned, as well as a genetic slideshow you are born with.

In spite of the WHO’s depressing statistic, there are branches of positive psychology that are intent to fix sadness and all its mundane corollaries for good. Some theorists believe humans can be transformed, enhanced. À la Huxley’s Brave New World there are scientists out to end human suffering. The BLTC (Better Living Through Chemistry) Research Centre in Brighton, UK, headed by iconoclastic philosopher David Pearce, is presently working on methods to “redesign/recalibrate our hedonic treadmill” and eventually “abolish the biological substrates of suffering”.

Under the umbrella term of ‘Paradise Engineering’ science and humanities are working alongside each other researching various ways to make people smarter, happier and healthier. BLTC’s mission statement reads: “Post-Darwinian superminds can abolish physical and mental pain altogether.” A technotopia exists, we are told, where the “biochemical roots of our ill-being” will be pulled from our brains. The centre is presently researching treatments such as: ‘Utopian Surgery’ and ‘Utopian Pharmacology’. Their premise: with advanced drugs, nanosurgery, and genetic engineering, they can de-code the human genome and we can evolve into a race of trans/post-humans – with greatly improved physicality, augmentation of human emotional and intellectual capacities, and be more resistant to aging and pain – though we may have to wait a while until we enter our brave new unsuffering world.

So in the meantime a slightly more prosaic solution to maximising happiness, or reducing mental suffering, is riding the muddy waves of mental ill-health. Pharmacological science created – extremely lucrative – methods of affecting our brain chemistry in an effort to cheer up humanity. Prozac, maybe the most famous of modern antidepressants of the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) class, is hardly an answer to the occasional crushing lows of human existence, though its popularity is nevertheless astounding. The idea of nations of moderately dull but functioning people, neither barbed with sadness nor spiked with joy, is – statistically – more than a mere dystopian dream. While compassionate, if we overlook its monstrous profitability, the sweetshop cornucopia of depressive medication available nowadays could perhaps induce an international epidemic of laziness, mediocrity, and victim mentality, while submitting the meek to venal marketing ideology. It’s said that around 10.2% of Americans regularly take mood enhancing medicines (118 million prescriptions in 2005: CDC), while in the UK The Sun newspaper ran a story June 2011 with the amusing headline, ‘Prawns on Prozac’, after an academic report from Portsmouth University found that certain crustaceans were high on spiked human excrement (39.1 million prescriptions for anti-depression medications in England in 2009, NHS). The number of people seeking medication for depression has been rising steadily (as has money spent on advertising depression medication, from 32 to 122 million dollars in the US from 1996-2005: Columbia University) despite many medications being surrounded by controversy that attacks the specious efficacy of the drugs, outlining reams of side-effects, and after numerous medical trials finding many antidepressant drugs only as effective as a clinical dud. While the selfish determinism of our genetics might seem an inescapable cul-de-sac to some dispirited hardliners – perhaps enough to force them over to the green grasses of Prozac – their plaints might be unconvincing to those who believe in the healthy lifestyle, the absence of legal and illegal drugs, daily exercise, meditation, and a balanced diet.

Although some theorists inform us we cannot ever attain lasting happiness. They suggest – and I’ll encapsulate the theory in modern parlance – that ‘we are all f::ked’. The concept of antinatalism, meaning that ‘life should not even be brought into existence’, explains that humanity falls short of justifying why it exists. Antinatalism was made (un)popular by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose theories of inhedonia – the inability to enjoy oneself – were partly based on the Buddhist precept of the will – desires – to cause all human suffering. Schopenhauer tells us our ‘will’ will preclude any permanent satisfaction in this world and only expression through the arts and compassion can provide some occasional solace to our long-haul suffering. Buddhism teaches us moderation, a curtailment of the desires that make us suffer. Our world, presently designed on a system of hearty consumption, is hardly a platform for Buddhist contentment. To have more, spend more, use more, is in some ways our modus operandi as we stomp through life. Is this why 10.2% of American enhance their moods with drugs?

But where would art, literature and music be without a regular dose of anguish, immoderation and loss? Unhappiness, or bouts of, arguably provided us with the great works of Louis Ferdinand Celine, Francis Bacon… The Butthole Surfers. Would happiness not bring about a drought in humanity where we may least need one? In answer to this, biochemist turned Buddhist monk and writer, Matthieu Ricard – nicknamed ‘happiest man in the world’ – tells us it’s irrational to turn away from the things, or the lifestyle, we know would make us happier. ‘Would anyone wake up in the morning and think to themselves, today I want to suffer?’ he asks, and tells us how for so long we have romanticised suffering and so have not remedied it. If great art is a byproduct of what is essentially the scourge of humanity (suffering), is art worth all the bother?

American musician Andrew Bird sings in his song ‘Lull’: “I’m all for moderation, but sometimes it seems, moderation itself is a kind of extreme.” It certainly might be if we’re not moderate people by nature. Spontaneity and impulse can provide us with the best kind of happiness. Perhaps some people are not made of Buddhist cloth? Carl Jung’s typology test, now known as human metrics, is a complex test that classifies human character types. Certain types might be happier in moderation, while others feel comfortable with their intemperateness. Well-being can be achieved to some extent, but first we must know ourselves, our – complex – type. And then we can make the right choices…

Dan Gilbert, an American psychologist and writer working at Harvard University, spoke at a recent TED talk about the persuasive power of delusion concerning life choices. If happiness is so often contingent upon our decisions, then it would be in our interests to choose well. Though Gilbert explains how his research has found that people have the ability, as a result of their psychological immune system, to make themselves think they made the right choice when they did not. His study on synthetic happiness, through a series of tests, revealed that even though we often make the wrong choices, our brains lead us to think – as we are stuck with the decision – to incontrovertibly believe it was the right choice. According to Gilbert, the house you bought, the guy you married, the decision to become a banker and not just a thief, even though you are convinced was the best path to follow, may have been the wrong choice, and lead to what he calls synthetic happiness – not the real thing. His TED illustration of this point is very convincing. Perhaps some of our better choices have worse affects?

In Bertrand Russell’s 1930 uber-rational Conquest of Happiness, hailed by Time magazine as the “modern substitute for the Bible”, he takes a stab at setting us up for rational happiness – involving no chemical magic tricks, genes man-handling, or having to spurn Prada knickers. Depression in the developed world he says might be “unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.” He adds that with technology constantly mutating and multiplying, in modern societies generational problems occur when an older lot can’t manage and access new ideas, technology, culture, which nurtures alienation and the risk of idealising the past, and not enjoying the present. Devout traditionalism then becomes a shield that cowers from the present, and in doing so, casts a shadow over its owner.

He gives special attention to envy and guilt. “The habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one,” he tells us, unaware of the future’s global spectre of social networks where conspicuous happiness has created a pandemic of envy! “The human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship,” he writes. “To find the right road out of this despair civilised man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind.”

And if I post this quote on your FB page you can hit ‘like’…

One of the 21st century’s most outspoken literary sages, Jonathan Franzen, gave a speech on his thoughts about modern technology, social media, liking, and how it fits with our feelings of well-being: “The ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes – a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance – with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” He tells us that we can now “star in our own movies”, and while we might kindly share our umpteen photos with all of our so called online mates, the “sense of mastery” we feel from doing so is likely the pay-off for a self-serving and cold act.

Talking about the reality of our diaphanous friendships and quasi-solidarity of the online community Franzen asks if the verb ‘to like’ has not been transformed/demoted from a “state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.” Our friendships online, and especially on Facebook, are consolidated not with sentimental, tactile, emotive interaction, but with an impassive, solitary tap of the index finger. The human bond, so essential to our well-being, has become desiccated within the apathetic medium of the online hub. Social networks have become bottomless pools into which billions of modern Narcissists sit entranced staring at their own virtual reflections. “It’s all one big endless loop,” Franzen says, “we like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

The back-lash to this fraudulent lifestyle and dodgy online persona we create on social media, says Franzen, is that it is inevitable that you and your super-image will sooner or later come to blows, “You’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight,” he tells us, and we might be reminded of Superman’s hardest and darkest ever scrap when he had to contend with his long-repressed alter ego in the junkyard. “You’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person.”

Russell also talks about how our being in the public eye can cause extremes of suffering, guilt, persecution mania. It’s “self-centred,” he says, and warns us not to focus too much “attention on oneself” nor spend too much time dwelling on how others might think about us. In some ways Russell’s idea of suffering is ‘social media’. “It is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations,” he wrote 80 years ago, having absolutely no intimation that it would become quite normal to have 600 neighbours peering through our virtual windows daily in the future.

In Russell’s conclusion to his Conquest of Happiness he expresses that above all it is love, friendship, and union that are the foundations of man’s well-being. He is well aware of the pleasure paradox, the notion of false happiness and destructive desires. “All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack of integration…The happy man is the man who does not suffer from [either of these] failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe…It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”

Is happiness more difficult to achieve in a developing country?

The idea of creating widespread social happiness became well known through Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian philosophy that expounded the theory of, ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’. Bentham created a ‘Hedonic Calculus’ so we might know what ‘good’ actually means as a citizen of a society, though his revelations about ‘good’ have always been controversial. In Asia today, countries such as Thailand are presently researching their GNH (Gross National Happiness). Negative Utilitarianism is more in vogue though, which means lessening suffering in the greatest numbers.

For many citizens, troubled times, wars, oppressive dictatorships, poverty, absence of rights, jobs, free speech, may certainly lead towards a protracted state of unhappiness, though it might not always be the case. National Happyism started in Bhutan when the King, in 1972, created the GNH, based on economy, fair governance, salubrious environment, GDP, and positive religion/culture. Despite Bhutan’s relatively undeveloped status it is ranked (World Map of Happiness) the 8th happiest country in the world. Thailand is ranked 76th.

Dr. Paritat explained that Thailand’s Department of Health, and the health insurance department, have compiled (2009) a happiness index for all provinces, in which Chiang Mai is 15th out of 77. The results were based on things such as income/expenses, debt, job satisfaction, but they also acquired data on other more personal aspects of well-being such as perception of one’s own happiness, the mental capacity and skills to achieve happiness and cope with suffering, the spiritual feeling of goodness in a person, and the inter-dependent relationships a person has. Paritat explained that using drugs such as Prozac is definitely not a solution to unhappiness. His belief is that a person can change his sense of well-being with practice and effort, naturally. “Prozac is cost effective, though first I always suggest exercise, positive meditation, lifestyle changes,” says the doctor.

“I believe 80% of our happiness is derived internally, not from what most people think – the external.” Dr. Paritat refers to Matthieu Ricard and his theory of transcending pain by using our “higher brain”. Through positive thinking and meditation it is said that Ricard’s brain shows positive emotions. He can induce happiness, in quantity, all by himself. External happiness – that means gaining happiness from others, things, objects – is “not a good strategy, it’s not sustainable,” says Dr. Paritat, and though he believes that suffering is part of human nature, a necessary part, he tells us that “suffering and happiness are not mutually exclusive, they can live together.”

Will (trans)humans of the future experience something we haven’t: enduring happiness? Can we imagine well-being without corresponding counter feelings? What goes up, not coming down? What would be the consequences of positive emotional constancy? Could meditation habitually replace medication? We can lessen the amount of violence, torture, pain and misery in all societies, by our own self-realisation, and then by realising others, we can start to tame the selfish animal inside of us. But much of the so-called civilised world is drugged up, knocked to its knees by ennui, abused by its own freedom. Our present challenge is to enjoy this freedom. We learn from infancy to compulsively chase fool’s gold, the stuff that offers only the most temporary kind of happiness, but what else is there to do, ‘what’s it all about?’ Reinvent, says Buddha – as do the drug dealers in The Wire when they change ‘the game’ to evade arrest -, while American utopian philosopher Richard Rorty tells us that what we think we know of life, and our own lives, requires ongoing redescription. Adapt to survive, the world is never stable, and so stasis in our minds is dangerous…arrested development can induce total dereliction. And you know they say getting lost is essential to achieving happiness… “Loss of pain results in repeat trauma and early death,” says Dr. Paritat allegorically, when talking about people with congenital analgesia (people who cannot feel physical pain), “we can’t get rid of suffering, but we can learn to live with it.”

Franzen ends his techno-phobic talk on the human condition of happiness, and the union of love, just as Russell did generations before him: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it…When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”