The Trouble With ‘Happiness’ As The Metric

Emotions are internal reactions we feel, not existential states we can be.

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Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Happiness is a great feeling. It’s uplifting, empowering, energizing…the list could go on and on and on. All things being equal we would all rather feel happy than just about any other feeling. The desire to feel happy is at the heart of virtually every goal we set for ourselves. Even those aimed at avoiding pain still point towards the potential for feeling happy. The trouble is we tend to depict happiness as a state of being, a fixed one at that, and as an absolute. It’s none of those things.

Feelings Are Reactions

All of our emotions are internal responses to stimuli from our environment. They are not a status we obtain or a method we apply, they are reflexive reactions. We cannot simply will ourselves to feel them at random, nor can we simply will ourselves not to. The stimulus triggers the response.

We can’t control or eliminate the responses but we can have power over the triggers.

Our attitudes and approaches can greatly influence our experiences, shaping them to favor certain responses over others. A positive attitude does not make us automatically happier but it does focus our attentions and energies on finding characteristics in our environment which are more likely to produce reactions of happiness.

The same goes for negative attitudes. If we become fixated on the aspects of every situation which inspire fear or anger or pain then that is how we will perceive the world around us and those will be the emotions we will feel the most. There are always sources of both positive and negative emotions in all situations. Our attitude doesn’t create the emotions it simply determines which sources we pay more attention to.

Our emotional responses are clear and honest indicators of success in our lives but to truly measure and map that success we have to look at the tone and texture of the situations, circumstances, and triggers we have built and curated for ourselves. The success isn’t in the emotion but in building a life more likely to inspire the emotion.

Feelings Vary In Intensity

Our emotions do not come in set levels and amounts. There’s not just one setting for happy or sad or angry or afraid. The level of intensity depends on a myriad of different factors and even the tiniest variance in any one of them can radically change the resulting emotional response.

The same source can inspire completely different levels of happiness in different people and the happiness it makes you feel today can be drastically different from the happiness you feel tomorrow.

All too often we talk about happiness as if it were a ‘one-size-fits’ all absolute. If you achieve something which should inspire happiness you will be ‘happy’, guaranteed and to the same level and degree every time. No two experiences are ever truly identical, and even if they were we are never in exactly the same mental and emotional state at any two different points in time.

If we want to utilize feelings of happiness as a way of tracking and measuring success in our lives we have to acknowledge and allow for the fact our emotions come in near infinitely differing shades and degrees, both in our measurements and in our definitions.

Feelings Are Not Singular

We are never solely feeling one thing at a time. There are always multiple emotions and reactions at play within us. Certain ones end up being more powerful and thus dominate our awareness and perceptions but others are always present and possible.

Just because you are happy does not mean you cannot feel sad nor does feeling sad disqualify you from feeling happiness.

Setting happiness up as the definition of success inadvertently implies that once we feel happy it will be the sole dominating emotion, or at least it should be if we’ve done it right. Not only is that not true it also shackles us with potentially crushing doubts and self-criticism the moment we aren’t able to live up to it.

No one emotion, positive or negative, will ever blot out all others. Even in our happiest moments there is room for sadness and even in our darkest moments we can find reasons to laugh and smile. Those tears do not banish or invalidate our happiness, nor do the smiles instantly vanquish the sorrow. Even contradictory things can, and do, co-exist. Ideologies built on one singular state or ‘answer’ superseding all others are both dangerous and ultimately doomed.

Feelings Are Temporary

The most radiant joy and the deepest cutting sorrow will both ebb and flow and eventually pass giving way to new and different emotions.

Emotions are a form of energy and are thus always in a state of flux. We can take action to continually re-stimulate them but no emotional state can be sustained indefinitely. The neural and chemical pathways eventually become numbed and as a result, not unlike a drug tolerance, it eventually takes greater and greater stimulation to produce the same emotional response which will inevitably last for shorter and shorter durations.

Another misleading falsehood of the ‘happiness as an absolute’ paradigm is the idea that once we have achieved it happiness becomes permanent. Depicting happiness and something which will never fade, falter, or change once it has been attained makes success impossible rigging the game as unwinnable. Our emotions are always shifting and evolving, it’s not a sign of failure or weakness it’s simply how emotions work. Trying to lock them into a fixed place, even one of happiness, is like trying to stop a river by grabbing the water with your hands.

Happiness Is Deeply Personal

All of our emotional responses are specific and unique to us. There are certainly commonalities and shared triggers. A warm sunny afternoon, snuggling with a puppy, eating our favorite foods are all likely to inspire happiness in most of us but the tone, context, and degree of intensity will be different for each individual. And for some the reaction could be powerfully negative.

Something which inspires extreme happiness in one person might only inspire mild enjoyment in another and even painful despair in yet another.

A further trouble with treating happiness as an absolute is the assumption that the same things will inspire the same types and amounts of it in everyone. In order to form genuine and effective gauges for success we have to start from the understanding that root definitions will look different for everyone. Commonalities do not negate this no matter how widespread they might be.

We have to look at what inspires happiness in ourselves and accept the fact it may, and often will, differ from those around us. That doesn’t make our definitions wrong or right, nor those of others, it simply makes them ours and the only way to reliably build the lives we want is to start with ‘wants’ which are truly our own.

So when setting goals and targets for ourselves, to build lives which are more likely to inspire feelings of happiness, we need to remember it isn’t the achieving of the goal which makes us feel that happiness. Though successfully completing a goal does evoke feelings of satisfaction it’s the change in our circumstances completing the goal creates which inspires the feelings of happiness we’re seeking.

Losing the weight doesn’t make us happy. Liking more what we see in the mirror, feeling healthier, getting more appreciative attention from those around us, those are the things which make us feel happy not the actual weight loss itself. That might seem relatively clear and obvious, at least with that example, but it’s amazing how quick we can be to forget about those secondary factors and simply place all our expectations upon the initial goal. “I’ve lost the weight so I should be happy now.”

Depicting happiness as the sole definition of success, as a permanent status which becomes fixed and all-encompassing once obtained enslaves us to an impossible struggle under false and misleading pretenses. Happiness in an important part of the desired outcome but it is not the outcome itself. It is an indicator of it.

‘Happy’ is not something we can be, but it is something we can try to build our lives to inspire in ourselves and others.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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