Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

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