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.

This Week in Upgrades: March 7

…And we’re back! After a couple weeks of needed break, I’m refreshed and ready to write up a storm. Los Angeles is even cooperating today with my favorite writing conditions: gray, rainy, and cool.

To get the week started right, here are some of the most interesting human things from the last seven days–free of Donald Drumpf (Except for that essential John Oliver video in the link. You absolutely must watch it if you haven’t).

Why are human beings curious?

Grammar upgrade: less vs. fewer.

Others on the go deeper than perceptions train: beware the dominant narrative.

For the first time, the Northern Hemisphere has averaged 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial temperatures–the benchmark beyond which many scientists believe climate change becomes especially dangerous for human beings. Gulp.

Speaking of climate change, Sunday night’s Democratic Debate finally touched on fracking–the fool’s gold strategy for cleaner energy.

Sad confirmation of what most Millennials probably already know: “…The economic downturn, slow recovery and student debt have cancelled out today’s record workforce productivity and levels of higher education.”

Researchers have released sound recordings from the deepest trench in the ocean, and they’re super eerie. Please don’t play these around me. #thalassophobia

What do we know about the entry-level Tesla Model 3–the car that’s supposed to bring electric vehicles to the masses?

Cured meats are delicious. Up your food knowledge with salumi 101.

There’s a growing consensus that exposure to peanuts as an infant prevents the development of a peanut allergy. Interesting.

Thoroughly satisfying video of a log cabin start to finish.

 

How to Adult: Staying Informed

With the amount of time we’re all spending online, you’d think it would be basically inevitable that we’re well-informed about what’s going on in the world. Constant connection, theoretically, should lead to awareness.

And that’s true some of the time. Major events kind of pop up everywhere. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November, for example, appeared on everything from entertainment shows like Extra to The Economist to friends’ grieving Facebook posts. There was reflection and mourning across nearly every platform.

But most current events do not have such a sudden impact across the world. They burn slower or smaller, and require deliberate attention to notice them and follow their progression.

Can you name all of the presidential candidates still running? Could you quickly summarize the situation in Syria and the migration crisis to a friend? Do you know what the Zika virus is and who it’s affecting? Can you articulate how climate change is disproportionately impacting poor people? If you nailed all of these, give yourself a pat on the back.

For the rest of us, it’s not entirely obvious what’s happening in the world and how to stay in-the-know.

Traditional news media–like the nightly news on television or an editorial in a newspaper–do not have the audiences they once commanded. When is the last time you watched or read one of these?

Even a news pillar like the New York Timeswhich has a successful digital version to go with its long-running print newspaper, seems to be an afterthought to media providers geared for more pop culture-savvy viewers: BuzzFeed, Mashableand others.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are days when we would rather think about how delicious guacamole onion rings must be, or how adorable baby polar bears are, than the weightier things going on.

And with the surplus of content and creators, there are voices, perspectives, and issues at the forefront that never have before. This is awesome.

The potential to become more aware has absolutely been unlocked by our connectivity. But we have to actually do a little work to get there. Food porn and cute animals can crowd out the more profound stuff.

So how can you stay well-informed? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Find some hard news sources that don’t bore you to death. You don’t have to watch C-SPAN unless you want to watch C-SPAN. But Facebook and Twitter can’t be anyone’s only entry point to current events.

A few that I follow regularly are NBC News (nationally and in the Los Angeles area), The Guardian, and NPR. You might also consider following a source like The Associated Press on Twitter for significant breaking stories. Make sure you’re getting a good balance of things happening locally in your own city and country, and world news much farther away.

(2) Cultivate a breadth of commentary about current events. You’re looking for sources that go beyond outlining the basic facts (that’s what the things in (1) are for), to discuss their context and meaning. Don’t just gravitate to voices you agree with. Find ones that challenge or even contradict your worldview and beliefs. Choices for these are nearly endless. Some that I look at regularly are: The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Gawker and Gizmodo, Arts & Letters Daily, and SlateYou’ll find your go-tos in no time.

3. Go Deeper than Perceptions with current events. Question easy narratives and simple labels to see if there’s more going on below the surface. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist. But oftentimes there’s more to the story than what’s being presented to you. After journalists and content creators have done their work, this is your chance to reflect on what you took away from what happened and how that fits into the context of the world as you understand it.

4. When you’ve digested it all yourself, talk about it with other people. Conversation is the way to shared awareness and understanding. When you bring it up, it might be the first time someone else has heard about it. Or they may have a completely different perspective than you that you should patiently listen to and consider. We’re all in this together, and we should all be talking about what’s happening around us and what we’re going to do about it.

Do these seem like things you can do on a regular basis? Do you already do them? Are there other habits you think are important for staying informed week-to-week?

An essential part of finding your way as an adult is knowing what’s going on in the broader society around you. You start to figure out how you fit into our complexly interconnected world, what people and forces are shaping that world today, and what you can do to make a difference. Staying informed is necessary. The world would be a more interesting and better place if we all knew a little more about what’s happening in it. And now you know some good places to start.

Go Deeper than Perceptions

We live in a perceptions are reality kind of world.

On the drive home the other day, I started making a right turn after the light turned green. A couple people who had been chatting on the corner suddenly decided to push the pedestrian walk light and go. I was already passing through their crosswalk, and came quite close while they were trying to cross the street. From their perspective, I probably appeared reckless–even malicious–some asshole who doesn’t know how to drive, endangering pedestrians. As I continued driving down the street I could see both of them in my rear-view mirror with middle fingers raised high. It was completely unintentional. If I had been playing it as safely as possible I could have waited another 5 or 10 seconds after the light changed to see if they were going to go from talking idly to walking across the street. It would have prevented the whole thing. But once it happened, it colored their entire perspective of who I was and what I’m like.

Our understanding of other people and the world we inhabit is primarily at the surface. As soon as we start to create a narrative about something, it’s hard for the story we’re telling ourselves to change–even if there is new information or contradiction.

Think about the people you work with. Unless you are good friends with them outside of work, your idea of who they are and how they operate is most likely shaped by a few, obvious surface features. The football team they like. How often they get drunk. How their work ethic appears. What kind of romantic relationship they’re in. If they have kids. Unless you’re really close and openly converse with each other about anything and everything, the person you’re interacting with at work is primarily just a perception of who they are and not the full-fledged human being.

The perceptions, the streamlined narratives we create based on a few features, are part of our human nature. We make them about other people, events in the world, and the rest of the things that confront us, because they help us boil it down to categories we can understand and pieces we can chew. As I’ve written before, us and them, right and wrong, and other categories like that, feel good and helpful because it turns a complex world into a (supposedly) understandable one. But that’s not a very enlightened level of understanding.

Rarely is the world as neat as clean categories and obvious observations. Perceptions often lie. We like them, and use them for other people because we want to make a judgment about who they are, file it away in our brain, and move on to other things. We have a version of them we can grasp and gameplan for. But when it comes to ourselves, we’d prefer to think we are exceedingly complex, and that few people (if anyone) understand the real me. I didn’t feel I was very well understood when I was getting flipped the bird. I definitely could have done things differently, but that situation didn’t encapsulate who I am–the apparent asshole.

Perhaps this explains the intrigue and popularity of a show like Making a Murderer. Through a very patient filming process, and expert editing to convey all of the nuance, we come to see as the audience that the immediate perceptions of criminal and victim, good and bad, law-enforcer and law-breaker, innocent and guilty, are not always true, helpful, or easily distinguished. We come to see that a few surface judgments about socioeconomic class, grooming and appearance, and minor indiscretions in the past quickly turn into a rich narrative about how someone is “evil incarnate,” an immense danger to society, and the obvious perpetrator of a crime that there’s actually little evidence for (evidence that may have even been tampered with or planted). If you haven’t seen the show you should watch it, and pay particular attention to how clean-cut the story about Steven Avery is in the media and prosecution’s telling, versus the kind of detail you get from his interviews with the filmmakers, interviews with family, and the evidence from a more objective viewpoint. How does the perception of Steven Avery in the public eye match up with the real Steven Avery (as best we can tell from everything we’re shown)?

Perceptions are too easy. If we don’t want others’ view of us to be oversimplified, we shouldn’t want to have and hold oversimplified ones about other people either. Living off of perception creates everything from brief interpersonal conflict–like the pedestrians I passed too closely–to getting someone wrongfully imprisoned once–if not twice–for a huge chunk of their life. We should expect more than this from ourselves and from each other.

So dig. Go deeper. Look and listen patiently. Go beyond how someone or a situation first appears to what’s actually being said and done. How might the person or thing be being misconstrued–in your own mind or publicly? Push through the perceptions you have, and see if there are pieces that you missed. Your co-worker’s life story is probably a lot more complex (and interesting) than you think.

Have you fully examined things closely yourself? Or did you quickly form an opinion based on hearsay or one side of the issue? Something coming to you only through the media or only through someone you like has already probably skewed it in a particular direction.

Talk with people who disagree with you. Listen to their view of things, and thoughtfully give it the best consideration to be right and closer to reality before you begin critiquing it and breaking it down.

Go deeper than perceptions.