What is Happiness?

What is Happiness?

Sandwiched somewhere between “does god exist?” and “who ate my leftovers?” sits the question we will all ask ourselves at some point. Why are we here and what is the purpose of life?

When asked this, some of the most common responses goes as follows;
“To be happy”
“To better the world”
“To help society progress”
“For the relationships and experiences”
“To breed”
“For no reason, life is crap then you die”

The most widely accepted answer to this question is “to be happy.” However, once formulating this conclusion the looming question remains, how does one achieve happiness? And what is happiness anyway?

Happiness is an emotion
When there are so many workshops and articles telling you how to “get” happy, it’s easy to forget that happiness is an emotion and state of mind, not something you can check off your to-do list.

Emotions can be defined as the physical manifestations of the thoughts we are thinking, the actions we are taking, and how we are responding to our environments. They are our gauges, letting us know how we are doing both internally and externally.

Biology and emotions

While emotions let us know how we feel about something, they should not always be listened to, as they are often based on false thoughts or there for a biological reason. Fear, for example, is designed to keep us safe, but we all know if you live in fear, you won’t be doing much in this life. When it comes to taking chances or making big changes, we often have to overcome this physiological impulse that is telling us to stay where it is safe.

Fatigue is also an emotion of protection, when you are on a run and start to feel fatigued, it is your brain producing the emotion of fatigue so you stop at some point and don’t die during exercise. Ever notice how you can be running and feel so fatigued you don’t think you can take one more step, but then a song you love comes on and suddenly you’re able to run for another 10 mins? You can actually keep running and running till you hurt yourself, but fatigue is there so you stop before that point.

Happiness, on the other hand, is linked to the chemicals oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These chemicals can be produced in response to healthy behaviors such as accomplishing a goal, enjoying a nice meal, laughing, or having sex. However, they are also linked to unhealthy habits like overeating, compulsive shopping, and drug use. Thus, just because something makes you feel happy does not mean it is good for you.

Emotions are Tied to Thoughts

To quote Whitney Houston, “I get so emotional baby, every-time I think of you…”

When we realize that many of our emotions are coming from the pre-programmed thoughts in our brain, things can get even more tricky. Due to our memories and how we have reacted to situations in the past, which impacts how we react in the present, we have laid down a network of neural connections in the brain that will influence our perceptions and emotional responses to situations. What that means is while many things in life are neutral, we will give positive or negative meanings that are not there. As a result, we can feel positive or negative emotions toward an often neutral object, person, or situation just by how we have categorized it in our minds.

Fear example; my friend thinks spiders are creepy and ugly, thus she has trained her brain to associate them as something bad and to be avoided. When she sees a spider, without even thinking, she will pull a ninja like move and quickly dart out of the room. My other friend has a very different take on spiders, she believes they are beautiful and unique. Thus, when she sees an 8 legged critter she feels appreciation for them and watches them in joy.

Symbolic example; let’s say we live in a culture that says being pooped on by a bird is good luck. So when a bird dumps a hot load on our back and we think, gross, but hey, I must be lucky today! So you walk away feeling happy and maybe even go play the lottery. But let’s say we live in a culture where being pooped on means you have bad luck. Now when this occurs, not only is it gross, but you also think you are unlucky. Thus, you walk away unhappy and maybe don’t even take a chance on something because you think you’re unlucky today. In reality, there is no meaning behind being crapped on by a bird, it simply means you were standing under the spot where a bird needed to use the bathroom. This may sound like a silly example, but it shows how giving meaning to a seemingly meaningless situation can not only impact your happiness, but also your behavior.

Dating example; let’s say Bob, the guy you just starting dating, or Jane, the girl you went on a few dates with, hasn’t responded to your message in the last 5 hours, but he/she usually responds quickly. Now, in essence, this change in behavior at this point has no meaning. It simply means they have not responded in 5 hours and are either busy doing something or are choosing not to respond at the moment for whatever reason. However, so many people will start giving meaning to this situation and most of them will be negative. Many will associate that persons change in behavior to mean something about them or jump to worst case conclusions such as “this person must no longer like me, I must have said something stupid….maybe they got in a car accident,” etc. Now let’s say 6 hours later they write back about the crazy busy day they had and how they can’t wait to see you. Essentially by giving meaning to a meaningless scenario we put ourselves under a lot of unneeded stress and unhappiness.

What this all means is often our emotions are nothing more then our body telling us if we are perceiving a situation as positive or negative. When in reality there often isn’t a good or bad, or even a meaning to many situations, just our perception, which is then translated into emotions.

Extreme Emotions

Our emotions can also make us think in extremes. When we decide we like someone, we often feel excess love and appreciation for that person, without them having to do much at all. We may even put them on a pedestal and ignore their faults. On the other hand, for someone we fear or dislike, we may make everything they do more dramatic than it really is. If you hate your boss, then they may just look at you weird and you feel disdain for them.

I know it may sound like I’m telling everyone to be less emotional, I’m not, I’m just saying to understand that emotions can have a powerful influence on you and your behavior and often they are nothing more than a biological or neurological reaction to how we are perceiving a situation. So when you realize this, you realize that we all can feel a lot happier and more peaceful at any moment, just with a shift of perspective and getting clear on the basis of our emotions.

The Gut Reaction 

“Your gut knows what’s up, trust that #$@&%!…” ~SassyGirl101

Lastly, emotions keep us honest, they are the detectors that alarm when we are lying to ourselves or something just feels “off.” There are times in life when it is easy to lie to ourselves in order to do what feels comfortable or safe. Change and taking risks are often uncomfortable, but this is where strong emotions can actually help us overcome fear and confusion. Some call this intuition, others call it your gut, but we all have experienced those strong emotions that let us know what is right for us and what is not.

Have you ever talked yourself into a situation only to feel a kick in your gut scream NO at you? Maybe you love your current job, but were considering taking that higher paying job in a position you knew you would not be fulfilled in. That sinking feeling in your gut is your indicator that taking that job would probably be the wrong choice.

Or the reverse, when you really wanted to take a risk on something, but were paralyzed in stagnation due to fear. Perhaps your mind was telling you NO, this is not smart, but even the thought of going for it made your heart sing. Maybe you were in a dead end job and really wanted to start you own company, but convinced yourself the day job offered security and that was most important. This is where strong emotions and that feeling in your gut can take over and let you know its time to be brave and go for it.

Emotions do help us determine when something isn’t right for us or when we are limiting ourselves. So when people say “listen to your gut,” I would agree, but make sure you can tell the difference between a nervous gut that is a normal response to change and one that is limiting you due to fears. Deep down you know when you are being scared or lazy and when you’re being smart and patient. You know when it’s time to take action, and often that is when the drawbacks from the current situation out weight your fear of change or your desire to do something.

But, Back to Happiness…
There are two main types of happiness, active and passive. Passive happiness occurs without us needing to do anything and is the result of observing or experiencing something that most would deem positive.

Active happiness, on the other hand, requires some effort. It is when we chose to be happy despite a seemingly negative circumstance by shifting our perspectives or by taking action. An example of a shift in perspective would be deciding to look at failure as a lesson rather than the end game. Another perspective shift is choosing to become more present in the moment; spending too much time in our heads, replaying the past or pondering the future will lead to a lack of clarity and decreased enjoyment of the present moment. Along with perspective shits, there are times when action will be needed. While reprogramming the mind with perspective shifts lays down the tracks for changes towards happiness, action is the catalyst that helps solidify that shift.

Many people are living on autopilot, meaning they are blindly reacting to the dictates of their surroundings. They feel happy when good things happen and sad when bad things happen. This sounds logical and obvious, but it’s more complex than that since we just stated that often our reactions to situations are based on flawed principles and preconceived notions. To experience true happiness we must be honest with ourselves on what makes us happy, why, where it came from, and if it is the best source of happiness for your well being and goals in life.

SO- most often we feel happy when observing something pleasant, thinking something pleasant, when something good happens, or are in a state of stillness such as during meditation. In contrast when we are fearful or sad, it is likely that we have some negative internal talk going on or you could be in actual danger, like seeing a bear.

BUT- We can also make the decision to feel happier in all kinds of situations through shifts in perspective or momentary acceptance. Thus, by this premise, we can choose to be in passive happiness or active happiness.

This is important because without being conscious of our emotions and taking ownership of them, as well as our happiness, emotions can run amok. I’m sure we all have that one friend who is going around angry all the time and shouting at people or that sad friend who is always depressed and feeling sorry for him or herself. In this society, we have been taught that temper tantrums will get us attention. So we shout to be heard or cry to be placated, but we are not doing ourselves or the other person involved a service when we encourage victim mentality.

Another reason we should reach for active happiness in those lower feeling moments is to shift our baseline emotion. The emotion we practice the most becomes our set point, much like a habit. So if we practice a negative baseline emotion we will be more likely to look for things to feel bad about, which will affect not only our mood, but also our actions and relationships. On the other hand, if we have a more positive baseline emotion, we will look for things to feel happy about and likely be better company and less hesitant to take action.

The best thing to do when feeling negative emotion is to ask yourself this; what am I thinking, what am I scared of, is it rational? So often the angriest or most depressed people are also the most fearful. Now if you are scared cause you see a bear–RUN. But if the fear is due to something else, like fear of failure, being alone, being embarrassed, etc then one may need to do some self work to overcome this fear. When fear is reduced, you will be able to react to challenges in life with more logic and positive emotions.

Conditional Happiness
Conditional happiness, in the most simple terms, is happiness that is dependent on favorable conditions and outside circumstances such as praise, material goods, or accolades. It is the feeling we get after winning an award, buying a new expensive toy, or taking a lover. With conditional happiness, you will feel elated in the moment, but the high will not last very long and you will soon be chasing your next fix.

This phenomenon results in two outcomes; 1) helps society progress as a whole 2) puts you at risk of being dependent on outside factors for happiness.

Helps Society Progress
Picture this, you peel the wrapping off your new upgraded phone and are overcome with feelings of excitement and happiness, but how long does that feeling last? A day, maybe a week? I would guess that within 2 weeks you have fully adjusted to this new phone and are not only taking the new features for granted, but are likely already complaining that the phone is too slow. Bottom line, while complaining that the tiny computer in your hand, known as the phone, is sending signals to space too slowly may seem annoying, it is actually good for mankind.

The fact that we quickly adapt to our newly improved lives and are just as quickly complaining about those improvements is why we continue to progress as a society. The circle of complaining and improving, complaining and improving, is actually a big part of creation and advancement.

The key to advancing without being an entitled jerk is to be content where you are while striving for more. Content with your new phone, but not fully satisfied and still dreaming of ways to make it and life a little better. To move forward while always maintaining a sense of gratitude is essential for growth.

Risk for Dependence
When you rely on a person or condition outside yourself to feel happy or whole, then you are at risk of being dependent on that condition. This will reduce your ability to cope with the low moments in life, for if that situation changes or that person leaves, you will not only feel loss, but also a lack of identity. In this state, you may find yourself constantly chasing your next fix. Endlessly striving for likes on Instagram, compliments from peers and the opposite sex, new material objects, or even taking drugs, all of which will quickly leave you exhausted and depleted. This is why having a strong sense of self is needed for true happiness.

Now we all, minus a few lone wolfs, want to be in a loving relationship and have a fulfilling career. Loving someone and being loved is one of the most fulfilling aspects of life, right up there with having a sense of purpose. However, there is a difference between needing a partner and wanting one. Those who can’t be without a relationship or are needy are typically those who are dependent on the love of others to feel whole, worthy, or happy.

To be truly happy you must always remember that you are whole, lovable, and worthy just for being you. And yes, while that car, job, or partner is something worth striving for, don’t let those aspects outside of you, define you. Loving yourself and letting your actions and how you treat others define you, while keeping a clear perspective, is a sure way to weather the knocks in life and boost happiness.

Recap on Happiness

What is happiness? An emotion!

How do we feel it? Though internal and external sources

How do we keep it? By choosing to be happy and acknowledging it is a state (emotion) not a situation

….but what if my life sucks right now and I don’t see any good things to feel happy about?
Well, look again, I’m sure you can identify something or someone, you are grateful for. You can feel grateful for what you have while also planning for change. There is great relief in knowing nothing lasts forever.

…but what if I’m not grateful for anything and too tired to make a change?
Then stay unhappy until you are tired of being unhappy. Eventually, you will be tired of being unhappy and ready to make some changes.

…but what if I’m unhappy because of someone else? because my boss is a jerk, but I need the money so I can’t leave.
Then try to shift the way you interact with that person and realize you are choosing to stay. You have decided that dealing with that mean boss is less difficult than finding a new job so try to make the best of that decision until you are ready and able to make a change.

Conclusion and Perspective

One of the best ways to sustain a feeling of happiness is to ensure that our sources of joy are coming from both internal and external stimuli. The most stable sources of happiness come from a strong sense of self, a positive perspective, love for others, self-awareness, and a sense of purpose. A solid foundation of these core factors will allow us to handle dips in life without our happiness levels plummeting faster than Theranos stocks via 2018.

Written By
Jessica Chrisman
Certified Family Nurse Practitioner

Jessica Graduated magna cum lade from the University of Miami with a Masters of Science and is a board certified FNP. While in school she worked at a cardiac clinic where she served as the head research liaison on a pacemaker and coronary artery study. As a medical provider Jessica has worked in a wide range of specialties including primary care, epidemiology, cardiac surgery, ENT, occupational health, and longevity. She has also held management positions as the clinical director of an epidemiology practice that focused on global health and collaborated with UCLA on their Monkey pox study. Most recently she works as a medical director at one of the top entertainment companies where she treats employees, oversees operations, and creates educational content. Jessica has a passion for education and bridging the gap between health and modern day living. She consults for several health startup companies, some of which have included WebMD and Care Message. Creating and implementing educational programs for students and employees, Jessica has guest lectured at various campuses and places of employment.

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