This week’s question is what is happiness? Is it static emotional state between sorrow and joy, a neutral state of contentment, or is it ephemeral and fleeting like a forest sprite, popping in and out of our lives? I know I have been pursuing this elusive butterfly for the entirety of my life, still left with questions about what I’m pursuing. I’m not sure we will figure out the correct way to find it for everyone, but I think at the very least we can attempt to define it, look at it and give it an identifying pin on the human emotional map.
Psychologists like to frame happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, pride, and high interest coupled with infrequent bouts of negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger in other words a deficit of depressing feelings and a surplus of upbeat and positive feelings. I like that there is an acknowledgement of the existence of both within the definition if for no other reason than to acknowledge that there is no perpetually happy person.
Generally, though, happy people have a special penchant for processing life events with a positive spin; especially those challenging events or perceptions of such events that might take some or most of us down. I suppose it is the optimist versus pessimist viewpoint. This seems largely a perception thing, and more or less defines how individuals interpret life events.
The outcome of those perceptions could lead to a happy person viewpoint or conversely, or it could mean someone who is largely negative processes the inputs in an entirely different way leading to a neutral or sad interpretation. Hence connecting life moments dot by dot to create could either a happy life or a sad one. All in the eyes of the beholder.
Aristotle saw happiness more in the act of doing than in the being mode of perception and receiving. The Greeks believed happiness was in a life well lived -- an aspiration, not so much a state of being. Which begs the question is happiness an emotional state or is it found in a state of living or becoming, something to strive for? Nietzsche argued that the pursuit of happiness was contemptible. Instead one should endeavor to instead focus on the difficult and challenging struggles of life. Something noble in just reaching the finish line, no smiling permitted. Perhaps, Nietzsche was not a very happy person.
Modern psychology endeavors to define happiness along two lines. Both mirror some of the ancient Greek philosophy concerning happiness. One most familiar to most of the Western world is the idea of hedonia – the pleasure principle of happiness. This concept is much like the attempt often found today of connecting the dots of happiness moments to create the illusion of a continuum of happiness. It is exploited continuously by the advertising agencies to create a desire for a product, equating the acquisition of said product with a happiness moment, i.e., new car, new house, new can opener, you get the picture.
The other Greek concept copped by modern science about happiness is the notion of eudaimonia or the well lived life. This is really translated as life with meaning, living a satisfying, contented life. This idea is less focused on moment by moment acquisition of happiness, but rather a lifelong thread of aspirational living.
In reality, both of the concepts appear to live concurrently with happy people. They seem to enjoy moments more positively and over time live more satisfying happiness producing lives. This might also be described as living life in more of a flow state with more peak experiences – focused, absorbed and active. Positive Psychology even calls out the main elements associated with happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, high engagement (see flow), satisfying relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments (reaching goals).
It’s no wonder that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson annunciated this in the Declaration, a particularly popular notion of that time: “…of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And as the U.S. has become the poster child of capitalism, it’s fitting that Jefferson’s definition of happiness was interpreted to mean – prosperity, thriving and well being.
But what of the highly sensitive person population and happiness? Does our observant, cautious and sometimes timid natures, make us less likely to actively pursue this thing called happiness. Is it possible we are wired to be a bit more pessimistic, therefore a little less prone to the pursuit of elusive ideals? With happiness comes some of the most intense of emotions, including, love, joy, ecstasy, and are we more prone to shying away from that intensity? Does happiness create too much brain chemistry for HSPs? Yeah, I know it sounds absurd, but I wonder sometimes if we are most contented when we live in the neutral zone. I’m thinking joy suppression here to affect calm over emotional exuberance.
Positive and negative emotions have important evolutionary components. Neuroscience suggests that our proclivity towards pleasure is an important driver in survival. Our perception of pleasure which can be an affective state, essentially straddling somewhere between the lower brain/upper brain neurological connections, subliminal in nature, contrasts with the higher level state of conscious affective pleasure, which overlays conscious thought onto the neurological communication of pleasure seeking. These pleasure centers are all over the brain from limbic to cortical areas all acting in concert driving behavior. Each influencing either a “like response” or a “want (desire) response”, the former more primitive and the later more consciously influenced. Together they both move us towards the pleasure principle aspect of happiness.
So how does this filter through the HSP brain? Are we different than non-HSPs when it comes to happiness? Does our empathetic nature and deep processing of environmental inputs, put as at an advantage or disadvantage in pursuing happiness? Because of our “deep wiring” do we naturally form strong neural networks between the emotion centers and cortical regions and because we engage these almost continuously are we if given the proper environment in which to work/live are we more likely to be content, satisfied, dare I say, happier? Do HSPs live in the hedonia zone or are we more content with eudaimonia principles? If I were a betting man, I’d say the latter.
And what about being unhappy? Is it so bad not to be happy all the damn time? Does being unhappy really mean being sad or down? Can we be just as fulfilled by pursuing the neutrality of contentment? And is all this talk of happiness not especially useful for HSPs who live within the full spectrum of human emotion. Can we be condemned for not being slap happy all the time? Being more intuitive, more empathetic, more emotional and deep processors -- does that not lend us to getting stuck in one emotional state from time to time. Again, perhaps, we should strive not to connect and hold on to the happiness dots as a pleasure pastime but rather striving for a more balanced and satisfying life, with the inherent ups and downs associated with a well lived life. Wouldn’t this be a good overriding principle for HSPs?
We are at a point in human history where the idea of every human being having an inherent right to happiness is considered to be a truth. It was as if a resort somewhere in the tropics where once we visited has now become a desired destination of permanent residence, just because we were happy for a brief time there in the past. Not realizing that happiness, like resort living, comes at a price. A state of perpetual happiness is likely not possible, just like holding a moment in time, trying to make it last forever. Happiness comes and goes, flitting in our lives like the elusive butterfly. The idea of happiness as an elongated moment, that will last a lifetime is myth. We aspire to happiness as we aspire to spiritual growth. It is a journey, not a destination. Yet, all of it is good - even sadness, even the state of not happy.
I’ve been in pursuit of happiness all my life. An elusive and impossible dream. Looking outside of myself everywhere to acquire, befriend or pursuit it. I’m not sure I’ve ever found it for long. Does that mean it doesn’t exist – not likely, but maybe my personal definition is skewed? Maybe like the butterfly, happiness appears out of nowhere arriving for a fleeting moment. We that are living life, never know exactly when it will come. For the observant ones, we experience it outwardly and inwardly by a variety of uncontrollable means. Happiness is temporary, it comes and goes, just like the butterfly, it flies away again in jagged butterfly patterns. It zigs in and out of our lives, showing up like an omen, and then leaves without warning. We never catch this butterfly, for to do so will destroy it. But, maybe the illusion is that we can catch it and keep it for all time. It does seem there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Yet, we get them confused.
Happiness is like art, we behold, enjoy it, interpret it, often misunderstand it, but somewhere within our souls we crave and appreciate it. By recognizing this, we can then quit making a living pursuing it; instead, live our lives with integrity and contentment. Know the art work of life that we are creating is flawed and gets weathered by life and yet perfect for us at a deep and soulful level. You see there are really no rules here, not for happiness. If we can say that at the end of life, that we lived a life in which happiness visited us many times, then surely we are blessed. The breadcrumbs to happiness are scattered on the ground where life was lived. Be happy to recognize when happiness finds you.
Note: It’s funny how the pronunciation of words can change over time. The word happiness is one of those words. I have noted in many films of the 30s and 40s that the word is pronounced by both American and British actors with emphasis on the “p” and the “ee” sound in the word happy is less like we pronounce it today and more flat like ”uh”, something like hap-puh-ness vs. happ-ee-ness. Every year around Christmas, I watch the Bishops Wife with David Niven, I notice this, don’t know why. Let’s just say it was an inspiration for this blog.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.