Happiness 101 - How Long Have You Not Felt Truly Happy?

Often we gained something in life that others think can bring happiness, but we don’t feel happy. So, what is happiness? Why can't we feel happiness? Today, we will talk about "happiness."

What is happiness?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness very simply as:

1) a state of well-being and contentment;

2) a pleasurable or satisfying experience;

As early as 1960, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, defined the basic factor for happiness to be:

1) Good physical and mental health;

2) Good personal and intimate relationships, such as those of marriage, the family, and friendships;

3) The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature;

4) Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work;

5) A philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.

Studies over the past two decades have found that our level of sustained well-being is determined by 3 factors:

1) The set point of our sense of well-being. The set point is determined by our genetics and contributes 50% on our level of well-being.

2) Our life circumstances, which includes some positive and negative events, such as marriage, income, appearance, anxiety, and sleep quality. Life circumstance has a 10% contribution on our happiness.

3) Voluntary activities, which are the things that we can do to change our level of well-being.

Voluntary activities, which contributes the remaining 40% to our happiness, are within our control.

Why do we not feel the sense of happiness at many times?

Psychologist Professor Bill von Hippel, in his course on happiness, mentioned that people often blindly pursue "things that we think will make us happy," but actually those things would not make us happy. He believes that people can't feel happy for 3 main reasons:

a) Our brain always focuses on the future, and never the happiness in the present.

According to Professor von Hipple, unlike other animals, the human brain has developed the ability to plan for the future. Although the "future planning" ability brings us certain benefits, it hinders us from feeling the happiness of the moment.

Such "future planning" ability also brings anxiety, resulting in us thinking about unfinished work, fearing those dangers that have not yet occurred, and not appreciating the beauty of our present surroundings.

To be happy, we need to pull ourselves out of the unpredictable future and return to the present. Otherwise, even if we have made achievements or are making progress, we will still be unhappy and anxious.

b) What would make us happy in the future will NOT make us happy now.

The second reason why we don't feel happy is that the happiness in our memory is different from what we feel at the present. Certain things that we do not feel happy about as we go through it would become moments of bliss when we recall in future.

In a study of babysitting kids, the study attendees felt that babysitting was as painful as doing chores in that moment, far less than the joy of watching TV; but when they were asked to recall both experiences after some time, people actually felt that babysitting kids brought them happiness, as compared to watching TV.

So why do we feel differently during and after an experience? We usually evaluate a piece of experience based on its climax and outcome, disregarding the process. This is also called the Peak-End Rule. That is to say, half of our sense of happiness comes from the climax of an experience, while the other half comes from the outcome.

Back to the study, people recalled babysitting kids as an happier experience because the interaction with children brought both moments of "climax" as well as positive outcomes, as compared to watching TV, a trivial day-to-day event. 

c) We THOUGHT that certain things can make us happy, while they might not.

Sometimes we head in the wrong direction in our tireless pursuit of happiness. Here is a list of common beliefs of what we thought can be the sources of happiness, and why they don't. 

  • Can money bring us happiness? Well...to some extent, but not in excess.

There is no straight line correlation between money and happiness. For poor people, the relationship between money and happiness is direct as money fulfils physiological needs and safety, the 2 bottom layers in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. However, as we proceed to the higher layers of psychological and self fulfilment needs, they are less easily fulfilled.

That's why for middle class and wealthy people, having more money does not bring more happiness because we require more than money to satisfy our higher level needs. The key motivation in our pursuit of wealth is to feel "prestige", which is never satisfied as we are always comparing against people that are wealthier.

  • Will marriage itself bring us happiness? No.

For those who want to change their life to be happier with a marriage, this is probably a bad news. Marriage does not necessarily make us happier. Research suggests entering a marriage only increases our happiness if we enter it with the right person.  

  • Will better appearance bring us happiness? Not necessarily.

The key to happiness is not good looking, but confidence. Beauty and confidence are not necessarily linked - a pretty appearance can ONLY you happiness if it makes you feel more confident. Therefore, instead of trying too hard to look prettier, we should focus more on enhancing our self-confidence. 

  • Will having more sex bring us happiness? Only to a limit.

Interesting that it is NOT always the more sex, the merrier. Studies have shown that having sex more than once a week doesn't necessarily bring more happiness.

Sometimes having more sex will give us more pressure because sex is an intimate activity that require 2 way communication. If we ask for more sex, it may affect other aspects of our life. Moreover, quantity cannot replace quality when it comes to sex :) High-quality interaction and intimacy in sex is irreplaceable by more in quantity.