Manhattan Bridge under construction-1909

You Won’t Lose Unhappiness By Trying To Be Happy

Forrest Christianhappiness, Motivation Leave a Comment

You hear it all the time: “I just wish I were happier.”

Or even: “I just wish I was happy.”

We’ve already seen how the experience immediately before will change how happy you evaluate the previous year. This is related and more depressing:

Trying to make yourself happier is usually counter-productive— you just end up even more unhappy.

In English, unhappiness is the opposite of happiness. It’s even built into the word with that negating un- prefix. We think, therefore, that if we were happier, we would of course be less unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness are two ends of a single graph, where one moves from strong unhappiness (or a negative amount of happiness) through some zero of some sort, to high positive happiness.

That’s just not true.

(It also doesn’t make any sense, once you start thinking about it. What would the “zero” state be? for example.)

Happiness and unhappiness, although perhaps related, are two entirely different emotions. Which is why you can have that weird phenomenon of someone laughing and weeping. They are measures that have only positive numbers: more happiness does not necessarily mean reduced unhappiness.

This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Drugs exist that can elevate your happiness. But they don’t reduce your unhappiness. Many of the Prozac-style depression drugs reduce unhappiness but don’t seem to increase happiness.

Most emotion seems to be seated in the body, not the mind, just as William James thought in his bear parable.

Normally, though, the experience of powerful unhappiness can drive out almost all other emotions. Unhappiness can even sometimes be simply the absence of any strong emotion, happiness included. It’s just the feeling of not feeling.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting less unhappiness. But pursuing happiness, as we saw last time, can actually make it harder for you to experience the positive state you are seeking. You need to not pursue happiness if you want to drive out unhappiness. We’ll talk about this process over the next few weeks.

Then there’s the problem of what you mean by happiness in the first place.

For most of humanity’s existence, “happiness” was seen as a fleeting emotional state. It was like infatuation or passionate love: burned hot and bright for a brief moment and then was over. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that this is a reasonable way to look at things. You get a big upsurge in your brain’s reward chemicals, this great charge. And then the charge falls.

You don’t want fleeting happiness. You want permanent change in your state of being that is positive. This requires something different.

You need contentment and joy.

Contentment and joy, as I’m using these terms, relates more to companionate love than it does passionate love. It’s the experience of warmth and security being with the beloved. It’s a different experience of similar reward chemicals. Instead of being a bright, hot light, it’s a fire of long smoldering coals. It doesn’t look as pleasing but will keep you toastier in the cold night.

The way forward is to have a different story about happiness.

To have a different story about you.

Image Credit: Manhattan Bridge under construction-1909. Library of Congress


Al Gorman { 06.13.09 at 11:31 }

Human beings are motivated by two fundamental objectives; the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. When life’s experiences have distorted what would otherwise be pleasurable experiences to painful ones an individual can become increasingly fixed, consciously or unconsciously, on pain avoidance and a state of unhappiness. It is the associations drawn from past experience that shape present interpretations in the presence of symbolic stimuli, again conscious or unconscious.

States of happiness, or unhappiness, whether fleeting or general, have a relationship with our human resilience and whether we are inclined to position ourselves as victims or empowered beings in the occurring world, largely defined by our reactions, and willingness to accept responsibility, in the face of adversity.

Will Pearce { 06.13.09 at 14:05 }

Just as physical pain and pleasure are localized in human physiology, so emotional pain and pleasure are localized in the human spirit (not the brain, folks!)

Just as physical pain isn’t the same as physical pleasure (they have two completely different causes and two different purposes), just so do spiritual pain and pleasure have different causes and purposes.

When you feel pain from a burn or cut, you’re exhibiting a symptom of damage to your body, which generates pain as a signal that something is wrong that needs your attention. When you’re “unhappy” (or angry, bitter, anxious, etc.), you’re exhibiting a symptom of an injury to your spirit, which generates negative emotions as a signal that something is wrong that needs your attention.

If you ignored the physical pain signal, and just told yourself that you needed to “feel more pleasurable,” how well would that work for you? What are the risks of not seeking care and healing for that wound?

When you ignore the spiritual pain signal, and just tell yourself that you need to “feel happier“ (or calmer, or more confident, or whatever), how well should that work for you? Are you aware of the risks of not seeking care and healing for that spiritual wound?

In such matters, self-will, self-discipline, or positive thinking only papers over the problem (the physical or spiritual wound), but it doesn’t stop infection from setting in, making matters far worse over time. (You don’t believe there’s a spiritual analog to infection? Then I’d suggest that you are naive about the nature of the spiritual dimension of existence.)

Of course, you could just continue to ignore the signal.

Alicia Parr { 06.17.09 at 07:44 }

“Human beings are motivated by two fundamental objectives; the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure.”

I’ve seen this statement before and it comes off as a bit limited unless one rolls in the concept of time delay. This may be where you’re going with your next posts. Avoidance of pain and pleasure seeking with a, say, 10 minute time horizon is what I tend to think of first when I read that quote. Truth is that the behaviors exhibited by an individual seeking greatest pleasure and least pain over a longer time horizon would be wildly different than those exhibited by an individual looking for more immediate resolution. Just like the marshmallow study about four year olds who are able to hold out for two marshmallows by not eating the one in front of them while they wait. Except infinitely more complex. Where it gets really interesting is the willingness of the human to accept short term pain in return for greater pleasure later on in delayed goal seeking behavior.

So how far can we go with this time delay / happiness concept? The furthest we can reasonably extend our time delay for resolution within a single life paradigm would be to the end of life. So, for the time horizon of an entire life, what behaviors and attitudes maximize overall pleasure while reducing overall pain?

Finding pleasure in the journey, rather than in just the achievement of a specific goals. This is where the terms contentment and joy come in to play. Contentment would seem to be an acceptance of the small “pains” that are inevitable and acceptance of the personal responsibility for choosing our responses. Joy is the engagement in and enjoyment of the journey– delight in the positive surprises and deliberate positive outcomes we create.

Al Gorman { 06.17.09 at 21:45 }

On one end of the spectrum an individual appears to only be motivated by instant gratification. Society today very much personifies this state. I think the introduction of credit into the monetary system has contributed greatly to this phenomenon.

On the other end of the spectrum individuals will sacrifice their mortal existence as martyrs in hope that they will find their happiness in some other dimension.

The complex human intellect will subscribe to all sorts of warped ideologies in pursuit of one or the other. When was the last time you heard of a dog subjecting itself to a self imposed hunger strike in order to advance its purpose and cause?

There are days when I believe the human race is simply warped!

{ 06.23.09 at 12:37 }

Great link, Alicia! Unfortunately, I only got part of the feed during the show.

This is an WUNC interview with Barbara Fredrickson of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill. There’s supposed to be a podcast soon: I’ll post a link when it comes out.

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