28 December 2008

Is happiness in the mind?

Is happiness in the mind? By Richard

First and foremost we must define the word happiness and then see if happiness is in the mind (only)…

Returning to what Lawrence wrote back in 2004, in happiness it is necessary a "feel good factor", if that is true, the answer to the question is easy to predict for the simple reason that a human being will never live in a permanent state accompanied by a feel good factor. The answer to the question: are you happy? put to the same person 20 times a day will be yes and no if the person concerned is sincere in his answers. So all in all, as a permanent or a long lasting state, happiness is in the mind only.

But we understand happiness in a different way. Although the presence of a feel good factor is indispensable, it is not the only condition. A feel good factor should be seen in conjunction with a feel bad factor or, at least, with a feel neutral factor, because these things go together. By the same token one cannot talk about death separately from life. In other words, in order to reach happiness, a person must experience what to be down and out is or must be aware that neutral, "normal" situations are part and parcel of happiness. One should have a clear and contrastive point of reference. One cannot say that they know what happiness is without experiencing sadness. In that case we think that happiness is not in the mind only. And our rough judgement is that the greatest majority of us, if not all of us, have experienced happiness. The main problem is what to do so that this state of wellness / happiness could be maintained?

In order to have a clearer picture of happiness and for the purpose of making our line of argument easier, we are restricting this notion to an individual understanding of happiness as long as it does no harm to others. We know it is wrong to do so, because how could you feel happy if you are surrounded by social injustice and sometimes even by social mess? But for our purpose we must put aside this factor of a collective happiness.

Another self-imposed restriction on our considerations is the here-and-now situation, namely we think of a homo-ludens society. We are not capable of writing how the notion of happiness has evolved in the course of human existence on Earth. I wish Lawrence had written something about it.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1980(?) in his essays written while living in California (he was a poet and a scholar at Stanford University) says that a very small percentage of people can feel happiness (in our sense of the word). They are usually artists and some academics who feel enormous vocation for what they do. We would add that those people do not have a clear-cut distinction between their professional and their non-professional lives, because in most other cases this difference is tremendous. No wonder when people in the street are asked: "what would you do if you won a lot of money", the first answer is: "I would stop working".

Work is seen as a heavy load because they have to lump it. Work is a sort of killjoy. Are there any echoes from Paul Lafargue? In his essay (late 19th century) "The Right to Be Lazy" he called work "burden" and adds that only laziness in combination with creativity can bring progress to the human kind. And this Marxist was very consistent. Before committing suicide together with his wife (a Karl Marx's daughter), he issued a statement saying that he regretted dedicating all his life to work (he was a Marxist revolutionary working for the "2nd International) that stole his pleasure in life existence, sapped his physical and intellectual energy and his will-power.

We may agree with him as long as we understand work as drudgery. If it is not, if a person does not feel himself/herself as a square peg in a round hole, work is necessary for their own sake, especially most men who feel that they are needed; this is why a man cannot stand his retirement, because he feels himself a piece of garbage on a rubbish tip; and therefore there is a much higher rate of suicides among men than those among women.

Whatever the opinions of a general population are, there is a formula for happiness. At first it sounds outrageous, but a new wave of psychologists has worked on that issue. The father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman has constructed such a formula, which is for all, but depending on the outcome of the tests, a sort of recipe will be individually applied.

One thing is certain: in order to prolong our momentarily feelings of happiness, it is wrong to increase the moment of those transient bursts of happiness but rather space them within a longer time-span. If sb loves travelling, increasing the number of trips, contrary to common thought, will not increase their enduring level of happiness. They will feel satiated. Instead they should space them out in time. And the same works with other things.

We should not talk about happiness completely detached from reality. How does "the Ortega's soy yo y mi circunstancia" fit into the picture of the level of happiness?

In general happiness depends on the purchasing power a person has, but only up till a certain level, say "upper intermediate" using a teacher's term. Higher than that level any increase in purchasing power of a person does not provide a higher level of their happiness. This has been proven.

Marriage or co-habitation makes people happier, an involvement in social life, too. Why? Because MAN as a social being wants to share their feelings, their potentials with others, especially with someone whom they love. Voluntary work gives them, particularly women, a lot of gratification.

A very important thing is to create win-win situations. It is not like winning or losing but everyone involved wins, like befriending someone, doing something for the community, etc. Let's take this essay: I am creating it for those who will read it. My ambition is to make the readers think and if that is achieved, everyone involved has won. No-one has lost even if it hasn't pleased anybody. If the essay has caused a reader to react critically, it won't be bad. The worst thing would be if it fell completely flat.

Health does not seem to have any bearings on one's happiness unless you have experienced your own health problems and you automatically start to give value to health.

A level of education does not give you more happiness. It sounds incredible, but more educated you are, less happy you feel when it comes to solving problems. Whereas a slightly educated person sees things in black and white, you distinguish a lot of shades of the same colour due to your expanded vision.

Religious people feel happier than non-religious, because religions manage to instil hope for the future creating meaning in life.

But let's return to our personal, individual happiness. How to define what is particularly important to each of us? You must do a long and a comprehensive test made by Seligman in order to discover your own strengths and those most important ones are called signature strengths and you must practise them on daily basis. In hard times those personal strengths will definitely maintain you alive and will prevent you from sliding into depression and in better times they will give you a lot of happiness and your happiness will not be only in your mind but you will live it.

Seligman distinguishes between pleasure and gratification (Spanish speakers: attention! "gratificación" is a false friend.) He says: "The pleasures are about the senses and the emotions. The gratifications are about enacting personal strengths and virtues".

The worst part is that our external circumstances very rarely help us put our personal strengths into practice, especially at a professional level. And this is a real snag. We are stuck because most of us have to spend at least one-third of our adult time (professional life) in places where we feel like a fish out of water.

Obviously there are exceptions that prove the rule. There are people who while at work lose their notion that they are at work, the fact that Seligman calls "a flow". Workaholics are not in my mind now; I am thinking of those people who would keep working even if they were not paid, because they are so much involved in their work that this gives them a lot of gratification.

The economic structure of post-industrial societies do not help much to develop our personal strengths in our professional lives, because it is our profession that must adapt itself to the changing environment than the other way round. So most of our strengths, unfortunately, must be practised during non-professional life. And as the latter is very unstable (homo luden's fashion makes us keep up with the Joneses or stoop to temptations, not necessarily in the religious sense of the word, but rather commercial), in practical terms only a few have this privilege to live authentic and enduring happiness (in our sense of the word). But whatever the situation, everyone can feel snatches of happiness that come and go and, sadly enough, we are unable to retain them for a longer period of time although we wish we would. Therefore enduring happiness is rather in our minds than in real reality, even though most of us wearing masks pretend that it is otherwise.


Martin Seligman (2002:112), "Authentic Happiness", Free Press, New York

PS. Sorry for being late, but I hope you will forgive me because all the languages I know say the same thing:

UK Better late than never.

PT Mais vale tarde do que nunca.

ES Más vale tarde que nunca.

DE Besser spät als nie. "Better late than never"

SE Bättre sent än aldrig. "Better late than never"

PL Lepiej późno niż wcale. "Better late than never"

RU Lutshe pozdno, tshem nikogda. "Better late than never"

Take care,

See you on Sunday

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