Navigating the Happiness Blues
Happiness has become the credo of the over-connected masses everywhere. Cries for people to clap along and choose happiness are inescapable. Yet in our market-driven culture, happiness seems to be in short supply. Whether we decide to tune out the din, listen up or sing along, here are some things to consider about happiness.
We have what it takes to meet the demand for happiness. According to happiness researcher, Daniel Gilbert, thanks to evolution and the development of a prefrontal cortex, the human brain is capable of synthesizing this coveted emotion. Each of us can actually think our way into—or out of—being happy. It seems that current social science is backing up ancient wisdom. After all, the Buddha told us to watch our thoughts with care. Somehow, even in the absence of a Harvard lab, he knew that while thoughts start within the confines of the mind, they find their way out. Our thoughts manifest as words that drive us to act, and our actions harden into habits that form our very character. Essentially, we become what we think. So if we want to be happy, we’d better think happy.
Happiness isn’t just in our heads. What was once thought of as a feel-good emotion literally makes people healthier. Sadly, for most of us, happiness doesn’t just happen. It takes training. We need to get a bird’s eye view of what we think and identify patterns. Essentially, we need to create a map and then pave neural highways that transport us to happiness without detours or delays. Meditation is one tool that can help. Assuming we can withstand the tortures of sitting in silence while thoughts careen around our cranium, screaming for attention. But are the challenges of training worth the happiness we seek?
What is happiness? In You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Schulz’s characters attempt to define it in a song. To Sally “happiness is two kinds of ice cream,” and to Charlie Brown it’s “morning and evening, daytime and nighttime too.” I bet the Buddha, who said that happiness is the absence of suffering, would have given Charlie Brown a high five. But Charlie Brown and Buddha are ancient characters who considered happiness and contentment to be the same thing. Today we’re bombarded with depictions of happiness that present a stark contrast to mere contentment. Can we be satisfied with happiness that feels somewhat ho-hum?
Like Sally, most of us remain perpetual children. We salivate at the prospect of holding happiness in our hot little hands, even if it means risking a brain freeze and the sugar blues. The Buddha would try to explain that our ache for momentary happiness actually causes our suffering, but we’d likely put our fingers in our ears and say “la-la-la” as we lick our dripping cones. The sad thing is that we think we’re choosing happiness. And we are. We’re just choosing a kind that doesn’t last.
Momentary happiness looks so good. Our screens are flooded with faces in spasms of laughter, groups arm in arm, couples locked in embraces. And our screens follow us everywhere. Psychologists agree that feeling a sense of connection is a critical component of happiness, but being tethered to “smart” devices that beep and hum with the endless exploits and accomplishments of “friends” we may have never met (or don’t care to see), is overkill. To some, especially those who suffer from depression (statistics roughly show one in eight adults), scrolling through news feeds on Facebook can trigger feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, even shame. It’s as if in becoming online voyeurs, we’ve become self-inflicting cyber bullies. We are drawn to and pulled down by depictions of what we assume is everyone else’s happiness. And, like typical bullies, our reflexive instincts kick in to claim parity or seize superiority on the happiness spectrum. The victors are those who successfully document, upload and share moments that appear to meet our modern definition of happiness, in real time. Sometimes before anyone has even experienced the moment.
Anticipating happiness might not be such a bad thing. Even if happiness isn’t fully developed in digital selfies, once posted, “Liked” and shared, the brain starts creating stories to reinforce our perceptions of an experience. Daniel Gilbert might explain this phenomenon as the work of our prefrontal cortex (aka “experience simulator”) actively synthesizing happiness. In the case of social media, there’s always the chance—even the hope—that even our synthesized happiness will catch on. In a study of 689,000 Facebook users, researchers explored the idea of “emotional contagion” and found that when they increased exposure to positive or negative content, the posts of those studied mirrored the emotional states to which they were exposed. You can debate the ethics of the study but the findings remain. Our minds are vulnerable, and social media can be a powerful a tool in our efforts to tame and shape our thinking. It can also be a weapon.
Happiness can be addictive. Seeking momentary happiness may create addictive patterns that leave us perpetually dissatisfied. What’s more, our perceptions become skewed by what we and our friends neglect to post—the not-so happy moments. I just spoke with a friend for the first time in months. I actually dialed her number, spoke and listened. Turns out we’d both had a rough year, but our Facebook feeds didn’t betray that truth. Instead, we were both faced with the illusion that the other was leading a charmed life filled with endless trips and the constant company of loving friends and family. Our posted moments were all real, but they were only fragments of a larger picture. Still our minds did what minds do. They created and repeated stories after our screens had gone blank. And those stories became what we believed to be true.
There are negative consequences of accentuating the positive. I doubt I’m alone in posting rarely, selectively and with a deliberate bias toward being positive. Of course, having a Facebook page that’s pure vanilla doesn’t bring me any closer to anyone. Many of us use social media to stay connected to large, multi-generational families; colleagues past and present; former and current students; college, high school and childhood friends. The last thing we want to do is offend, divide or distance people, but as our list of “friends” expands into the hundreds, that’s not possible. It’s likely that our collective self-censorship contributes to the perception that happiness is a constant. Unquestioned, the cycle continues and people can unwittingly spiral down.
We need all the help we can get to escape from the drama and heartache of the 24-hour news cycle, the 24-hour workday, and the demands of daily life. Happily, techies have created that escape by serving up countless websites with content to counter negativism. Now we can feed ourselves daily doses of giggling babies, animals at play, and positive stories—and experts say it’s good medicine. These little bursts of joy can light up the pleasure centers of the brain and release feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin). Even though these online highs are short lived, they may be paving neural pathways in our brain that make happiness less a choice and more of a state of being. Of course there’s always the risk that these short-lived highs might be paving neural pathways that drive us to become happiness junkies—constantly craving, never satisfied.
Here’s the good news. We are not powerless over social media, corporate cries, and happy-centric sites. They only succeed because we log in, tune in, and search for happiness outside of ourselves instead of nurturing it from within. Virtual touch points are powerful because we are conditioned and determined to live online where we expose ourselves to constant comparisons against artificial or unrealistic bars. Rather than consider ourselves victims of online communities and commercial sound bites, we can defend our sense of self-worth and nurture a full spectrum of emotions. If Daniel Gilbert says we can simulate happiness, I say we can simulate any experience. And as new age consumers, bargain hunters and “reality” gluttons, why would we be content with anything less than everything our minds can conjure?
Alice Ruvane’s most recent published works include Creating a Life and The Ticket. Alice lives in Maine where she delights in spoiling her dog and her husband (in that order), spending time outdoors, on her yoga mat, on stage and with friends. It’s no wonder she’s still at work on her first novel.
Gilbert, Daniel Todd. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2006.
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Jaffe, Lorne. "5 Reasons Why Facebook Can Be Dangerous for People With Depression." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 18 May 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Kramer, A. D. I., J. E. Guillory, and J. T. Hancock. "Experimental Evidence of Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.24 (2014): 8788-790.
Nauert, Rick. "Happiness Enhances Health." Psych Central News. Psych Central, 7 Nov. 2006. 10 Oct. 2015.