Happiness has been one of the stated goals of humanity for millenia. If you ask someone what they want out of life their answer, more often than not, is to be happy. Our presumed pursuit of happiness takes varied forms and can serve as a basis for our choice in life partners to our latest purchase of the new, new thing. Happiness is a wonderful emotion and it is understandable why it is universally prized but I don’t believe it is what people ultimately want. When happiness is invoked as an end in itself it is typically being used in a broader sense. A more descriptive and useful term for what is usually meant by happiness is well-being. This is more than a subtle distinction as the misuse of the word happiness leads us down the wrong path; chasing the emotional experience of being happy, instead of focusing on the components that make up human well-being. The plethora of subjective ways there are to chase happiness create distractions from satisfying our true needs which ultimately lead to well-being. Human needs were crafted by evolutionary pressure and are based on the imperatives imbued in all organisms, which are to survive and thrive. The process of surviving and thriving for sentient beings is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of optimal well-being.
Has all of the attention placed on happiness led to more of it or less of it in our lives? The failure to find ways to reliably increase our happiness by focusing on happiness is testament to the fact we are focusing on the wrong thing. Why is depression reaching epidemic proportions on a worldwide scale? Why is it distractions, such as drugs, media and sports, are omnipresent as individuals en masse try to escape their unhappy lives? Why has there not been an increase in happiness even after people have amassed all the stuff that was supposed to make them happy? Why isn’t there institution after institution devoted to the scientific discovery of ways to increase our happiness? These questions persist because ultimately happiness is an emotion based on subjective criterion. It is therefore difficult to reliably study and more importantly it is not an accurate indicator of increases in well-being. You can feel happiness in the moment and not increase your overall long term well-being. If we change our perspective from happiness maximization to well-being maximization we add a dimension of objectivity, as well-being is increased by meeting objective human needs. With this shift we are able to quantify, to study and to find ways to increase our well-being and, ironically enough, our happiness as well.
Happiness, what is it?
The term happiness covers a continuum of emotion from contentment to ecstatic joy. It is an involuntary response to obtaining something to which we have assigned value because we believe it to be a means of need fulfillment. Emotions are involuntary so by definition we do not have control over them. I can no more will myself to be happy than I can walk into a room and will myself to fall in love with the first person I see. When we obtain our values we feel happy. I need nourishment, I value food, I obtain food, and I feel content as I have procured something I value. I also have met my need for nourishment and therefore increased my well-being. If our values align with our needs we will not only feel happiness but we will also be increasing our well-being.
Our emotions are mental corollaries to the stimulus-response mechanism which uses pain and pleasure to guide physical actions. The difference lies in the fact that there is a cognitive component (be it unconscious or conscious) taking place between the stimulus and the response. The cognitive component is a value (or recognition) being placed on the event. We evaluate events as either something that is going to meet our needs or not meet them and our evaluations give rise to our emotions. Errors can occur in the process of valuation and this is where the problem lies. Trauma, abuse and cultural bias can cause values to be misguided and not in alignment with our objective needs. To value something is to believe it will meet your needs and increase your well-being. If you are trying to increase your self -esteem by buying a new car you will be happy when you obtain the car, yet soon become frustrated because of the error you made in valuing the purchase of a car. Your value did not meet your need and therefore you did not achieve an increase in your well-being. You meet the need for self-esteem ultimately by having integrity, not by having a Cadillac.
As a species humans have similar needs that in the broad sense can be objectively defined. They range from the more strictly biological needs of food and water to the more cognitively influenced needs of autonomy and meaning. A need is something that an organism must have in order to survive and thrive. A deficiency of the need causes dysfunction or death. Maslow’s categories of needs have been shown to be universal; however, the idea that individuals meet their needs in a strictly hierarchical fashion is too simplistic. While some needs do have precedence and serve as foundational for other needs it is a complex interplay between biology and environment where trauma, abuse and cultural bias can change the perceived priority of needs from moment to moment. The interplay, however, doesn’t change the fact that needs objectively exist and simultaneously demand attention from the individual. The more of an individual’s needs that are being met at any given time reflect in his/her degree of well-being.
The term well-being refers to a position on a continuum of needs fulfillment. It is analogous to the term health. The need an individual has fulfilled at any moment in time determines where he falls on the scale. It is a measure of how well we are meeting our biological imperatives to survive and thrive. To use the health analogy as an example, it can be objectively argued that an athlete has more physical health than a man who is overweight and sedentary. We determine this by measuring a variety of matrix that make up health. I believe the same can be done when taking a broader view of the individual, which includes both physical and mental states, that is called well-being. By objectively measuring the needs that have been fulfilled by the individual we can determine their state of well-being. For example, all other things being equal, the person with strong positive relationships has more well-being than the loner. These states exist independently and do not rely on the person experiencing them to be aware of them at the moment. This is why well-being is not an emotional state and is therefore easier to quantify and study.
The goal of life is to survive and thrive. We gauge how successful we are in terms of our well-being and we increase our well-being by meeting our objective human needs. In order to meet needs we value certain things as needs meeting or not. Errors can occur in this valuation stage. Trauma, abuse and cultural bias can cause misguided values that are not in alignment with objective needs thereby diminishing our ability to thrive. Happiness is not always an indication of an increase in well-being. It is an involuntary response to obtaining a value (the value being either correctly or incorrectly derived). We reduce the error in valuation by objectively understanding our needs, and then rationally trying to meet them. The more successful we are at this the more we thrive and reach a state of optimal well-being.
This blog is about helping all of us reach that state.