What Makes Us Happy?

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chocolate covered berriesCertainly we know what excites our reward circuitry: high-calorie foods, sexual stimulation, trying something new, getting something for nothing, taking an impulsive risk, and so forth. This hidden programming leaves us pathetically vulnerable to the wiles of today's advertisers. “Want fries with that?” “Increase your sex appeal with X-Brand toothpaste” “FREE!” “Sign up now and save!”

Yet this constant bombardment of enticements doesn't deliver happiness. Worse yet it pounds us with the message that happiness depends upon choosing the things and experiences that will give us the most intense pleasure. Apart from its fallacy, this unspoken responsibility - to exhaust all possibilities to find the ideal product or person - is burdensome.

As one researcher noted, he used to be able to try on a couple pairs of jeans in his size and pick the best fit, even if it wasn't perfect. Now there are many different cuts and styles for even the most basic jeans. Not only did trying them all on eat up his time, it raised his expectations about finding perfection, and inevitably left him with the feeling that if he had just tried on a few dozen additional pairs, he would have found something even more perfect. At the end of the day, he was left less satisfied...even though he had better fitting jeans than ever before.

This pressure to keep searching for the ideal can also keep us looking over a mate's shoulder to see if the next potential mate would be better - a weary treadmill indeed. Said one woman:

I know it is natural to assess people, but I just feel so ruthless and picky, and I don't enjoy feeling these qualities.

Self-deceptions about happiness

Our innate restlessness as a species has served evolution well. We've overpopulated most of the globe in part because our design encourages us to feel like the ideal thing, or person, is just around the corner - if we would only look a bit harder.

Happiness, therefore, seems dependent upon having lots of choices so that, like Goldilocks, we can pick out just the right one for us. Our assumptions - that happiness lies in gratifying each new desire, and having many choices - turn out to be flawed. harem


"I have a confession; I'm in love with another harem."


Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has demonstrated that the human mind can actually synthesize happiness, and that synthesized happiness is as genuine as any other kind.1 There's one big catch, though. Our happiness synthesizer, which he calls our "psychological immune system," works best when we commit ourselves completely to something - or when our options are removed by fate.

So, for example, one year after people either become lottery millionaires or lose the loss of their legs, they are, on average, equally happy. Gilbert also points out that people have suffered ruined careers as well as near misses to make millions or become famous, and even been subjected to unjust incarceration - yet they describe themselves as being genuinely happy at the way their lives have turned out.

By contrast, when we keep our options open, our happiness synthesizer can't work its magic. This suggests that it also doesn't work well when we let advertisers stir up fantasies about how much better life would be if we tried something, or someone, new.

Alas, research shows that we have trouble grasping this last point. We are, in fact, firmly convinced of something quite false, namely, that we are happier in situations where we can keep our options open as long as possible. In one of Professor Gilbert's experiments, participants were asked if they would prefer to take a photography class where (1) they would have to choose one photo to keep at the conclusion of the class, or (2) they would have 4 days afterward to choose their keepsake photo. Two thirds said they would prefer the second option.

Yet, in another experiment Gilbert demonstrated that those who had to choose a photo immediately were far happier with their choice than were those who agonized for several days over their final choice. Amazingly both the contentment of the first group, and the discontent of the second group remained after the 4-day window for exchange had closed for the second group. (Watch an entertaining video of Professor Gilbert for details about these experiments.)

Our happiness synthesizer can't do its job while we're dithering. And if we dither too long, it seems to cast a lasting pall over our final choice. It seems that we go right on wondering if we made the best possible choice...instead of naturally finding contentment with it.

Using this insight to advantage

The hidden human capacity to see the best in situations once they are fixed may explain how arranged marriages can actually result in happy unions. It may also explain how a commitment to controlled intercourse can leave couples happier than they expected they would be. Once committed, they are no longer as vulnerable to the promises of advertisers and attention-seeking journalists perpetually creating dissatisfaction and doubts with promises of "better, bigger and more numerous orgasms." Instead lovers can focus on the non-exploitable benefits of greater harmony and wellbeing in their unions.

Clearly we need some kind of psychological immunity because our culture is primed to make us second-guess ourselves with constant offerings of new enticements that stir up longing in the primitive brain. Consider how pictures of women are manipulated to sell all kinds of things to men. Splicing and stretching, graphic artists can turn any ordinary woman into a goddess. How? By showing women in a false state of arousal, advertisers associate their products with pleasure and instinctual survival. sexy ad Intrusive ads and infomercials thus prey on our unexamined assumption that more gadgets, more sex partners, or more orgasms would make us happier, when fewer options would actually let us settle into greater contentment. In contrast, more choices can create self-doubts, dissatisfaction, and, often, the illusion of false needs.

By promoting the very antithesis of contentment - which is easy to do, given our basic design - our culture constantly hones us into avid, dissatisfied consumers who are blind to life's ready pleasures of trusted companionship, time spent in nature, exercise, fresh healthy food, and so forth. Such tactics put our happiness synthesizer out of commission.

Nowhere is the risk of perpetual dissatisfaction greater than in intimate relationships. Even without the help of today's advertisers, the reward circuitry of the brain is programmed for intense attraction (based on de facto temporary sexual addiction), followed all too often by growing discontent.

Conventional sex leads to neurochemical highs and lows and resultant shifts in the attraction between lovers. These feelings of falling in and out of love can leave us increasingly vulnerable to new enticements (and dissatisfied with each other). Indeed a recent study showed that mere exposure to images of sexy females could cause viewers to devalue real life partners. (Sexy Strangers Sway How Men See Mates)

From dissatisfaction to satisfaction

So what can we do to shield ourselves from our internal and external Puppeteers of Perpetual Dissatisfaction?

First we can consciously shift our behavior toward moderation and healthier choices. For example, improving one's diet can gradually curb the urge to eat junk food; addressing an addiction can eventually soothe cravings; and making love differently can ease addiction to orgasm (and any related build up of resentments and desire for greener pastures).

The benefits of greater equilibrium are due to avoiding the lows (withdrawal symptoms) that follow when dopamine levels have gone so high that they drop sharply afterward, leaving us feeling like something crucial to our happiness is missing. (It is, but the missing "thing" is balanced levels of dopamine, not a new mate, new car or extra fries, as our biological design would have us believe. Low dopamine can show up as short-sighted decision making, cravings, depression, self-doubt and dissatisfaction.2 And the high dopamine of arousal also skews our judgment.)

With time, this deliberate move toward equilibrium actually quiets the reward center's demands for new and more intense stimulation. New opportunities will still look good, but they can be assessed with clearer perception.

motorcyclist with cat riding on helmetAs an aside, we can also ease the tendency to move on to new lovers by consciously shifting our behavior toward an intimate partner. Caring behavior can actually make a mate more adorable in our eyes - increasing contentment. Just as parents love kids whether or not they're homely, and pet owners adore pets, however unlovely, "adorableness" need not be tied to objective good looks. Our own behavior shapes our perceptions. (For more on the spiritual benefits of generosity of intention in intimate relationships, see this segment of an article about the work of seer Edgar Cayce.)

Gilbert's work suggests that we can further decrease the volume of this demanding "voice" in our primitive brains by engaging our happiness synthesizer. He suggests we not only ignore the commercial and journalistic manipulation around us, but also seek real information from others who have made the choices we're contemplating. Once we have chosen, we stop dithering.

The bottom line

A key point is that both our longings and our worries are to some degree overrated because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity (happiness) that we constantly chase as we choose our experiences. It's fine to have preferences – and certainly some options are better than others. However, Gilbert urges us to recognize that – in the end – our level of happiness may not be all that different whether or not we succeed in having sex with our favorite hottie.

As Gilbert points out, if we don't keep this truth in mind, we may barrel unthinkingly toward gratification with such single-mindedness that we find ourselves behaving unethically, harming others, or sacrificing things of real value (like, for example, a close trusted companion) simply to pursue our ever-changing obsessions. We do this not because we are bad people, but because - under the influence of our typical neurochemical fluctuations - we have overrated the difference between our imagined levels of happiness with respect to attaining a desire and not attaining it.

I Ching imageHappiness is more often ours when we meet the less-obvious conditions necessary for it to blossom within. As written in one of the world's oldest books, the I Ching:

Limitation is not an easy concept for man to accept, but an acceptance of fate can lead to great personal power... You will begin to perceive what is actually possible for you to achieve and not waste precious energies on the impossible, that is, those things that are not in accord with the cosmic order given the circumstances of your life.