Of Happiness and Sadness


When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say “live and let live”
You know you did, you know you did, you know you did
But when this ever changing world breaks your heart and makes you cry
Say, Live and let die, Live and let die, Live and let die

I am one big fan of animations, and especially Pixar animations (Maybe because Pixar is a Steve Jobs company). I also love fantasy, and you will therefore find me reading all those improbable stories and coming to expect so much out of life only to find it plain and bland.

The words at the beginning come from Shrek, the animation. His father, a king has died and is being buried. He does not want to be king, what everyone is pestering him to be. The girlfriend also pesters him to settle down make a family and have babies, and that gives him nightmares. I mean nightmares in which he gets 15 “twins” and they are puking and pooing on him and breaking everything and driving him mad. He wants to live a quiet, slow happy life away from all distractions. But as fate would have it, for him, and for all of us, it was never to be. He was not going to just lie low and have fun. There were painful adventures cut out for him, and joyful memories they would ultimately turn out to be.

If you are reading this, you have seen some years. There is a day you were young, and your heart was an open book. Your heart delighted in fairy tales, in the positive sense of the word. Remember all those stories that ended with happily ever after? Yes, you were sure you would succeed in school, graduate and finally get a job you enjoy and that gives you lots of money. You knew your dream car and dream house, and by what age you would have them. Then there was all the romance. Whether it is the classic children stories, Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartland or whatever books you read, marriage was a beautiful thing. There were princes and princesses out there, and you were going to meet one and oh bliss! Happily ever after it would be.

Then you met this ever-changing world. You discovered life does not get easier, and there are hurdles in ever path. You suddenly discover things lose their lustre as you approach them. Just remember as a child how you thought you would spend the first money you get! If you came from the village like me, it was to buy a full loaf of bread and enjoy it all by myself. By the time you get the money, your desire is just a ridiculous idea.

So, what makes us happy? I am not here to give answers, but to share some musings, a few schools of thought and my pursuit of happiness.

If we turn to science, it appears that we are mostly wrong about what makes us happy. There are these two articles that I will quote a number of times; some dark thoughts on happiness and the new science of happiness.

Let me start with things that don’t make us happy according to research. Money?  Once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life. Simply put money doesn’t buy happiness—or even upgrade despair (so forget the crying in a BMW nonsense). Both articles quote a research by Ed Diener of the University of Illinois that determined that those on the Forbes 100 list in 1995 were only slightly happier than the American public as a whole; and a famous study  in 1978, that indicated that 22 lottery winners were no happier than a control group. Their conclusion was that money just puts you on a “hedonic treadmill,” the unending hunger for the next acquisition.

About Youth, this summary from the second article says it all:

Older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives than the young. And they’re less prone to dark moods: a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people ages 20 to 24 are sad for an average of 3.4 days a month, as opposed to just 2.3 days for people ages 65 to 74.

On the other hand, more intelligent people are not happier, and men are not happier than women. Possessions don’t make us happier either, after the excitement of buying, the joy we derive from them goes downhill.

I know these are things we have heard from preachers and Old Testament prophets. So why won’t we believe them? It turns out we are lousy at predicting what will make us happy and not just that, we are equally poor at recalling how situations made us feel. We apparently remember our experiences in terms of the highest moment, the lowest moment, and how it ended.

On this the second article notes “if you were to randomly beep someone on vacation, you might catch that person waiting furiously for a slow-moving waiter to take an order or grousing about the high cost of the pottery. But if you ask when it’s over, “How was the vacation?” the average person remembers the peak moments and how he or she felt at the end of the trip.

And what is it that makes people happy? I glean some interesting information from a number of sources quoting research and you can look at them: 15 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly HappyThe Science of Happiness,Why Waiting Actually Makes You Happy and If you are happier after sex, it’s not just because it feels good.

The list sounds odd and counter intuitive.

  1. Religious people are happier,
  2. Married people are generally happier (Before you get upset with me, these are statistics),
  3. People with strong ties to family and friends are happier with one study showing social involvements are worth up to an extra Ksh 8M  a year in terms of life satisfaction.
  4. Experiences (vacations etc.), make us happier than goods (expensive phones and cars).
  5. Exercise, and pursuing engrossing hobbies, even when tired, makes us happy, and slumping on the couch and watching TV or surfing the net will leave you grouchy.
  6. Helping others and volunteering gets you happy with researchers from University of Pennsylvania saying that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
  7. A shorter hustle free commute gives you more happiness that a large spacious house, a very popular trade off.
  8. Tragedy is not that awful after all. People who have had adversity in their life are generally happier than those who have had none.
  9. Lastly, people who have a sense of purpose and who show gratitude are generally happier.

An interesting omission in all those discussions was sex and how it affects our happiness. With all the talk of sex, and “sexy” being our gold standard for awesomeness, it was interesting to discover its relevance to happiness is relegated to gutter press and publications with an agenda. Where it features in credible research, it is associated with stable relationships, or engrossing activity.

To talk a little on sex and happiness, I go to my favourite author, C S Lewis. He gives a great analogy that brings out this very well.

Two boys, one older and one younger were having one of those mischievous discussions. The older boy had just finished relating to the younger his recent sexual escapade. After using all those superlatives, he finished by telling the boy it was pleasure than he will never know. The younger boy pondered for a brief moment and then asked the older; do people eat chocolate while having sex? In his naivety, the younger boy could not conceptualize any other pleasure that can exclude that of eating chocolate.

In one of his science fictional Lewis also paints the picture very well. After being told by an alien that sex (actually its equivalent in that strange world) was very pleasurable, a human wondered why the aliens did not seek it more often and with more partners. The alien was shocked and wondered, ‘But why would we, no one wants to eat again after they have just eaten or sleep after they have just woken up!’

I think our obsession with sex arises from our ineptitude in figuring what can make us happy as noted earlier. We think it’s the ultimate “joy bringer” because we cannot conceptualize alternatives that are greater.

As I conclude, I want to reiterate the power of endings. We remember our experiences by their highs, lows and how they end. Unfortunately things that don’t feed our happiness feed on it. When we pursue things that feed on our happiness, the end of our experience will all be sadness. That sad ending has a strange retroactive effect. It somehow pervades our past and makes those delightful moments that led to our current sadness look like painful treacherous traps.

On the other hand, happy endings have a way of invading our pasts and give even our nightmares a lovely tinge. All that talk of delayed gratification, and pay now enjoy later has a lot of sense.

Go through the list of what will and what will not make you happy. Your parents, your primary school head and your pastor were not that wrong after all. Let not your mind play games on you.

Don’t worry.

Be happy… at least now you know how.

Photo credit: Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

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