The Whys and Hows of Happiness

Strasbourg, France Tunnel

Somewhere in a tunnel in the small town of Strasbourg, France, someone had taken it into his head to ask a question to all who passed through.

Are you happy?

It’s a question that seems deceptively easy to answer and yet for many, the answer is anything but simple. I’ve tried to answer it for months. I wrote this draft last year, in October, and I’m revisiting it now because I feel compelled to complete this post and resolve my thoughts on the matter.

Happiness tends to be a confusing thing mainly because of two reasons:

  1. Human beings may confuse happiness with euphoria (e.g. the high you get when you win a prize, competition or when you ride the rollercoaster)
  2. Human beings are not good at predicting what would make them happy in the long run

Not everyone will fall prey to no. 1, but it seems that no one is exempt from no. 2. People who predict how happy or unhappy they will feel about a debilitating life incident often end up feeling happier than they had predicted once the incident had occurred. People who win the lottery are happy for approximately two weeks before their level of happiness goes back down to a happiness “baseline” that depends on genetic, environmental and personality factors. When I was younger, I remember thinking that my achievements and failures would make a huge difference on my overall happiness. Yet when such major events occurred, I was affected for only a few days to a week. So much for that.

So far we’ve been talking about levels of happiness and the state of being happy – but what exactly is happiness? That’s the complicated part. Some people think it’s an object to be strived for, like a prize at the end of a well-fought race. Other people think it’s an undefinable, fleeting moment that comes unasked and leaves a void in its place. Do happy people experience happiness because they are happy? Or are they happy because they experience happiness? Not so easy to answer.

These questions also have some bearing on people who experience a severe lack of happiness in their lives. I’m not talking about having a bad day from time to time – that’s perfectly ordinary – I’m talking about depression, and I don’t use that term lightly. I don’t have depression, but I have at least two friends who suffer from medical depression (coupled with anxiety) and I’ve spoken to one about it before. From what I’ve gathered, depression is the absence of strong emotion towards things in general. A person experiencing depression probably experiences ennui most of the time, and would want to stay at home and not engage in things they previously enjoyed. Simple things such as eating a good meal, or playing a game, or even favourite hobbies no longer give someone pleasure or contentment when they are depressed. There are a variety of factors that could lead to a higher probability of someone developing depression, including genetics (if your parents had depression), chronic anxiety, chronic environmental stress and life-changing events, but the result is the same – depression takes away part, if not all, of someone’s capacity for happiness. When I say this, I don’t mean that the person is forever after unable to feel happy, but it is true that their capacity for happiness (i.e. feeling content and experiencing pleasure) is impaired for a time, which leads to a further spiral into depression and anxiety about the condition itself.

It seems that after speaking about depression, I have inadvertently touched upon what happiness means (seems like I have been influenced by Heideggerian logic). I won’t say I know what happiness is, for the reasons that I’ve talked about, but I think we can talk about what it means for some of us. Happiness means accepting your current life circumstances, and experiencing pleasure and gratitude when engaging in activities you enjoy. Not everyone might agree with this statement, but it does encapsulate a broad number of different ideas of happiness.

Just to clarify, accepting your life circumstances doesn’t mean a lack of motivation to improve. It simply means that you are aware and accepting of events that occur in your life as part of your journey, and see these events as a continual process, a progress ahead. For example, if I consider my level of success right now (you can define success in whatever way you want), I may not feel content with where I am, because I see a better road ahead. However, that does not preclude me being aware of and accepting my current position. If I can look back at the road I travelled, and see the good things that led me to where I am, it means that I can accept my current position while still looking ahead to better things. When I am in such a position, I am able to enjoy things that give me pleasure in life, such as good relationships, food, ideas, writing, singing… Not only am I able to enjoy them in the present, I am also able to feel grateful for being able to experience these things. Research has been done on gratitude, and we now know that gratitude has been linked to “better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners” (source). Seems like gratitude is one of the key factors to experiencing a happier life, and as someone who has gradually learnt how to show gratitude, I can attest to that.

People experience gratitude in different ways, and because of my Christian faith, my gratitude is primarily directed to God, as well as my loved ones. I am grateful for the unconditional love given to me by Jesus, who has been with me through very difficult times. He is with me right now as I suffer from anxiety issues and the related physical symptoms (e.g. difficulty sleeping, muscle pains/spasms, increased heart rate, internal ‘vibrations’ due to nervous system problems). Of course, these problems don’t define my life. I am grateful for the many blessings and good things that have happened to me throughout my life (too numerous to list), especially for the people who have entered and stayed with me: my family, friends and acquaintances who care about me. I am also grateful for receiving wisdom on how to deal with things in life. Knowledge is important in dealing with matters of the head, but wisdom is especially important in dealing with matters of the heart. Someone can have all the knowledge in the world on how to quit an addiction, but if he/she lacks the good judgment that comes with wisdom, quitting the addiction is impossible.

One wise truth that I’ve learned as I’ve grown slightly older is this: All we need is love. This is true for happiness as well: We need to love and be loved in order for us to accept our life circumstances with a positive attitude, knowing that we will have emotional support when we’re down. We need to love and be loved to experience pleasure and gratitude when engaging in activities we enjoy – without a loved one to share that pleasure with, it becomes hollow after a while.

I’m not being flippant or naïve when I say all this. There’s a common saying that “time heals all wounds” and for a while I used to believe that and even practice it. Whenever there was conflict, I would attempt to resolve it as best as I could, then let time pass to lessen the memory of the hurt. What I find is that it often doesn’t work. Time may lessen the hurt, but it doesn’t close the wound. I’ve seen people who have grown old and bitter because the hurts they’ve experienced have never been closed completely. But what time can’t do, love can. Love can be many things to many people, and can come with different names, but I have never found a truer or more beautiful definition of love than this:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13 (The Bible, NIV)

Going by this definition, love is the force that holds us together. It holds relationships together, it holds the world together. Take away love and all its attributes (as I have described), and we would have a world of impatience, unkindness, enviousness, pride, dishonour, selfishness, anger, condemnation, evil, chaos, distrust, hopelessness and discontinuity – all this without the corresponding positive attributes of love. That’s not to say that the world is perfect even when we have love, as this world is already imperfect. But love makes it more hopeful, bearable and gives us the capacity for happiness.

When people are on their deathbed, they don’t often regret how much success they achieved socially (in terms of social standing) and financially, but they do regret the relationships they never had, and people they’ve hurt. I’m not saying that nothing else matters in this world, but I am saying that love is the most important thing that could make us happy in all aspects of our lives. You can attempt to use a variety of ways to be happy, and some of them may work for a time, but love will produce happiness even when you don’t expect to be happy, and such happiness will last a lifetime.

The only problem with this is that human beings can’t love perfectly. We can’t fulfil all the good attributes of love because we do hurt others intentionally at times, we are selfish at times, we are proud at times too etc. But that doesn’t mean love, as the most important thing in life, is a lost cause. I believe that there is a perfect kind of Love, and it is a person and has a name: He is Jesus, who is also God. The Bible itself defines God as love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). One can know about God, or claim to know God, but if he/she does not love others, then he/she hasn’t really understood what God is. Some may argue that that isn’t a fair thing to say, as a person’s circumstances would dictate how he/she reacts to others, and so a person who has not received that kind of love from his/her parents or friends may not be able to love others in the way the Bible describes.

The good thing is that we’re already given the love we need to give to others, regardless of our circumstances, and I have experienced it and also seen a friend recently experience this in his relationship with Jesus. There’s only one obstacle that could prevent us from receiving that kind of unconditional love, and that is ourselves, as ironic as that sounds. As strange as it may be, we are sometimes the most resistant to receiving good things. A friend of mine analogised it as this: when someone tries to give you a gift, you refuse to accept it, and attempt to give the gifter a gift of your own. It may sound silly when phrased as such, but we would all benefit to reflect on whether we have experienced something like that in our lives – when we receive gifts or compliments, and we refuse to accept them and even attempt to gift or compliment the other person in return. This is what I call a false sense of humility, which is detrimental to gratitude. I admit that I was like that in the past, but I’ve since learnt that it is the highest form of humility to graciously accept a gift that one didn’t expect or deserve, because the acceptance of that gift always comes with gratitude, an increased regard for others and a higher possibility of doing something kind for others in future. The greatest gift that I have received is the eternal security of love and acceptance from my Father in Heaven, through the death of His only Son, Jesus Christ. Even though I am imperfect and do many things imperfectly, He never condemns me or makes me feel unworthy of love. He does teach me how to be a better person, but always gently and with wisdom and grace. God, who is Love, never, never forces anyone to do anything – to do so would be to nullify His own gift of free will to us (whether you believe in free will or not is another matter though). But I am grateful for this unconditional love and how it teaches me to love others better.

So, I’ve talked at length about the interrelated ideas of happiness, depression, gratitude, pleasure, my faith, love and other secondary ideas. Even though I presented them as my beliefs, they are my reality. Love is my reality, as is my faith in Christ. It’s not something I can separate from my everyday life and my actions outside of the church on Sundays. It’s not even something I can separate from my writing about happiness, or art, or anything I view as beautiful and good in this world. It’s something to be lived and experienced, and it does and will bring happiness if and when one seeks it. Faith in Jesus and to love and be loved isn’t a religion (check out what the Bible says about religion); it’s a reality. Happiness isn’t just a state or a level, it’s a reality of being unconditionally loved. It doesn’t mean you’ll never have sad moments, but it does mean that your baseline of happiness will always be higher than if you never knew this reality. If you doubt what I’m saying, check back with me a decade later and see if I’m living the reality that I’m experiencing now – I know I will. And now I guess I’ll leave you with a question to think about:

Are you happy?

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