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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The New Psychology of Happiness

A proposal for an entirely new paradigm for achieving happiness that endures.

HCI, Inc.
Cover design by Heath Miller
Source: HCI, Inc.

In my first book, The Undefeated Mind, I argue that the pursuit of happiness isn’t "merely an inalienable right with which we’re endowed or an activity we’re capable of choosing; it’s a psychological imperative we must obey." The notion that nothing is more important to us than happiness—in fact, that nothing can be—doesn’t come just from observations about the human condition throughout history by writers, philosophers, and poets, but also from a modern scientific understanding of the way the brains of animals evolved to promote survival. We know that animals don’t fight to survive because they grasp the meaning of death; they fight to survive because their brains evolved pleasure and pain circuits that motivate them to do so. And though we humans do have the capacity to understand the meaning of death and are therefore capable of being motivated by more complex incentives than pleasure and pain, we remain incapable of shrugging off our evolutionary heritage. Pleasure and pain—or rather, their more recent evolutionary offspring, happiness and suffering--remain the core incentives our brains use to motivate us.

Happiness is something we all want. Yet it’s also something many of us fail to achieve. Look around you. How many people do you know who exude joy on a daily basis, who would say they feel a powerful sense of satisfaction with their lives? How many people do you know who wouldn’t find their ability to be happy significantly impaired by the loss of a loved one, financial ruin, or a terminal illness?

The problem we face, however, isn’t that genuine, long-lasting happiness is impossible to attain. Rather, it's that we’re confused about how to attain it. So in my new book, The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness, my co-author, clinical psychologist Ash ElDifrawi, and I offer an entirely new psychological paradigm for attaining happiness, one we've named the Ten Worlds paradigm.


Psychologists now use the term core affect to describe the most basic feelings we experience as human beings—that is, pleasure and pain. Neurologist Antonio Damasio calls pleasure and pain primordial feelings and argues that they “occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake . . . [and] reflect the current state of the body” at the most basic level. Though specific emotions like anger and sadness may appear and disappear like good and bad weather, at no time are we ever without a core affect—much in the same way, to switch metaphors, at no time are we ever without a body temperature. At every moment we’re experiencing a primordial feeling somewhere between the two extremes of agony and ecstasy. Universal and irreducible, core affect, research now argues, represents the most fundamental aspect of all subjective experience.

Psychologists have also argued that the reason our core affect varies has less to do with what happens to us than with how we think about what happens to us—with our mindset, if you will. Mindset explains, for example, why some people remain joyful and optimistic no matter how awful the tragedy that befalls them while others suffer and complain no matter how much good fortune comes their way. It also explains how two people can react to the same event in completely different—even opposite—ways, as well as how someone can feel differently about the same event at different times. How can a lottery winner be miserable? Mindset. How can a quadriplegic be happy? Mindset. Mindset is the reason one person’s mountain is another person’s molehill.

Though the science documenting the effect of mindset on our core affect is relatively new, the concept of mindset itself is old. Buddhist philosophers captured the same idea more than two and a half millennia ago with the term life-condition. Having carefully observed all the various forms in which the self might exist, they delineated ten foundational life-conditions—or worlds—describing, in essence, the ten basic mindsets through which we continuously cycle. From the lowest to the highest with respect to the desirability of core affect they produce they are: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Tranquility, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Compassion, and Enlightenment.

Life-condition is defined essentially as the character of one’s inner life. As such, it influences the most basic aspects of our being—our emotions, our thoughts, our behaviors, and our life energy. Not that any particular emotion is unique to any one life-condition (for example, we don’t only get angry in the life-condition of Anger), nor that particular emotions always do only one thing to our core affect (for example, sadness doesn’t always make us feel pain). Rather, our life-condition is the lens through which we view both the world and ourselves and is therefore what determines which emotions we feel.

In one sense, then, the experience of life is really the experience of life-condition. Depending on which life-condition we find ourselves inhabiting at any one moment our experience of life will be different. When we’re in the life-condition, or world, of Hell, for example, everything will be warped by our suffering. In such a state we could win the Nobel Prize and not feel an ounce of satisfaction from it. But while in the world of Enlightenment, simply watching a sunset could give rise to the greatest joy we’ve ever known. Nothing, in other words, is inherently a burden or a delight, an obstacle or an opportunity. How happy or unhappy we are is ultimately determined by our life-condition and our life-condition alone.

Core delusions

What, then, determines our life-condition? Certainly a variety of things influence it. This includes both fixed things, like our genes and upbringing, and fleeting things, like drugs, diseases, hormonal states, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to name just a few. But what we argue influences it the most is something else entirely: our beliefs. And though many different kinds of beliefs are able to influence our life-condition, we argue that the beliefs that influence it the most are our beliefs about happiness itself. In fact, we argue that our beliefs about happiness—beliefs, that is, about what we need to be happy—are what create the Ten Worlds.

We further propose that at the core there are only ten beliefs people have about what they need to be happy—and that nine of them are wrong. We dub these beliefs the core delusions. Unlike Beck’s view that dysfunctional beliefs arise from early childhood traumas, we think the core delusions arise from foundational life experiences common to us all.

To show, rather than merely tell, readers how each of these nine core delusions restricts the happiness they're able to experience, each chapter in the book opens with a description of one of the Ten Worlds. Following that, we meet a patient of Ash’s whose basic life tendency centers on that world and who granted Ash permission to share the details of his or her therapy with me. The bulk of each chapter is then spent in recreating the therapy sessions themselves as well as the behind-the-scenes conversations that Ash and I were having as we attempted to puzzle out each of the core delusions.

Though readers may not recognize in themselves the same degree of pathology on display in the stories we tell, we believe the core delusions we were able to identify—admittedly not through experimental design but through reflection, reason, and thought experiment—are in fact the same core delusions that trap us all. Our hope is that in helping readers identify which core delusion is most consistently stirred up for them, they can better understand the limits that the core delusions place on their ability to be happy.

Yet we also argue that absolute happiness—happiness that can't be destroyed by anything—remains possible. In the final chapter, we take readers through the evidence that the life-condition of Enlightenment is a real state accessible to us all, one founded neither in mysticism nor the supernatural but rather on psychological and neurological functioning of the human brain.

Though a surprising number of people have reported attaining the life-condition of Enlightenment, the process by which enlightenment can be attained consistently hasn't been fully worked out. We present the data that does exist and propose a method (beyond meditation, chanting, or the use of psychedelic drugs) by which anyone should be able, with practice, to make the life-condition of Enlightenment their basic life tendency.

Because if such a state is indeed possible, one in which we can enjoy every part of our lives, even the painful ones, what could be more important for us to achieve?

Portions of this post have been reprinted from The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness.


About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.