The Elusive Prize

A state of happiness has two paths; one in biology and one in action.

Posted Dec 01, 2013

Almost everyone says that they want to be happy and  want  their children  to be  happy. They do not mean  the brief sensation of pleasure that follows  eating a tasty meal,  entering a warm house  on a cold day,   or  the sensations of orgasm.  These  feelings  do not last long enough.  When people say they want to be happy, they mean that they want to feel satisfied with their life  most of the time.

However, there is often a long silence when adults are  asked what they must  do to attain happiness because  most are unsure of the acts that might lead  to  this desirable state. Americans understand  that  wealth,  fame, love, power, respect, and friends   are only a means to the happiness that is the primary goal.  It is surely odd  that  so many individuals  yearn  for  a  psychological state they are not sure  how to obtain.

 One  reason  why happiness is elusive is that there are two quite different paths  that lead to a pair of  somewhat different  states that happen to have the same name in English.  The first path requires the  inheritance of a  biology that mutes the moments of unhappiness that accompany run-of-the- mill frustrations, frights, and losses that are part of the human experience. This biology  provides partial  protection  from excessive anxiety   when one fails a test, loses  money, misses an appointment, or feels an unusual ache. The same biology mutes an intense or prolonged guilt following an ethical misdemeanor or deep sadness when a friend moves away.  The  absence of  bouts  of psychic distress  is  the most accurate way  to describe this state.  Unfortunately,   scientists do not yet know the  specific  genes that are the foundations of this desirable mental  state.   

Individuals have greater control over the  path to a somewhat different state of happiness.  Adults who  are able to attain some of the goals they classified as worthy  during adolescence  enjoy a special quality of happiness.  Although the  goals pursued vary across individuals, cultures, and history, the  most common are  contributions  to the welfare of  others and accomplishments that both the person and his or her society admire.

The poet Wallace Stevens recognized that each person must  invent the goals whose attainment would  allow a feeling of life satisfaction.  Stevens wrote,  “ The final belief is to believe in a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”  Those   who  inherited  one of the  physiologies  that mute bouts of unhappiness and, in addition,  managed to  gratify at least one of  the praiseworthy goals they invented are prepared to experience a state we might call  “ super- happiness”.  Social scientists  call this precious state “subjective well-being”.

Each  person’s pattern of identifications with family members as well as social class,  ethnic, and national  categories can enhance or dilute subjective well-being.  Amos Oz, a celebrated Israeli writer, had an epiphany when his father, also a highly respected writer, told the young Amos he could place his childhood books on the same shelf that held the father’s volumes. This experience made it easier for  the son to infer that perhaps he, too, possessed the potential to become a great writer. Because  the son did attain the prize he valued  he enjoyed a more intense happiness.  Identifications with persons or groups that have undesirable properties can have the opposite effect.  The celebrated literary critic  Frank Kermode, who grew up in an extremely poor family on the Isle of Man, identified with those who had low social status in his society. Even though Kermode was accomplished and  a distinguished professor at an elite British university, he did not lose his earlier identification.  Kermode  called his memoir “ Not Entitled” because he  could not discard the uneasy feeling that bubbled up from the intuition that he had no business being  a  member of an elite  group. Kermode’s  identification generated feelings that resemble those  of youth who   grew up in families where a parent was mentally ill,  alcoholic, a criminal, selfish, or dishonest.  These identifications can dilute the level of well-being.

  Information technology allows  adults living in  societies permeated with high levels of poverty, disease, corruption, and crime, such as Haiti or Somalia,  to be acutely aware of the better conditions in  richer nations.   This awareness  can be an  obstacle to  happiness, even among those with the appropriate biology who satisfied the obligations  they had set for themselves because the level of well-being is dependent on the  other  person or group the person chooses for comparison. The Danes report  the highest well-being of all  nations surveyed. But if  the Danes learned that 20 other nations had higher incomes, better health, and less crime their well-being would suffer without changing any condition in Danish society.   An eleventh century Chinese scholar, Shao Yong, understood that happiness cannot escape comparisons with others. He  wrote, “ I am happy because I am a human and not an animal, a male and not a female, a Chinese and not a barbarian, and because I live in Luoyang, the most wonderful city in the world.”  Adults living in a poor nation who migrate to an economically developed country can compare their psychological state with the poor friends they left or  the wealthier acquaintances they have met. Their level of well- being will depend on which group they chose for comparison.  

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the generation of Americans born between 1960 and 1990 feel less happy than those born between 1870 and 1900 because the former have more  reasons to doubt that  the United States is the most moral, democratic,  egalitarian, optimistic, and productive nation on earth.  The earlier generation found it easier  to enjoy an unadulterated   pride over  the American revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the bravery at the Alamo, and  America’s critical contribution to the  defeat  of the Nazis and Japanese in 1945. Those born after 1960 are reminded regularly of the harsh treatment  of slaves   in the ante-bellum South,  the slaughter of native Americans, the greedy  robber barons who exploited European immigrants huddled in tenements, the murder of innocent civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the millions of high school graduates who cannot read a newspaper, teenage girls fellating  boys they met several hours earlier, school massacres, priests abusing children, physicians taking money from drug companies in exchange for touting the qualities of the firm’s medicines, and the Federal Government giving  billions of dollars to banks, insurance  firms, and automobile companies to rescue them from the consequences of  excessively risky decisions, while  doing less to help the millions of citizens who lost their homes  because of a  foolish decision to buy a house they could not afford. The belief that  one’s nation has admirable qualities makes it easier to maintain a happy mood. Adults  who accommodate to their nation’s mistakes  have to cope with  a cynicism that can  be toxic to well-being.  Thus,  the properties and ambience of a person’s society has to be added  to their biology, ability to attain worthy goals,  and identifications in order  to understand the level of  well-being in a population.

The inability to  control  one’s biology, identifications, and societal conditions  may explain why the Old English  term  “happ”,  meaning luck, is the  origin of the word happy.  I suspect that most adults  have the intuition that the actions most likely to lead to happiness  resemble  those of  the sailor who must  tack away from the final buoy when the wind is strong.  Since it is impossible to mandate happiness, the wise strategy is  to first select and then pursue a praiseworthy  goal  and hope that one morning a  feeling of well-being will unexpectedly pierce consciousness.  

Samuel Beckett captured  the elusive nature of happiness  in an exchange between the two tramps in his  1956 play “ Waiting for Godot.”

              Vladimir: Say you are, even if it isn’t true.

              Estragon: What am I to say?

              Vladimir: Say I am happy.

              Estragon: I am happy

              Vladimir:  So am I.

              Estragon:  So am I.

              Vladimir: We are happy.

              Estragon: We are happy. What do we do now, now that we are happy?

              Vladimir:  Wait for Godot.