The Illusion of Happiness

After a friend and I had a discussion about what constitutes happiness, he came up with an idea for my next book. As a professional writer, he scans many blogs daily and suggested I take a look at them, and tell him my reaction.

“I’m going to vomit” I wrote, after reading one particularly sappy link he sent me.

I’m torn because I don’t want to begrudge anyone else her or his happiness, but I believe that happiness is genetic, ie chemical. I know. I used Ecstasy in the nineties. Some good stuff too. What that taught me was that happiness, whether its origin is purely natural or synthetic, is the result of chemical reactions in the brain. We can either take a pill that causes our serotonin to rush across our synapses or we can experience things in our lives that produce the same reaction, but it’s still primarily neurological.

I write “primarily” because I also believe there is a component to happiness that is psychological. I think (I’m happy); therefore, I am (happy). A line I love comes from the Pulitzer-prize winning musical, “Next to Normal.” Suburban mother Dinan Goodman says, “People who think they’re happy haven’t thought about it enough.” (She also says many gems like “Valium is my favorite color.”) The founder of the school where I grew up had a famous saying that was posted around campus: You don’t find happiness by looking for it; you stumble over it on the road to duty. Although most of what I was taught as a young person has turned out not to be true, there’s much truth in that little line.

Unfortunately, the search for happiness has become quite an industry in America and it’s my belief that the constant barrage of happiness-seeking advice creates an expectation of happiness, a level that for most of us is unattainable. Like everything else about us, happiness has an evolutionary purpose. If you love tasty strawberries, as I do, you feel happy when you eat one and that’s a reward for doing something healthy. That reward goes back hundreds of thousands, or more, years. “But Rich,” you say, “As you pointed out, Ecstasy makes you happy and that’s not good for you.” Right, neither are processed sugar or polyunsaturated fat but they didn’t have Ecstasy or most fats or sugars we eat a hundred thousand years ago. That’s my point: If Ecstasy – perpetual happiness – had existed among our primitive ancestors, none of us would be here because happy humans aren’t as motivated to hunt and gather as anxious, fearful or ferocious humans. And if we think our current diet of “comfort (a close relative of happiness) foods” is sustainable, I’ll sell you some stock in the Neanderthal Dow.

I don’t know where this is going. “No shit!” you say. Maybe at the end of this Happiness Illusion Project there’s a book. Maybe I’ll give some of these crazy happiness suggestions a good honest try. Because at the end of the long day, I want to be happy too, I just want my happiness to be real.

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One Response to “The Illusion of Happiness”

  1. lhbasden Says:

    Don’t forget to read up on the psychology of happiness in your research. Here’s an accessible review article on the subject: http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan01/positivepsych.aspx.


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