At least eight out of ten people will say yes to the question, “Do you want to be happy?” It is the biggest and most common lie we all participate in. It’s an ingrained part of our culture to treat happiness as the ultimate goal – it’s the inherent marketing that people and companies alike peddle.
We’ve been brought up idolizing happiness, and we are conditioned to treat it as gospel. Abrahamic religions (the most popular religious practices in the world) teach that heaven is eternal happiness, and the goal of life is to go to heaven.
In trying to understand happiness, I ran into circular definitions – happiness means pleasure and contentment, but pleasure means to be happy. Psychological studies vary, but the current theory says that there are four basic emotions – joy, sadness, fear, and anger.
Joy is what manifests as happiness, and it is interesting to note that joy is the only one of the four that makes us feel good. It might then be understandable to define happiness as feeling good. However, because good and bad are such abstract concepts, it is often difficult to ascertain what we want.
Happy vs Comfortable
Comfort is defined as a state of ease – freedom from anxiety and tension. Going by the four basic emotions, anxiety and tension are both manifestations of fear. So comfort is a lack of fear.
Here is where we make the distinction of what we really want. Because so much anxiety and stress exist in the world, we are always trying to escape it. We want an absence of fear. And when we get that, we mistake it as happiness. We believe an absence of bad means good, but that’s not necessarily true.
We are literally so tired of being fearful that we believe ‘not afraid’ means happy.
If we believe happiness is good, then it is important to recognize the difference between good and not-bad. Comfort by itself is not an ignoble goal. However, if we equate comfort with happiness, we devalue and hence under-appreciate the higher, more noble aspirations that come with true happiness. This is explained in less abstract terms below.
Happiness in Altruism
Altruism means selflessness. We understand it as the primary personality trait behind charity and service.
Research[PDF] indicates that “Altruism results in deeper and more positive social integration, distraction from personal problems and the anxiety of self-preoccupation … and the presence of positive emotions such as kindness that displace harmful negative emotional states. It is entirely plausible, then, to assert that altruism enhances mental and physical health.”
When you work for the benefit of others, your body physically responds with happiness. Activities such as charitable organizations and drives, or teaching others, help you as well. You feel actually good, hence showing that good begets good.
Altruistic activities have been proven to be very fulfilling and emotionally satisfying. See the reviews of Teach for India, an organization that solicits people to teach underprivileged children. People have reported feeling better and more fulfilled, and have credited the organization with helping them develop patience, focus, and find purpose.
Happiness in Health
If you’ve ever wanted to get fitter or more athletic, chances are someone tells you that you will gain back any weight you lose if you ever stop going to the gym. That is, to a degree, true.
Health is a lifestyle. Diets and workout programs will never work if one goes back to an unhealthy lifestyle afterwards. Our bodies need a lot more exercise than we think they do. It’s borderline unfair how easy it is to screw-up your health.
There’s a reason we adore celebrities with a hard rack of abs or a well-toned body. We form that association between a great body and a happy, fulfilled lifestyle. We aspire to celebrities because we know (even the scoffers and the ho-hummers) that it is not an easy thing to do.
However, if you’ve never worked out a day in your life, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that even a little exercise feels good.
The good news? You don’t have to chase hard abs and eat nothing but vegetables if happiness is your goal. You only need about twenty minutes of moderate exercise a day (consistent) to peak the happiness you can get from feelings of fitness and good health.
Why? Leo Widrich explains, when we workout, the brain treats it like a fight-or-flight exercise, i.e. it becomes stressed. To deal with the rest, it releases a reset protein called BDNF (which provides clarity) and some happy hormones called endorphins (which provide relief).
Exercise is biologically handling the comfort vs happiness problem – it takes away the bad (reset) and then brings in more good (relief).
Happiness is a Continuous Task
Probably the worst thing you’ll hear today is that happiness requires effort. You have to continuously work towards being happy.
If you’re chasing a new car, or a PlayStation, or clothes, or better food, or any other material things, you are chasing comfort. And that’s okay. It’s very holier-than-thou of me if I make myself feel better by putting down how others live their lives.
However, you will be better equipped to handle comfort if you know that it is greedy. Comfort is a relative feeling and it is easy to let it devolve into misery. Without consciously making the decision to feel okay and satisfied, you leave yourself vulnerable to misery.
Comfort is a relative feeling and it is easy to let it devolve into misery. You have to continuously work towards being happy.
On the other hand, if you work towards happiness, when you under-perform you still settle on comfort. It’s like being in momentum – even if you hit an obstacle, you slow down but you are still going.
If you are altruistic, the satisfaction from that happiness keeps you feeling better than comfortable. Even if you settle on your laurels, it becomes harder to be miserable. If you work towards fitness, your body automatically tries harder to keep you joyous, releasing endorphins and functioning smoothly.
Am I telling you to be altruistic or fit? No. I’m trying to help you understand yourself better so that in moments of weakness, you know what is going on, and you’re not taken by surprise. You then know how to stop yourself from falling deep into misery.
This post is late. Whoops.
This post is the second of four in a series called ‘Misconception Month’. Every Thursday in April (12 PM IST), I’ll be releasing another post from the series, and they’ll all be about a common misconception that we might not really give its due attention. I hope you enjoyed this read and found it worth thinking about.
Do you agree or disagree with the ideas in this article? Tell me below.