Sometimes the best short descriptions of complex subjects are not found in the dictionary. To give an example, the best and most condensed description of that illusive thing we call “consciousness” I ever heard was: “that annoying time between naps.”
In the same way I recently heard a surprisingly short, but strikingly clever description of “happiness”: “a state of being you do not want to change.” Now, happiness is severely lacking and is still losing ground. Slowly but surely we’re learning that increased wealth, individually or as a society, doesn’t necessarily increase happiness; there are studies that show that above a certain figure, I believe it was an annual income of $70,00, happiness doesn’t increase any further. It seems that there IS something like “enough” when it comes to material wealth in relation to feeling happy…
Still, happiness is declining, as evidenced by the fact that the sales-figures for antidepressants have soared by 65% in 15 years. In the linked article there are a lot of reasons given why this rise has occurred and many reasons why Americans are less satisfied with their lifes, but it’s missing the most important reason in my mind. I believe a lot of unhappiness is caused by our self centeredness.
By that I mean that we naturally make ourself the center of all our experiences. This is important to develop a sense of agency and to be able to feel responsible for our words and actions. It’s the part of our consciousness that starts development after roughly 18 months and keeps developing until we’re roughly 25 years old. This self awareness is vital for us to grow up to be a functional individual within society, but it has some severe downsides too.
In a universe in which we are the center, everything happens to us and we reflect everything back to ourselves. Even though we know that we’re this tiny little part inside an infinite universe where almost 100% of the events happen without our input, we imagine that we are the masters of our destiny, that we control our life; what else is free choice for, why else spend more than 20 years developing a sense of agency? And we also imagine that our consciousness comes from within ourself, from our brain.
The thing is that with all this self-consciousness, we’re prey to emotions of the self. Like shame, guilt, envy and jealousy. We constantly compare ourself to others: am I better, taller, faster, smarter or better looking? Especially the looks are important, and we feel inadequate when we get negative remarks about our appearance. This feeling of inadequacy translates into shame, which is the tendency, the urge to hide our perceived shortcomings, or into guilt, the urge to remedy perceived wrongdoings. We are of course responsible for our actions, but that’s a far cry from being masters of our destiny. Yet we’re feeling guilty, we blame ourself when we fail in steering our lifes on a course toward a preferred destiny. It seems we’re mostly unhappy about ourselves, when we feel negative emotions linked to the self.
Each and every one of us knows when we’re happy, when we’re in that state of being we don’t want to change, when we’ve reached that moment we wished would last forever. Or actually, we realize that we just were in that ecstatic phase in the moment we are ourself again… Yes, in the moment itself we’re not even really aware of it, because in the moment itself we momentarily FORGOT ourself. This can happen through imagination, the suspension of disbelief while reading a good book or watching a good movie; a good story can suck you in, to the degree you imagine yourself in the imaginary world, even in the shoes of the imaginary protagonist. But it also, and more intensely happens during direct action with the surrounding world; this we know as being in the “zone” or “flow” during athletic or artistic endeavors. I often feel bliss just thinking about the grandness of it all, about how infinitely big the universe is and how infinitely little we know about it. Or lose yourself in the one you love, that’s a good route to happiness too… But lose yourself, forget yourself, find something or someone to get lost in; give the self a short vacation now and then…