What is… happiness?

From time to time a client asks me this, and generally, I say it’s a minimum of un-happiness. And considering the business I’m in, that’s the goal the client and I seek.

After all, once their unhappiness has reduced as far as possible, my job is done, and I never see them again.

But there’s got to be more to it than that. But what is that?

A major ice cream company once advertised that they sell happiness, but really, they were speaking of pleasure. Can pleasure buy happiness?

Maybe a few minutes of it, but if one is really unhappy with his life, pleasure doesn’t really do the trick. Not for long. And continuous pleasure can eventually seem very ordinary.

After all, consider how we look, to people in the third world. With electricity and running water, air conditioning, a car, television, and enough to eat, we must be brimming with pleasure, and our lives absolutely filled with happiness while we would say those are ordinary essentials of life. Just the basics.

When my grandparents were young, children would have considered an orange at Christmas time to be a delicacy, but today we could take it or leave it, any time of year.

After the stock market crash of 1929, some no-longer-rich people committed suicide, not because their lives would be so horrible, but because they would have to live on the level of working people, and perform mundane tasks, which they felt they could absolutely not tolerate.

Others would say that such a life was not so bad. Whether it was perceived as a fate worse than death was just a matter of attitude. Perception.

I remember a client who had been married to a wealthy, alcoholic professional. I hypnotized her, and in the background, played a recording of an ocean surf rolling in.

Afterward, she complained that the surf was upsetting, because it reminded her of vacations she had taken in several foreign countries she named, such as France and Brazil, and only brought back unhappy memories.

The vacations were expensive, and would be seen by many as wonderful pleasures, but to her, a bad marriage just spoiled all of that.

I think it is safe to say that happiness is a brain state.

In particular, the right amount of dopamine and serotonin, in the right places at the right times. But how do we achieve such a brain condition?

To be sure, externals have something to do with it, but manipulating externals alone can not conveniently or reliably do that.

We may see things that we think would give us happiness, and assume that more of the same would give us even more.

Though, once the new is worn off, what then?

And, if a million dollars would make me so happy, would a billion make me a thousand times happier? Likely, the difference would not be proportional.

The world is full of stories of the rich who were miserable. Hollywood abounds with divorce and humongous settlements, and as I first wrote this, a very rich United States senator was in deep trouble from his misguided attempts to enhance his life, which fell through.

As I reviewed it years later, a former high-ranking congressman, with millions to his name, was in hot water because he had confused pleasure with happiness, and it is coming back at him.

The movies tell us that happiness happens when one wins at the end of the story, and then rides into the sunset with the pretty lady. But what happens next?

If the story were to continue, would they have a problem making a living some time later? Will there be serious illness, or a premature death in the family? Will there be alcohol abuse or infidelity?

Will the two of them decide they can’t stand to live in the same house together? If the story were more than just fiction, only time would tell.

I once thought of happiness as the ecstasy I felt on Christmas morning when I was five years old. For an hour or so, it was pure glee and joy.

Afterward, I often wished for that feeling to return, though it seldom did.

If we decide we won’t be happy until we experience the thrill of Christmas, and that it then should be permanent, we’ll be waiting a long time.

By decision, or assumption, we will have made that prediction true.

Some seek a direct route to that brain state we call happiness, through drugs or alcohol. They may achieve minutes or hours of pleasure, but may pay for it by increasing their later dis-pleasure a hundred fold or a thousand fold.

Decades ago, scientists discovered a pleasure center in the brains of rats. It could be stimulated by placing a wire in the brain of the rat and giving it a small jolt of electricity.

The wire could be hooked to a pedal, which the rat could press to get another shot of voltage. The rats would press the pedal again and again, forsaking food or water, until they dropped from exhaustion, in order to sense that pleasure over and over.

Timothy Leary once predicted that every American would one day walk around with such a wire in his head, such that he could send electrical stimulation to himself, whenever he wants, all for the price of a double-A cell.

But what would keep him from doing like the rat, and pressing the button over and over, in place of other means of producing a similar outcome? That is, pleasure.

After all, other methods of generating pleasure not only take more effort, but are comparatively unreliable in producing the desired satisfaction, not to mention, are slower.

Achievement, affection, productivity. None of these things is necessary when a press of a button provides a shortcut.

Such an instrument might remove all of the constructive undertakings in the country if Leary’s prophecy were fulfilled. The outcome could be compared to opium dens in certain countries in times past.

Recently, a study compared the brains of control subjects (you could call them “normal” people) with the brains of methamphetamine addicts, and the brains of obese people.

A PET scan of the controls showed a lot of dopamine receptors lit up in red. But a scan of both the meth addicts and the obese people showed fewer dopamine receptors.

Dopamine is a pleasure chemical. When there is a lot of it, we feel happy. However, when there is too much of it, too much of the time, the brain does what is called, “pruning.”

That is, receptor cells are killed off, in order to bring the total stimulation back to a normal level.

In other words, the brain can only stand so much pleasure. Any more than that, and it tries to cut it back to a lower level.

Trying to increase our pleasure beyond some maximum level, seems to be just a waste of time. The good news is, that if one quits the excessive stimulation in search of pleasure, the receptor cells begin to grow back.

Many years ago, one comedian, Brother Dave Gardner, said that success is gettin’ what you want. Happiness is wantin’ what you get.

He seems to suggest that happiness comes from an internal source.

There’s probably something to that, but how do we make that happen?

Certainly not by believing the propaganda, both commercial and ideological, that surrounds us, telling us the exact opposite every day.

At various points of growing up, I related happiness to the movies. If I could be whatever that character was, I would be happy, I thought. At one moment I might be piloting an airplane, or at another I might be a detective.

Or I might be a soldier, or I might marry the beautiful girl in the story. Most of these things had to do with who and what I would be, or with getting what I want.

A college degree was supposed to do something like that for me, and nobody in my family had ever had one. Nor had anybody in my church, other than the preacher. It was unknown territory.

In fact, I decided to go to college when I was in the third grade, and my mother came home from work, mad at her supervisor.

“She doesn’t have to work, she doesn’t know anything, and she makes more money than everybody,” she said.

“If she doesn’t have to work, why does she make more money than everybody?” I asked.

“Because she’s been to college. If you’ve been to college, you don’t have to work, and you make more money than everybody.”

“That’s for me!” I thought.

Eventually that came about, and I drove home with a diploma, expecting benefits to come showering down.

I got a job, which was all right, but nothing special.

I had not joined an elite of any kind, and riches did not come my way. Employers were not that interested in what I had learned. I wasn’t paid to think, I was paid to do as I was told.

An attitude grew, to the effect of “is that all there is?”

In and of itself, a college degree did not produce Nirvana, nor existence on any kind of higher plane.

Nor did two college degrees. I suspect a third one might not have done that, either.

A good many experiences may give us a feeling of, “Is that all there is,” especially if we had ascribed specific expectations to them in advance.

I can say with confidence that a happy home life contributes to happiness, and constant conflict at home subtracts from it.

Harmonious relations in one’s social environment definitely make a difference.

To that I can attest from personal experience, as well as having worked 36 years as a marriage and family counselor.

It is not the thrill of a preschooler's Christmas, nor even of a prospective spouse saying “yes.”

But it is more lasting, and allows one to enjoy those other things we call “pleasure.”

Contentment, a lack of negative stress, and a lack of disappointment with one’s lot in life can reduce the mental interference with our pleasures, including the small ones, and the mundane intermissions that stretch on between those pleasures.

Here we have a paradox. On the one hand, though happiness is a brain state, attempts to achieve that state directly, at best result only in momentary pleasure.

Though we can not necessarily achieve happiness solely through externals, something in our external world is apparently necessary, or at least, important.

If we receive proper training as children, our way of handling our externals will be affected, not only in what to do about them, but also in how to regard them.

Our perception of the things in our lives is at least as important as anything else.

Our managing our lives, and especially our social relations, well or badly, will have a major effect on outcomes being satisfactory or not so.

And to an extent, happiness is a direct consequence of that.

Then sometimes, outcomes are unfavorable. Does that defeat us? It all depends on how we regard it.

Another factor in achieving happiness lies in our not expecting too much pleasure in life.

If we do, then we set ourselves up for disappointment.

Stuff happens. Best-laid plans go astray. Attempts fail.

If we have already decided we can not be happy unless we have this pleasure or that one, then we will lack our wish fulfillment as often as not, and will have made ourselves unhappy.

Rather than being an optimist or a pessimist, there is a middle ground somewhere, in which we can assume that success is possible, but so is failure, and failure doesn’t make a person a failure, and isn’t a permanent curse on a life.

In fact, some of the most famous successes are people who have failed many times. And then got up, and like the Energizer bunny, just kept going, and going, and going.

We can recognize that we win some and we lose some. The law of averages is sometimes expressed as Murphy’s law. That is, if something can go wrong, it will.

But a corollary to Murphy ’s Law is that given enough chances, if something can go right, sooner or later, it will.

In the end we all die, and there is no getting around that. So do those we love.

If we can come to terms with all that, it need not seem so scary.

When we experience pain, we generally get past it, as impossible as that may seem at the moment.

If we accept that pain is inevitable, it need not always be devastating, and our ability to experience happiness with our life is enhanced.

That is not necessarily pleasure, so much as satisfaction, or at least acceptance, with what we see in our lives. Perception and interpretation are all-important.

In all this, it appears that pleasure is more a short-term phenomenon, while happiness seems to have a long-term aspect to it.

Also, if one does not have a clear conscience, he may have problems enjoying the pleasures his guilty acts have bought him, in his pursuit of happiness. This refers to people who have a conscience, of course.

With an absence of background clutter, which we could compare to radio static, one can better enjoy the music in his life.

Alcoholics Anonymous has twelve steps, and one of them involves making amends for the wrongs one has done.

So what would that have to do with his decision to drink or not to do so?

Regardless of what he consciously tells himself, there is an inner voice telling him his life is a lie.

Until he rids himself of the lie and the guilt in his memories that make him lie to himself, he has difficulty experiencing pleasures unencumbered by his double thinking – the phony stories he gives himself to boost his self-esteem, and the inner knowledge that contradicts that.

He is required to go through the step of confessing his moral failings to one other person – to get honest. If he tries to fake that, he is the only casualty of his dishonesty.

Once he has admitted past wrongs to one other person, he is then expected to undo the harm done.

Again, if he takes a shortcut, he is the one who will pay for his malfeasance.

Hopefully, if he gets his act together, he will have less temptation to mask his discomfort with alcohol.

And if he is successful with that, he can remove many sources of distress from his life.

The serial spouses, the lost children, the firings, the foreclosures, the arrests, the hospital stays – all these things become far less likely.

Whether we realize it or not, we have an agenda for our lives, sometimes called a script.

Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes unconscious, and sometimes somewhere in between. We have short-term agendas and long-term agendas.

Often our unhappiness comes from script failure. The plan didn’t work out, and seems it never will. We see our lives as failures, or ruined.

Because we view our lives through a colored lens, we create unhappiness because we have made ourselves see it that way.

I had a good friend in high school, whose parents years later were killed in an automobile accident. He became depressed, and to be sure, that wasn’t how he expected his life would go.

He didn’t get past this depression, and his wife left him. Some time after that, he killed himself.

Things certainly didn’t go as he had once imagined or planned. This was so unacceptable, he thought his life wasn’t worth living, and he left it.

Part of the solution is to recognize the agenda, and to recognize the power one has given it over his life, and then to dispose of it. 

One can re-write his script and rewrite it again, as many times as he wishes.

A clue to one’s script might be seen in his favorite childhood story. I had two.

One was Popeye, who could open a can of spinach, and knock the stuffing out of the big guy. I was a skinny, undersized kid at the time.

Another was a caterpillar, named Happy Go Lucky, whose story was like the ugly duckling.

He turned into a dragonfly, and flew higher and was more beautiful than the bugs who had been bugging him.

None of that ever happened. If I had remained locked into scripts following those stories, I could have made myself very unhappy, perhaps without even realizing why.

It is said that among graduate students, their favorite childhood story is often The Little Engine That Could. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

Then, we have the baloney factor. That is, nonsense put into our heads as children.

Were we told that we were stupid, or unimportant, or cowardly, or weak, or bad? I remember a woman who would scream at her 3-year old – "You were an accident!"

Three years old is a hypnotizable age. A three year old will believe anything you tell him. Did he grow up believing he had no right to exist? And possibly not even knowing why he feels that way?

People who grow up with these phony beliefs end up battling dragons that never actually existed in the first place.

They may overcompensate, and try to prove to themselves and others that they are some opposite thing from their deepest fears.

There are ways of dealing with this, which we can’t cover here. But it is probably easier to remove these phony beliefs than to go through life pretending to be the extreme opposite.

Of course, in all this I am assuming a lack of clinical depression. In some cases, external causes of depression, either recent or old, are apparent, and sometimes not.

Some such cases are solved with talk and reason, some with medication, and some with both.

But I haven’t been talking about those not related to thinking habits. I’m speaking of matters in the normal, or non- clinical areas of life.

Where reason is effective, then with a life that can be called normal, he or she can truly appreciate the occasional pleasures in life, including the small ones.

Once one’s mind and emotions are uncluttered, one can better value such things as a cup of coffee, or saying hello to a friend, stroking one’s cat, bringing in today’s crop of cucumbers, or smelling the cool air of a new morning.

Generally speaking, if one's relations with his family and friends are more or less good, and if his interpretation of his life story is positive, then he is probably as happy as, or more happy than the average person.

And then one may have what we call happiness. That is, not un-interrupted bliss, and certainly not perpetual glee, but a general satisfaction with what their life is all about and even a likely joy from time to time.

Here's another view, from Pope Francis:

"You can have flaws, be anxious, and even angry, but do not forget that your life is the greatest enterprise in the world. Only you can stop it from going bust. Many appreciate you, admire you and love you. Remember-- that to be happy is not to have a sky without a storm, a road without accidents, work without fatigue, relationships without disappointments.

To be happy is to find strength in forgiveness, hope in battles, security in the stage of fear, love in discord. It is not only to enjoy the smile, but also to reflect on the sadness. It is not only to celebrate the successes, but to learn lessons from the failures. It is not only to feel happy with the applause, but to be happy in anonymity.

Being happy is not a fatality of destiny, but an achievement for those who can travel within themselves. To be happy is to stop feeling like a victim and become your destiny's author. It is to cross deserts, yet to be able to find an oasis in the depths of our soul. It is to thank God for every morning, for the miracle of life. Being happy is not being afraid of your own feelings. It's to be able to talk about you. It is having the courage to hear a "no".

It is confidence in the face of criticism, even when unjustified. It is to kiss your children, pamper your parents, to live poetic moments with friends, even when they hurt us. To be happy is to let live the creature that lives in each of us, free, joyful and simple. It is to have maturity to be able to say: "I made mistakes". It is to have the courage to say "I am sorry". It is to have the sensitivity to say, "I need you". It is to have the ability to say "I love you".

May your life become a garden of opportunities for happiness That in spring may it be a lover of joy. In winter a lover of wisdom. And when you make a mistake, start all over again. For only then will you be in love with life. You will find that to be happy is not to have a perfect life. But use the tears to irrigate tolerance.

Use your losses to train patience. Use your mistakes to sculpter serenity. Use pain to plaster pleasure. Use obstacles to open windows of intelligence. Never give up. Never give up on people who love you. Never give up on happiness, for life is an incredible show. "