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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Joy and Happiness

Happiness is an expansion, a connection; is connecting with another person, with nature, with a situation. You feel joy when you're not really aware of yourself as distinct. The separateness that comes with all those other things like anger and fear, make you feel like you're a little isolated thing having an awful time.

When we think of happiness, children often come to mind; that the drive for happiness is one that motivates our daily actions, even in adulthood. It's one of the basic emotions that include anger and surprise. This drive for happiness impels you to seek out the things that make us feel good. Almost all the things that bring you joy now are things that brought you joy in your childhood. Every day there's something to discover in nature, and in culture, actually, but you knew as a child you really are discovering something every day. Then if you can bring that into your adult life; you wake up every day thinking there are things to learn and discover and to delight you with, then you're going to have a fair bit of joy in your life.

It is interesting to remember that emotions can be contagious, so you can be in a group and if the group is generally, you know positive, enthusiastic, those emotions can be contagious and if it's a fairly cynical group that can be contagious. And organizations are big social systems where they can create environments that facilitate and help people to increase their wellbeing or, in fact, can decrease it. And I think there's been far too little attention to that area so those are the types of things that I'm especially interested in, and understanding what creates a healthy environment where people are able to learn how to utilize their emotions in ways that benefit themselves and others. In my mind, in turn, it spreads back out into society.

Most of the people think that joy decreases with age but there's an emerging set of research that's showing that with aging the part of that regulates negative emotions actually becomes better able to do it, and, in a sense, takes the brakes off the positive emotions. So they end up being less anxious, less neurotic and so on (this is in normal ageing). And the question of course has been 'why would that happen?' And up until now a lot of neuroscience research hasn't addressed this question because they say, 'well surely evolution hasn't selected for something that would improve function after the productive years', that evolution would only select for something in the years when children can be produced. Who knows? Maybe it happens because our ancestors used to live longer than we do.

Happiness is a strange notion for scientists. What is the psychological state called "happiness" for? It can't be that natural selection designed us to feel good all the time out of sheer good will. Presumably our brain circuits for happiness motivate us to accomplish things that enhance biological fitness. With that simple insight one can make some sense of some of the puzzles of happiness that wise men and women have noted for thousands of years. For example, directly pursuing happiness is often a recipe for unhappiness, because our sense of happiness is always calibrated with respect to other people.

Perhaps we can make sense of this by putting ourselves in the shoes of the fictitious engineer behind natural selection. What should the circuit for happiness be doing? Presumably it would be assessing how well you're doing in your current struggle in life, whether you should change your life and try to achieve something different, or whether you should be content with what you're achieved so far, for example, when you are well-fed, comfortable, with a mate, in a situation likely to result in children and so on. But how could a brain be designed in advance to assess that? There's no absolute standard for well-being. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer should not have fretted that he had no running shoes or central heating or penicillin. How can a brain know whether there is something worth striving for? Well, it can look around and see how well off other people are. If they can achieve something, maybe so can you. Other people anchor your well-being scale and tell you what you can reasonably hope to achieve.

21 comments:

Hailey said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ann

http://externallaptop.net

Paul Squires said...

I can only speak for myself but I am definitely getting happier as I get older. I care less about silly things and I accept that what I do know will always be a tiny tiny fraction of the vast, eternal mass of things I won't ever know. It makes me happy.

Stu said...

"Happiness is an expansion, a connection; is connecting with another person, with nature, with a situation. You feel joy when you're not really aware of yourself as distinct. The separateness that comes with all those other things like anger and fear, make you feel like you're a little isolated thing having an awful time."

Yes, definitely. I've found that meditation helps with staying connected. It can certainly reduce anger and fear. It takes considerable discipline though, which is something I need to keep cultivating!

Mariana Soffer said...

Paul: Thanks for sharing your personal experience, it is interesting that it confirms the theory.

Stu: I am thinking about starting to meditate again myself, for me it is hard to have discipline. By the way did you know David Lynch has a foundation for meditating: http://www.davidlynchfoundation.org/
(I saw you wrote a great poem about one of his movies, which I happen to like a lot, dough my favourite is either blue velvet or a simple story, depending on my mood).

Antonio M. Bechara said...

For the end of the article, I guess I can translate that to -reflecting our wishes and broaden our limits on the people around us, not only thinking of them as mirrors, but as means to expand the reflections and shine even more-
Kisses for the nice lady within the sporty-well-brained girl !!!

scribulus said...

I think happiness gets comes easier with age and knowledge. We tend to realise there are things we cannot change, so we maske the most of them.

We also become more grateful for each and every extra day without ill health or emotional torment.

As Rudyard Kipling once said:

" If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;"

Then life isn't so bad is it?

Mariana Soffer said...

Antony: You always make people around you shine brighter just by being near them.(Sorry for being corny, I can't help it, to many pop songs)

scribulus: I completely agree about the greatfullness, it is fundamental to happiness. I was about to write a paragraph about being greatful for what you got, but it didn't quite fit.Thanks for the quote, it is so true and beautiful.

Mariana Soffer said...

Antony: You always make people around you shine brighter just by being near them.(Sorry for being corny, I can't help it, to many pop songs)

scribulus: I completely agree about the greatfullness, it is fundamental to happiness. I was about to write a paragraph about being greatful for what you got, but it didn't quite fit.Thanks for the quote, it is so true and beautiful.

Mariana Soffer said...

Antony: You always make people around you shine brighter just by being near them.(Sorry for being corny, I can't help it, to many pop songs)

scribulus: I completely agree about the greatfullness, it is fundamental to happiness. I was about to write a paragraph about being greatful for what you got, but it didn't quite fit.Thanks for the quote, it is so true and beautiful.

Harmonie22 said...

I think people become blinded by little things that cause anxiety and this slowly trains them to be unhappy until life teaches to let it all go.

What you've said about happiness and the brain is giving me a lot to think about: "our brain circuits for happiness motivate us to accomplish things that enhance biological fitness." On the days I wake up and I smile and feel deliciously wonderful inside because I can hear the birds singing, and that makes a difference in how I approach the day.

Mariana Soffer said...

It gives me joy the fact that I made you think about something you never thought before; that is one of the great things interdisciplinary work usually provides.
I think anxiety is probably the worst enemy of happiness, not sadnes. If you know how to let things go the suffering caused by sadness transforms itself and diminishses; but getting rid of anxiety is much harder, because as you said before, it is usually accompanied by blindness.

Uncle Tree said...

A very broad subject, Mariana.

Each paragraph could have been a post unto itself. The discussions could be endless, and I think that's the way Mother Nature intended it to be. Keep on tackling, my friend.

Mariana Soffer said...

You are right at a point I thought it was infinite. But I still thought it was intresting to say a small part of it.

Txs a lot
niece flower

poeticgrin.com said...

Does happiness come more often as you age - or is it, as you age, you attain the wisdom to recognize happiness more often?

When I was a child, I never bothered to recognize when I was happy. Far more emphasis was places on those times when I was sad. (RE: Temper Tantrums, etc)

Mariana Soffer said...

P:Intresting question. One think I am sure of is that you have more resources to increase happiness as you age (not including being wiser).

I do not know if you could say something like happiness comes more often or not. I would prefer the terms being a happier or sadder person.

I think there is some truth in your first paragraph that I never thought about. Txs for this. I will keep thinking about this idea and let you know if I get somewhere.

justAnotherGeekgirl said...

thats so nice to spread happiness :) i think its far away ...or behind emotions >> happiness has nothing to do with emotions {emotions take you high and down}

happiness is always there :)

like in your post "comfortable, with a mate" hahaha i just read with a mate=(mate+bombilla+yerba) aaah we could say thats happiness too!

and i am kidding....but i am not :)

Mariana Soffer said...

I guess you are considering happiness as something that is related to wisdom. They should definitely be related.

You made me think that mate is a happiness tool.

Just kiding. Bye

justAnotherGeekgirl said...

hahaha... mmm everything i think is not posteable :P
so... cheers! :)
ps/ i enjoy a lot the way u turn words and concepts :)

Mariana Soffer said...

You can send me what you think by mail, feel free. I would love to, and promise no one will ever no private stuff.

maekitso said...

Excellent postings here, Mariana. From my own experience, I think your opening para is spot on. Given that happiness seems to follow from making a connection, I think that being unaware of oneself is the prerequisite for feeling joy. I don't think, however, that anger and fear are opposite to or necessarily destructive of happiness. If an angry person can connect with like minded angry people, I think happiness will result. Fear and anger are certainly contagious, and I have seen too many examples of groups of people gathering in race riots , laughing with great joy as they beat their targets into submission or recount their tales to the media with a certain level of ignorant pride.

I would also argue that moral agents like ourselves can harness anger for positive effect. As we age, we tend to notice more reasons to get angry, and therefore have more reason to connect with society. We are mature enough to understand that we 'ought' to make a distinction between getting angry with individuals and getting angry with problems. I could go on. Thank you.

Mariana Soffer said...

It is not excactely that you have to be unaware to experiment joy.
What you have to get rid is the rigid separation that
exists between yourself and the reset of the world.
I agree, not necesarily generaly bad catalogued emotions,
are the oposit of the good ones, they are usually diffrent
sides of the same coin.

The real enemy of happiness is not the obvious one "anger".
You have to reformulate the question and even the system to get you belive in
get a better idea about how emotions interact and work.

Emotions are contagious by definition, is a sad person
enter a room with normal mood people, the sadness quickly
propagates to the rest of the group.

Every emotion was originally developed by nature, to accomplish
some kind of adaptative function to their environment. For
example Shame, evolutionary purpose is to help social integration
by retraining people not to do things that are not acceptable.

Please feel free to write as much as you want
M