Mr Bashful

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Part 1. What is happiness?

The following four chapters look at the nature of happiness, and whether we should aim to be happy.

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1. What is happiness?

Is it Life satisfaction?

No. Satisfaction is a feeling we might experience upon reflection, a judgment of how happy we have been. It’s not happiness itself.

Is happiness contentment?

No, happy people find life too good to sit around being contented. Contentment is for cows.

I claim that there are two types of happiness. There is the temporary happiness we get when we experience pleasure, like when our footy team wins, or when we enjoy a night out with friends. That’s when endorphins, the “happy hormones”, rush to our brain to make us feel good. Our happiness soars, but after a while we return to normal.

Or, if a pet dies, our happiness plummets, but after a while we return to normal.

It’s that ‘normal bit’ which is the other type of happiness, that general day-to-day feeling of well-being when nothing in particular is happening. Just walking the dog, having a shower, waking up in the morning . . .  It’s our default happiness. It’s innate. I call it our core happiness.

And it’s that core happiness which is the subject of this book.

Don’t get me wrong: the temporary happiness we get from pleasure is important to have – life would be drab without pleasure. However, there are wealthy people who have whatever pleasures they want, but if they have a weak core happiness they will still find life unsatisfying. And there are people who don’t have access to many pleasures, but with a strong core happiness find pleasure in even the little things of life.

In short: We experience pleasure. It fades. We experience suffering. It too fades. Our lives are dotted with pleasures and sufferings. How we deal with those pleasures and sufferings matters, but what also matters is the interval between them. If we can enjoy the ongoing interval between them, we enjoy life. We have core happiness.

‘When I think of happiness I think of a bed. The most essential part of a comfortable bed is a solid mattress. On top of that mattress you have crumpled sheets, you have to change those sheets and pillowslips every week, you have disorganization, you have cold, you have warmth. But the solid foundation is there and that’s your mattress, and all of the things on top of that mattress is what happens in life. The foundation is your happiness.’
Linda Burney, MP of NSW Legislative Assembly.

In the next chapter we look at how core happiness came about, and from there infer the umpteen keys to core happiness. (Well, in this book are around thirty.) You might be applying most of the keys already. Apply a few more, and no matter how good your life is now, it will get better.

Q. ‘Mr B, does temporary happiness trump core happiness?’
Yes. When we experience pleasure or suffering our core happiness is overwhelmed. We only experience our core happiness when the pleasure or suffering recedes.
That doesn’t mean core happiness is not important. Most of the time we are not experiencing pleasure or suffering; we are living our day-to-day life.

Q. ‘For how long can temporary happiness last?’
For a few seconds if you eat a chocolate, a day if your footy team wins, or perhaps for a year if you are a newlywed, but at some point you will return to normal, to your day-to-day core happiness.

Q. ‘For how long can temporary unhappiness  (suffering) last?’
That varies too, but the stronger your core happiness, the sooner you return to it.

Q. ‘You say that if a pet dies, after a while we return to normal. Happiness experts say that even someone who is blinded, or becomes a quadriplegic, will return to their normal level of happiness after a while. Is that true?’
There are studies that suggest that, but I have doubts. We can’t yet accurately measure happiness.  
Anecdotally I have heard it said,  ‘Having to suffer that experience was the best thing that ever happened to me.’  Even if that is true it might be a rarity.
Personally, I can’t imagine being as happy as I am now if I were to become blind or quadriplegic, even after a long time had passed. But I might be wrong.
‘I know a blind person who is very happy.’
Core happiness comes from feeling connected with ‘the tribe’, and from feeling safe. I guess that if a blind person can satisfy those two ongoing needs they’re going to be happy.

Q. ‘Can hedonists have a strong core happiness?’
Sure. A person who experiences many pleasures can still have a strong core happiness. 

Q. ‘Is low core happiness depression?’
No. Low core happiness is a general feeling of flatness, or purposelessness. It would mean a glum life.
Having low core happiness is one reason why some people obsessively pursue pleasures: they want relief from that flat feeling; they want to feel good.

Q. ‘To be happy we need basic needs met – to feel safe, be free from hunger, pain, and anguish . . .’
More accurately, if you lack those basic needs you will be unhappy. That doesn’t mean you will become happy when those basic needs are met.
Remember, we experience core happiness when nothing in particular is happening. If you lack a basic need – if you are in danger, or suffering in some way – something in particular IS happening, and you’re not going to be happy.

Q. ‘You say there are two kinds of happiness. Could there be more than two kinds?’
There are three. I mention the third form of happiness later, to not confuse the point now.

Q. ‘You are dismissive of contentment, Mr Bashful. Why? Many people are satisfied with simple contentment. It’s a term which indicates acceptance of one’s lot in life. What is wrong with contentment?’
Fair point. Nothing really, but to some people the word suggests passiveness and blandness. Happiness is neither.

Q. ‘Will a person with a strong core happiness live a happy life?’ 
Not necessarily. If such a person continually suffered pain and grief . . . If that person experienced one torment after another, that person would live an unhappy life.
  ‘Huh? So, a happy person can be unhappy?’
Yep. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But remember, there are the two types of happiness. We experience core happiness when nothing in particular is happening. It is our default happiness. But when something is happening – good or bad- then our happiness soars or plummets accordingly. Those happy and painful experiences trump our core happiness. If a person is continually suffering bad experiences their strong core happiness will continually be ‘trumped’, and they will live unhappily.
   ‘So,  what’s the point of this book?’ 
   Few of us are continually suffering. Most of the time nothing in particular is happening in our lives, which means most of the time we are experiencing our core happiness.
Besides, a person with a strong core happiness will cope with suffering better than a person with weak core happiness.
 

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2. Mr Bashful’s theory on core happiness.

1. If you want the shortened version of this theory, skip this chapter and jump to the next.

2. If you are clear about how biological evolution works skip to 3, below.
Otherwise, here are two quick (and basic) examples:

Let’s say a few million years ago there is a drought in an African savannah.

A giraffe born with a mutated gene giving it an extra vertebra (and therefore a longer neck) can reach leaves other giraffes can’t reach. It is more likely to survive and pass on its genes. It does survive, and over time, all giraffes end up with the gene, and longer necks. Evolution has ‘guided’ a physical change.

A monkey born with genes giving it the propensity to break nuts and eat the kernels will have an abundant food source, and be more likely to survive in the drought and pass on its genes. Over time, all monkeys of that species are born with the propensity to break nuts and eat the kernels. Evolution has ‘guided’ a behavioural change.

Another giraffe might be born with genes giving it an extra leg. The giraffe has trouble running with five legs and is easily caught by a lion. It doesn’t live long enough to pass on its genes. Therefore, giraffes haven’t evolved to have five legs.

So, although gene mutations are random, over many generations the mutations beneficial to the species can become normal to the species. That’s evolution. Every physical feature and behavioural trait, in every living organism, evolved in this way. That’s why octopuses can change colour in a second, and it’s why you can see. Evolution is an extraordinary process.

‘Q. How do different species come about?’
Let’s say that on one side of a mountain range in Africa there are regular famines, and the giraffes evolve long necks. However, on the other side of the range there is plenty of rainfall, and the giraffes there have plenty to eat. Any giraffe born with a longer neck will not have a survival advantage, so that mutation isn’t favoured. A giraffe born with a longer neck might have offspring with a longer neck, but that offspring will mate with giraffes with normal necks, and after a while the giraffe population will still have normal sized necks.
Over thousands of years, and with hundreds of famines and different geography, different conditions, the two groups of giraffes will evolve so many differences that if you were to bring them together and mate them, they could not produce fertile offspring. At that point the two giraffes would be separate species. (That’s why it’s difficult to show Creationists an example of one species evolving into another. It’s like asking someone to state the day in which a person becomes elderly. But the ‘How Stuff Works’ site provides a good example of natural selection. )
The giraffe’s closest extant (living) relative is the okapi, which lives in the Congo rainforest.
(You can mate a zebra with a donkey and produce a zonkey, but the zonkey will be sterile. That means zebras and donkeys are separate species.)
‘What is a subspecies?’
Let’s say that a river becomes full of crocodiles, and isolates a group of giraffes on a large island. For geographical reasons the two groups of giraffes can’t interbreed. Over time, the island giraffes might evolve characteristics of their own (different markings, or shorter necks, for example).
If you were to transport the island giraffes to the mainland and those giraffes could
interbreed with the mainland giraffes and still produce fertile offspring, they would all still be the same species. However, because of their different markings, etc. the island giraffes (the minority) would be a subspecies.

‘Lizards are different to giraffes. How can they be related?’
Their common ancestor goes back more than a hundred million years.

‘An eel-like creature from 505 million years ago was a forerunner to all vertebrates, from fish to humans. Fossil evidence confirms that Pikaia gracelens had a rod of elastic tissue running along its back, making it the oldest chordate ever found.’ (Biologica Reviews, DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-18X.2012.00220.x).  Found in New Scientist, 10 March 2012.

Q. ‘Did humans really evolve from gorillas and chimpanzees? Or monkeys?’
No. However, we have a common ancestor with those animals. There were once creatures that, over long time, and over large areas, and in varying conditions, evolved into different animals depending on the environmental forces. A rough and speculative example: If rodent-like animals lived in rainforest with abundant food in the trees, they might well stay in the trees and over millennia become monkeys or an apes. If the same rodent-like animals were near savannah, and found food there in the grass, over millennia those animals might evolve to be a land dwelling apes, walking on two legs.

Thus: different animals, evolving from one common ancestor.

We humans search for fossil records to find our evolutionary path.

To mock the theory of evolution, creationists simplify the process to make it appear absurd. They might point to a monkey and say, ‘How could we have evolved from that?’. That absurd question indicates that they either don’t understand the process of natural selection (evolution) or they are deliberately obfuscating.

If you intend to discuss evolution with a creationist, first ensure that they understand what  it means. Ask them to describe the process of natural selection to you, and give you an example. If they can’t comply it means they haven’t bothered to properly understand the theory, which means they are not interested in understanding it. You would be wasting your time discussing the matter with them.

3. The first chapter claims there are two types of happiness:

the pleasurable kind, which is temporary,  and

core happiness, that general day-to-day feeling of wellbeing.

This book is about core happiness.

4. Preface.
Unfortunately it is hard to speak of evolution without inadvertently attributing to it intent. I might write, ‘Beetles evolved to fly . . .’ as though the beetles had a choice in the matter. Of course they didn’t. I might write, ‘Evolution guides us . . .’ No, evolution can’t guide us into doing anything. It’s not a sentient entity, it’s a process. 
 I use those expressions because they are convenient shortcuts to refer to the process of natural selection (evolution).

5. My view on how core happiness evolved.

We are rewarded instantaneously with pleasure (the first kind of happiness) when we eat, have sex, and play. (Play is good for us because it hones skills.) That pleasure reward is evolution’s way of persuading us to engage in those behaviours, and now those behaviours are innate.

We also evolved to engage in beneficial long-term, ongoing behaviours. But ongoing behaviours cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure, so they are rewarded with ongoing pleasure – a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing: core happiness. Core happiness is the incentive, and reward, for engaging in beneficial long-term behaviours.

After a while those behaviours became innate. They became traits.

What long-term beneficial traits are we talking about?

(i) Feeling connected with one another.
In pre-history, those who lived in a tribe were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. Those who chose not to live in a tribe were more likely to starve, or be eaten.

As a result, we evolved to live in tribes. We evolved the need to feel connected with one another, what some people call ‘a deep need to belong’.

Our deep need to belong is why we still like to be in tribes – the football teams and political parties we support, the clubs we join, the family trees we draw . . . It’s why ‘blood is thicker than water’.

And, that deep need to belong is why so many people believe astrology has merit. If you believe that burning balls of hydrogen and helium light-years away contribute towards your personality, you will feel connected with a sizeable chunk of the universe! And, someone who holds the common belief that everything happens for a reason feels part of some vast plan, a thread in the tapestry of Life.

And our ‘deep need to belong’ is one reason why solitary confinement is such a harsh punishment, and why ostracism is a cruel tool of bullies. In many tribal societies ostracism is an effective form of punishment.

‘I have no sister.’

The speaker’s back is turned away.

And, that deep need to belong is why we develop class, or caste, consciousness. It’s why we follow fashions, and why we fear rejection.

So, how did that ‘deep need to belong’ come about? What would prompt us to feel connected with one another?

Well, if we enjoy contributing to the tribe, and feel valued by the tribe, we are more likely to feel connected with those around us and stay in the tribe.

If for any reason we don’t feel valued, or don’t feel we contribute to the tribe, and don’t feel connected with those around us, we are likely to feel unsettled, isolated, even anxious – evolution’s way of nudging us to change the situation.

In short, we evolved a need to feel connected with one another, and when we satisfy that need we are rewarded with core happiness.

Q. ‘If we need to feel connected with one another, why do many of us fear or dislike people of other races and creeds?’

One reason: The fear of another tribe can strengthen the connections we have within our own tribe.

(ii) Another beneficial long-term trait we have is to make ourselves safe.
I’ve just said that evolution wants us to stay in the tribe and be safe. But it also wants us to take on the world. We need to venture out, to hunt the bison and keep ourselves fed. We need to explore our environment for new resources. We have within us an inherent need to stretch our boundaries. It’s why some of us feel the need to test ourselves to the limit, and why the rest of us get on a roller coaster.

So, although we need to live safely, at times we also need to take risks. With too much anxiety we would be too afraid to leave the safety of the tribe, and we would starve. With too little anxiety we would take too many risks, and not last long. To get the right balance we need to experience anxiety, and feel able to handle it.

Consider two pigmy twins: one is raised to avoid spiders, snakes, and crocodiles. The other is raised to hunt them. I claim that the twin who learns how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will become competent and confident, and as a result, happier.

The twin avoiding those creatures won’t learn how to handle life, and as a consequence will become anxious, and unhappy.

So, the best way to feel safe is not to avoid scary situations, but to gain the feeling that whatever happens in life, we can handle it. I call that feeling an ‘inner authority’.

In short, we evolved a need to feel safe, and if we satisfy that need to feel safe we are rewarded with core happiness.

The best way to feel safe is to become confident that we can handle life.




Q. ‘Are you saying that to be happy we have to handle what happens in life?’

No, I’m saying we need to gain the feeling that we can handle what happens in life. The more we feel we can handle what happens, the happier we will be. Whether or not we actually can handle life is immaterial.

Q. ‘Are you saying that to be happy we need to indulge in risky behaviour and learn how to handle it?’
No. There are plenty of situations in life that are scary enough: sticking up for oneself, asking a question in an auditorium, saying no . . .   There are enough tough situations and challenges in life to keep us busy.

Q. ‘But in our safe western society we have nothing to fear. So, why aren’t we all happy?’
It’s not how safe we ARE which matters, it’s how safe we FEEL. Big difference. There is more about that in the ‘Unhappiness’ section.

Q. ‘Mr B, you say that a person who feels safe will be happy. If I’m in solitary confinement I will feel safe, but I’m not going to happy.’

Core happiness is the feeling we have when nothing in particular is happening. Walking down the street, standing in a lift . . .  If you are in solitary confinement something is happening – you are imprisoned.

Q. ‘Mr B, you say that for core happiness we need to feel safe. Why then do some prisoners prefer to be in jail? It’s a dangerous place to be.’
Some prisoners feel safe in jail. Perhaps they are part of a gang which protects its members. Further, their life is regimented and the basics, like a bed and food, are provided for them. In the outside world those basics aren’t necessarily provided, and institutionalized prisoners might well feel anxious entering a world in which anything is possible.

(iii) In conclusion:

 

Core happiness comes from satisfying two ongoing innate needs: the need to feel connected with one another, and the need to feel safe.” 

The umpteen keys in this book are about satisfying those two needs.

Q. ‘Isn’t pleasure important too?’
It sure is! Both forms of happiness are important. Life would be drab without pleasure, and pointless. But you can figure which pleasures make you happy. This book focuses on core happiness.

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3. The theory in a nutshell.

This chapter is a précis of the previous chapter.

In a nutshell:

There are two types of happiness:

temporary happiness, which comes from pleasure,

and

core happiness, which is the relaxed, general day-to-day feeling of wellbeing that we experience when nothing in particular is happening.

We evolved so that when we engage in short-term behaviours which benefit us, such as eating, having sex, and playing (playing is good for us because it hones skills) we are rewarded instantaneously with temporary happiness (pleasure).

What about core happiness?

In pre-history, hominids who didn’t live in groups we were more likely to succumb to starvation or predators than those who did live in groups. As a consequence, we evolved the ongoing need to live in groups. And, like most animals, we evolved the ongoing need to keep ourselves safe.

When we engage in those two long-term, ongoing beneficial behaviours we cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure; instead, we are rewarded with long-term, ongoing pleasure – a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing: core happiness.

So, core happiness comes from satisfying two ongoing innate needs: The need to
1. feel connected with one another (because that prompted us to live in groups), and
2. the need to feel safe.

The umpteen keys in this book are about satisfying those two needs.

Regarding ‘the need to feel safe‘, consider pygmy twins: one twin is raised to avoid spiders, snakes, and crocodiles; the other is raised to hunt them. The twin learning how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will become competent and confident, and as a result, happier. The twin avoiding those creatures won’t learn how to handle life, and as a consequence will become anxious, and unhappy.

Therefore, the best way to satisfy the need to feel safe is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them. We need to gain the feeling that whatever happens in life, we can handle it. I call that feeling an ‘inner authority’.

You are not going to fear something if you feel you can handle it, are you?

So, rather than focus on the need to feel safe, this book looks at how we can develop the feeling that we can handle life, and gain that ‘inner authority’. Put another way, this book looks at how we can reduce our capacity to become anxious.

Therefore: 

“Core happiness comes from satisfying two ongoing innate needs: the need to feel connected with one another, and the need to reduce our capacity to become anxious.”

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4. The happiness researchers.

(From ‘Part 1. What is happiness?’)

Broadly, there are four types of researchers into happiness:

1. Those who study the broad environment to determine what makes a person happy. ‘Will a person be happier in a democratic society? How much greenery needs to be in the community? Does the disparity between the rich and the poor make a difference? What role is played by a person’s genes? Is an adult more likely to be happy if they are married? Or religious?’
   The researchers in this field are academics.

2. There are those who focus on a person’s upbringing, asking ‘How can a child be raised to ensure they grow up well adjusted and happy? Are children better off breastfed? Spanked?’
   Researchers in this field are usually academics.

3. There are those who ask, ‘What problem is causing that person to be unhappy, and how can that problem be fixed?’
    These people are problem fixers: counselors, psychologists and concerned people. They aim to make a person happier by dealing with the source of the unhappiness, or by helping the person become resilient.

4. And there are those who focus on how we, as individuals, can be happy irrespective of our circumstances. ‘How can a person be happy despite their environment, their upbringing, and their problems?’
    The people in this field are the self-help gurus, spiritualists, life coaches, and motivators. And, Mr Bashful.
While academics look at the environment to see how it influences the individual, the people in this group look at how the individual can respond to their environment.

 ” . . .  self-help literature is full of good advice, but good advice is not the issue; most of it has been around for centuries. The issue is how to implement it.”
Kathryn Schultz, in her article, ‘The self in self-help‘, New York Magazine.

All four ways to study happiness are valid. All are important.

Q. ‘Mr B, you put yourself in the fourth category, but distinguish yourself from the other happiness gurus and motivators. In what way are you different?’
The self-help gurus often ask us to change our thinking, but it’s difficult to change our thinking – we have an emotional investment in continuing to think the way we do. So, instead of asking my readers to change their thinking, I aim instead to change their awareness. When awareness changes, thinking changes.

Further, some of the experts ask us to change our core beliefs. Again, it’s difficult to do that, especially with only a self-help book for assistance. I don’t have the skill to help people change their core beliefs, (I can’t even change my own), so I look at how we can change our behaviour. With changes in behaviour we can also gain awareness.

In short, other happiness writers try to change a person’s thinking, core beliefs, attitude, or emotions. I aim to change a person’s awareness and behaviour, because when awareness comes, and when habits change, those things above change.

I also differ in my ideas. Many ‘experts’ claim that:

 Q. ‘Throughout this book you are critical of the self-help gurus. Why?’
Admittedly, their contribution to our understanding of happiness is invaluable, but when they make a mistake I feel the urge to flag it, by being harsh. I don’t want my objections going unnoticed due to me being diplomatic.
Further, being critical is a good way for me to distinguish my ideas from theirs.
Lastly, by being  dismissive of their claims I give myself the confidence to develop my own ideas. It’s not easy going against the trend.

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Part 2. Should we aim to be happy?

People often question the point of seeking happiness. In the following questions I aim to address those concerns.

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