What is happiness?

Nephew: Are you happy?

Uncle: Yep.

Nephew: I guess you have close relationships?

Uncle: No. I have no close friends or relatives.

Nephew: What do you call me, then?

Uncle: A nuisance.

Nephew: You can’t be happy. The happiness experts say we need close relationships to be happy.

Uncle: They are adept at missing the point.

Nephew: Are you happy because you have a satisfying job?

Uncle: I have had many jobs, none of them satisfying.

Nephew: Do you have high self-esteem?

Uncle: I have low self-esteem, but it doesn’t affect my happiness.

Nephew: Why not?

Uncle: Let’s say you were to lose a leg. Initially you would be extremely upset, but there is a good chance that after a while you would end up as happy as you were before. You would be physically disabled, and you would give almost anything to have your leg back, but you would be just as happy.

Nephew: Just as happy? Hard to believe.

Uncle: You must have met amputees no less happy than the rest of us?

Nephew: Alright, but what does that have to do with self-esteem?

Uncle: Someone with a low self-esteem would be socially disabled. They would have trouble finding a rewarding job, or developing close relationships. But they could be just as happy as if they had high self-esteem.

Nephew: Rubbish!

Uncle: (Shrug)

Nephew: Are you wealthy?

Uncle: Not even close. Why, do I look like it?

Nephew: Have you been successful in life?

Uncle: I have pretty much failed in everything I have done. I have had only menial jobs. My biggest aspiration was to be a milkman.

Nephew: Did you become one?

Uncle: No. The job became extinct before I was out of high school.

Nephew: Why a milkman?

Uncle: I figured no one would be around to see me make mistakes.

Nephew: You’re depressing. Well then, are you going to be like those happiness gurus who tell me happiness is about living Life’s spectacular journey?

Uncle: No, and if I ever spout such nonsense, hose me down. Rarely is life spectacular. It’s a journey fraught with snakes, cowpats and weeds. A person leading a happy life will still feel all the unwanted emotions: hurt, anger, fear, sadness . . . but isn’t broken by them.

Nephew: You have just given me a miserable account of yourself, yet you insist you are happy?

Uncle: I am happy. I enjoy life and hope to live a long, long time. But as I say, that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry, or grumpy, or feel flat. That’s normal and healthy. It’s the times between those unwanted emotions which tell me I’m happy.

Nephew: But how can you be happy? No close friends. No success. No work satisfaction. Low self-esteem. You’re a walking nightmare.

Uncle: Despite what the happiness gurus say, those things have nothing to do with happiness.

Nephew: What does?

Uncle: Can I first explain what happiness is?

Nephew: Can you keep it short?

Uncle: Cheeky blight. There are two kinds of happiness. We feel the first kind, pleasure, when our sports team wins, or win money, or when we spend time with people we love. We also feel pleasure when we experience emotions such as wonder, pride, and gratitude. In each instance, chemicals flush our brain to make us feel good. Our happiness soars, but after a while we return to normal.

Nephew: And the other kind?

Uncle: That ‘normal’ feeling is our other kind of happiness. It’s our default happiness. It’s the day-to-day, general feeling of well-being when nothing in particular is happening, like getting up in the morning, or taking a shower, or walking down the street.

Nephew: Our ‘set point’ or ‘baseline’ happiness?

Uncle: I call it our core happiness. We are rarely conscious of it, but it’s the lubricant to life. A person with a strong core happiness is glad to be alive.

Nephew: I guess core happiness would be more important than the pleasure kind?

Uncle: Both are important. Life would be drab and pointless without pleasure. But there are wealthy people – think celebrities – who can have whatever pleasures they want, but if they have a low core happiness they will still find life unsatisfying. And, there are people who don’t have access to many pleasures, but if they have a strong core happiness they can find pleasure in the little things of life.

Nephew: Good on ’em.

Uncle: When I ask people what makes them happy they often say something like, ‘bushwalking’ or ‘being with friends’ or ‘frog racing’ . . . but those things provide the pleasure kind of happiness, not the core kind. If we want to live a happy life we need to focus on looking after our core happiness.

Nephew: People race frogs?

Uncle: It can be helpful to distinguish between the two kinds of happiness so that when we need to make a decision we can ask ourselves the same question the Dalai Lama asks himself: ‘Will it bring pleasure? Or happiness?’

Nephew: Who writes his stuff? Let’s say a happy person’s house burns down. They can’t be happy then, can they?

Uncle: They understandably suffer. Their core happiness is swamped by suffering. But midst the suffering they still consider their life to be a happy one. They instinctively know that life is still worth living. They endure their pain with the knowledge that at some point their grief will cease, and their happiness will return.

Nephew: So, core happiness has nothing to do with joy?

Uncle: Correct. It’s about how you feel when you are not joyful . . . and not suffering. It’s about how you feel when nothing in particular is happening. When your house burns down, something in particular has happened, and understandably, your core happiness is overwhelmed.

Nephew: Okay, there’s a clear distinction between pleasure and core happiness, though both are important. I get it. So, what makes a person happy?

Uncle: Satisfying long-term, ongoing innate needs.

Nephew: What the hell does that mean?! Forget it. I want to google ‘frog racing’.

‘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 disorganisation, 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.

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Why does poo smell bad? A brief explanation of the process of natural selection.

Nephew: You said core happiness comes from satisfying long-term, ongoing innate needs. What did you mean?

Uncle: Do you know how natural selection works?

Nephew: Sort of.

Uncle: Do you know why poo smells so bad?

Nephew: My poos don’t smell bad. They smell like lavender.

Uncle: Faeces smell bad because we evolved to perceive them that way. If our early ancestors had found the smell and taste of faeces enjoyable, or even neutral, in times of famine they would have eaten their faeces. Or eaten someone else’s. That would be bad for their health and they may even have died. Only the ones who found the smell and taste awful would have refrained from eating their faeces, and they got to live long enough to mate and pass on their genes.

Nephew: I bet if they’d had the right spices . . .

Uncle: Camels store fat in their humps and that fat provides them with energy when there isn’t food around. Let’s say millions of years ago a camel is born with genes giving it a bigger hump than most other camels. In a severe drought that camel, having a larger energy supply on its back when food is scarce, is more likely to survive and pass on its genes. Over millions of years, with similar situations occurring, all camels end up with the gene and bigger humps. Natural selection has ‘guided’ a physical change.

Nephew: Good on it.

Uncle: When male giraffes fight each other for mates, they bash each other with their necks. The ones with bigger and more powerful necks are more likely to win the battle, get the mate, and pass on their genes.* Over millions of years this results in giraffes having bigger necks. That’s another physical change ‘guided’ by the process of natural selection.

Nephew: What if a giraffe is born with genes giving it an extra leg?

Uncle: The giraffe would have trouble running and be caught by a predator, and not live long enough to pass on its genes. Therefore, we won’t see many giraffes walking around with five legs.

Nephew: That would be cool though. Where is this leading?

Uncle: A monkey born with a propensity to break nuts and eat the kernels has an abundant food source, and is more likely to survive a drought and pass on its genes. Over time, all its descendants will have the propensity to break nuts and eat the kernels. Natural selection has ‘guided’ a behavioural change.

Nephew: So, although gene mutations are random, over generations the mutations beneficial to a species can become normal to the species?

Uncle: Yes, because the beneficial mutations increase the chance that the creature will live long enough to pass on its genes. That’s the process of natural selection. It is generally thought that most physical features and behavioural traits come about in this way. As a result, species evolve and new species are created.

Nephew: How do we get new species?

Uncle: One way is to have a population of animals divided in some way, by geography or by climate, or by time, for example.

Nephew: Like . . .?

Uncle: Let’s say on one side of a mountain range there are wide open spaces, and the giraffes regularly fight with their necks to win mates. On the other side of the mountain is jungle, and a giraffe born in that jungle with a longer neck will have no advantage. It might well injure itself swinging. So, that ‘long neck’ mutation isn’t favoured. Over tens of thousands of years, the two groups of giraffes will develop so many differences that if you were to bring them together and mate them, they could not produce fertile offspring. The two groups of giraffes would have become separate species.

Nephew: Did that happen?

Uncle: It may have. The giraffe’s closest living relative is the okapi, which lives in the Congo rainforest. Its neck is much shorter.

Nephew: Another example?

Uncle: As you go higher up a mountain the temperature changes, the plants change and the terrain changes. Over time, a population adapting to those high conditions through natural selection could become so different to their cousins down at sea level that they could no longer mate with them. Result: new species.

Nephew: What is a subspecies?

Uncle: Imagine a thousand giraffes on a large island in a river. They become isolated when the river fills with crocodiles. Over a long period of time, the island giraffes develop their own characteristics, such as different markings or shorter necks. If these island giraffes were transported to the mainland and could still successfully breed with the mainland giraffes, the two groups would be the same species. However, because of their different characteristics the island giraffes, the minority, would be labeled a subspecies.

Nephew: Simple really.

Uncle: Nature is not always that clear cut. A species can be determined in other ways, too. The examples I gave are simple examples of natural selection.

Nephew: What’s another example of how a species can be determined?

Uncle: When animals could mate and produce fertile offspring, but don’t want to. For example, some frogs mating only in the morning might share a waterhole with identical frogs that mate only in the evening. Because those two groups of frogs don’t mate, divided by time, they’re different species.

Nephew: Even though if they did mate, they could produce fertile offspring?

Uncle: Yes. And, in Africa, red cichlid fish could mate with blue cichlid fish and produce fertile offspring, but they don’t. That makes them different species.

Nephew: What makes the red fish different from the blue fish in the first place?

Uncle: It has been suggested that if cichlids are separated for a while – for example, they live and breed in separate reefs for many generations – they can, through random mutations, develop differences, like colouring. If that different colouring is enough to prevent the red and blue cichlid fish from mating when they do happen to meet, that’s enough to make them two species.**

Nephew: Would the genetic differences between the two groups of fish, or frogs, eventually widen to the point where even if they mated they would be unable to produce fertile offspring?

Uncle: That’s right.

‘Natural selection penalises mating with the wrong species, especially where the species are close enough for it to be a temptation, and close enough for hybrid offspring to survive, to consume costly parental resources, and then turn out to be sterile, like mules.’
Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’. P 389.

Nephew: From what you say about natural selection, if you go back far enough, everything is related to everything. Are you saying lizards are related to giraffes?

Uncle: 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.’ 
New Scientist, 10 March 2012

Nephew: Did we humans evolve from gorillas or chimpanzees? Or from monkeys?

Uncle: From none of those animals. We do have a common ancestor that existed more than sixty million years ago, and it probably looked something like a nimble rodent. Over a long time, over large areas, and in varying conditions, those creatures evolved into different animals, depending on the environmental forces.

Nephew: How do you mean?

Uncle: A simple and speculative example: if the rodent-like animals lived in rainforests that offered abundant food in the trees, they would probably stay in the trees, and over millions of years become monkeys or apes. If any of those creatures had been born with the inclination and ability to walk on two legs they would have gained no significant survival advantage, so that mutation would quickly be bred out. Such a population might eventually evolve into another type of ape, but it wouldn’t evolve to be a bipedal ape.

Nephew: Go on.

Uncle: Let’s say another population of the same rodent-like animal lived in savannah plains, and found food in the long grass. The ones born with a mutation allowing them to stand on two legs and see above the grass might have a significant advantage, and be more likely to survive and produce offspring. Over time  they might evolve into bipedal, land dwelling apes.

Nephew: I heard another theory: we became bipedal because being able to wade upright in water was a big advantage. They could find food in the water, and carry their infants at the same time.***

Uncle: That may be true. But you get the idea: the animal evolves in response to its environment. Different environment: different animals come into being.

Nephew: So that’s natural selection? How does evolution explain the origin of life?

Uncle: It doesn’t. It’s not meant to. The origin of life has nothing to do with evolution. It’s a different topic entirely. Don’t confuse the two.

Nephew: Do other factors contribute towards evolution?

Uncle: One factor is epigenetics. That’s when genes are influenced by the environment. For example, a creature living in drought conditions, unable to feed itself properly, might give birth to young smaller than normal. The drought might then break, and the young would grow up in much better conditions. However, when it’s their time to give birth they might also give birth to young smaller than normal.

Nephew: Why would that be?

Uncle: Had the drought not ended, then giving birth to smaller young might be an advantage for those young – they would need less food to stay alive.

Nephew: Another example?

Uncle: A creature living an abnormally stressful life might give birth to young that grow up more prone to becoming stressed than they otherwise would be. When they give birth, their young might be born with genes switched on to make them stressed in even mild circumstances.

Nephew: So that’s epigenetics? Anything else?

Uncle: Some viruses contribute towards a creature’s evolution by infecting the creature’s sperm or egg, thereby changing the creature’s DNA slightly. Those changes would be inherited by its young, and if those changes are beneficial they will be passed on to future generations. For example, primates like chimpanzees, gorillas and us have within us ancient virus DNA that helps our females give birth to healthy young.

Nephew: So okay, what does all that have to do with core happiness? No. Wait. Tell me tomorrow. I’ve heard enough. You could talk a chair into running away.

Uncle: You cheeky blight.

* Robert E Simmons and Lue Scheepers, New Scientist.

** From the book, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong.

*** That ‘Aquatic Ape’ theory was put forth by Alister Hardy and championd by Elain Morgan, according to Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong in their book, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’.
  In pages 112 to 115 of their book they provide other theories: anthropologist Owen Lovejoy suggested that by standing on two legs, the apes’ hands were freed and that enabled them to do things like carry infants, or food. That ability was enough to confer upon them a significant survival advantage.     
  In Jonathan Kingdon’s book, ‘Lowly Origin’, he describes his ‘squat theory’. By being able to squat, the apes could turn over rocks or leaf litter to find for insects, worms, snails and other nutritious morsels.
  And on page 322 of ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’, Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong themselves suggest the possibility that one particular ape made a habit of standing on its hind legs and as a result enhanced its sexual attractiveness and social status. The gimmick became fashionable with others following suit, and the ones managing to maintain their posture mated often and passed on their genes.
  Susannah Thorpe and her colleagues of The University of Birmingham suggest another possibility: that our ancestors evolved to stand on two legs while still in the trees. Balancing on two feet and using their hands to hold branches for balance helped them reach the fruit on small, outlying branches. (New Scientist, 9 June 2007)
  
  The Ancestor’s Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.
Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong.   Weidenfeld & Nicolson  2016

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How did happiness evolve?

Nephew: Okay, I understand how natural selection works. I ask again: you said core happiness comes from satisfying long-term, ongoing innate needs. What did you mean?

Uncle: First let me say that it is hard to speak of evolution without inadvertently attributing to it intent. I might say, ‘beetles evolved to fly’, which sounds like the beetles had a choice in the matter. Of course they didn’t. Or, I might say, ‘evolution guides us’, or ‘evolution wants us’. No, evolution can’t guide us or want us to do anything. It’s not a sentient entity, it’s a process. I use these expressions because they are a convenient shortcut to refer to the process of natural selection.

Nephew: Are you avoiding my question?

Uncle: We evolved happiness in the same way we evolved our eyes, ears and kidneys. Happiness serves a purpose. Look at the first kind of happiness, pleasure: when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us and our species, such as eating, having sex or playing, we are immediately rewarded with pleasure. That pleasure is evolution’s way of persuading us to engage in those behaviours.

Nephew: I can see that. If we are rewarded with pleasure when we eat, we will eat. That way, we are more likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. And, by finding sex pleasurable we are more likely to have it, and have offspring. But playing?

Uncle: Playing hones our skills.

Nephew: So when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us, we are rewarded instantaneously with short-term pleasure. Fair enough.

Uncle: And if we don’t satisfy those needs we feel stressed and unhappy.

Nephew: What about the other kind of happiness you mentioned, core happiness?

Uncle: Evolution also wants us to engage in long-term behaviours. However, long-term behaviours cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure; they have to be rewarded with a milder ongoing pleasure: a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing.

Nephew: Core happiness?

Uncle: Yes. Core happiness is evolution’s incentive, and reward, for engaging in long-term, ongoing behaviours that benefit our species.

Nephew: What sort of ongoing behaviours are we talking about?’

Uncle: ‘Living in a tribe’ is one. In prehistory, hominids born with an inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. Those who didn’t feel inclined to live in a tribe were more likely to starve, or be eaten, and not pass on their genes.

Nephew: So now we all have an inclination to live in a tribe. Is that what you are saying?

Uncle: More specifically, we evolved the need to feel connected with one another, to contribute to the tribe and to feel valued for our contribution. Some people refer to that overall feeling as ‘the deep need to belong’. When we satisfy that innate need we are rewarded with core happiness. When we don’t satisfy that need we feel unsettled, even anxious.

Nephew: We are more connected that we have ever been. With a phone I can speak to plenty of people, wherever they are.

Uncle: Do the people you know know each other? For hundreds of thousands of years our species lived in small communities and each person in that community knew one another. The ‘village’ really did raise the child. To find food was hard work and each person had a job to do. They not only knew each other, they relied on each other. Each person contributed to the tribe and were valued for their contribution. Even the elderly were valued, for their knowledge.

Nephew: I read that when an elderly indigenous person dies, a library is lost.

Uncle: Exactly. People in tribes have real connection. Yes, the connections we have are far more extensive, but they lack substance. They are mere shadows of what could be and should be.

Nephew: Alright, we have a deep need to belong. What’s another ongoing innate need?

Uncle: The need to feelsafe. Note: it’s not the need to be safe; it’s the need to feel safe.

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle:  At times we had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt the food to keep ourselves fed. If we felt too much anxiety we would be too afraid to leave the tribe, and we’d starve. With too little anxiety we would take too many risks, and die. To get the right balance we need to feel frightened in a dangerous situation yet feel we could handle it. When we get that balance right we are rewarded with core happiness.

Nephew: But in the Western world most of us are safe. We don’t have to worry about catching the plague, or cutting ourselves and dying of infection; we don’t have to worry about bandits or tyranny; we don’t have to worry about starving to death in a famine. Nowadays, with a few precautions we can live safe and well. We’re safe, yet many of us are not happy.

Uncle: We may be safe but that doesn’t mean we feelsafe. Remember, to truly feel safe we have to be able to feel frightened in a situation, yet feel we can handle it.

Nephew: I don’t get you.

Uncle: Think of pygmy twins. One is raised to hunt spiders, snakes and crocodiles; the other is raised to avoid those creatures. Which twin do you think will grow up competent and confident, and as a result, happier? Which twin will grow up anxious and unhappy?

Nephew: It’s obvious.

Uncle: Yes. The twin who avoids those creatures will not learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will tend to suffer stress and unhappiness. That means: the best way to feel safe in life is not to avoid scary situations, but feel you could handle them. As Helen Keller said, ‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’

Nephew: Who is Helen Keller?

Uncle: She was a woman who from an early age was deaf, blind and mute. Yet despite her disabilities she learned how to handle life. Many of us in this safe, comfortable western society don’t. So, it becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things.

Nephew: Does that explain why so many people seem happier in poorer countries?

Uncle: It might. People in less fortunate societies learn how to handle hardship, and as a result gain an inner confidence that they can handle life. So, when nothing bad is happening – when they’re not starving, and not diseased, and not in danger – they’re happy.

Nephew: They gain a confidence we don’t have?

Uncle: I think so. We could, unwittingly, be fostering unhappiness in our society. An increasing number of today’s children are not allowed to climb trees in case they hurt themselves, or walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t develop the confidence that they can handle life. Instead, they learn how to avoid scary situations, and that’s a recipe for anxiety.

Nephew: Should kids hang out with pygmies?

Uncle: What?

Nephew: I get it. We have an innate need to satisfy our deep need to belong, and an innate need to feel safe. When we satisfy both those needs we are rewarded with core happiness. Simple really.

Uncle. Yes. And no doubt there are other long-term innate needs we need to satisfy.

Nephew: And when we don’t satisfy them, we feel lousy. That’s Nature’s way of prompting us to change the situation?

Uncle: Yep again.

Nephew: Right now I have a deep need to belong somewhere else.

Uncle: Then clear off.

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Should we even seek happiness?

Nephew: Last night Dad warned me about seeking happiness. He reckons, ‘Who wants to be a grinning idiot with no real substance?’ Does he have a point?

Uncle: As I have said, being happy is not about being a grinning idiot. Happy people still suffer; they still feel all the dark emotions – hurt, anger, fear, sadness . . . They just aren’t shattered by them. And when you are not shattered by your emotions you can grow.

Nephew: That’s right! Isn’t suffering supposed to make us happy, in some bizarre way?

Uncle: No. That’s a myth. Many people have suffered and become twisted and bitter. It’s not the suffering which helps us grow, it’s how we deal with our suffering.

Nephew: Dad also said if I become happy I will become content and lose my passion and motivation. Any chance I have of excelling in life will dissipate like smoke in the wind.

Uncle: He’s a cheery man, your father.

Nephew: Does he have a point?

Uncle: With a strong core happiness you won’t have a chance to live a bland, passionless existence. Instead, you will be taking risks and extending your boundaries, because you will know that whatever happens, you will handle it. With a strong core happiness you will be more productive. Happiness is not about contentment. Contentment is for cows.

Nephew: Even if you’re right, is it pointless to seek happiness? There is a German proverb: ‘Happiness is a butterfly. Chase it and it eludes you. Sit down quietly and it will alight on your shoulder.’

Uncle: The proverb sounds good, but it’s wrong. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said something similar: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.’ He was wrong too. The people who claim that seeking happiness is futile don’t know where to look. People used to believe it was impossible to build a flying machine because they couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Nephew: But you’ve figured it out?

Uncle: Yep.

Nephew: Of course you have. Well, even if we can seek happiness, should we? A book I’m reading* points out that unhappiness has prompted wonderful art and stirring music, and the author fears that we might become bland without these ‘agitations of the soul’. Doesn’t he have a point? Don’t we need the agitations of the soul to create things like music or poetry?

Uncle: A happy person will still have the agitations of the soul. There will always be something inside each and every one of us that needs saying. Being happy will not kill that; instead it will give you the freedom and confidence to express those agitations. A musician might in dark times compose music so beautiful it feeds the listener’s soul, but that does not mean the musician can’t enjoy the better times. When you have a strong core happiness you can deal with the dark times, and what better way to deal with them than to express them in music, or in poetry, or in what drives you?

Nephew: But isn’t searching for happiness twee? Surely we have more important things to focus on?

Uncle: Such as?

Nephew: Living our life?

Uncle: I’m not suggesting the aim of life is to be happy and that we should focus on that. Life is to be lived; happiness is merely the lubricant to make it worth living.

Nephew: What if our happiness is in our genes? Wouldn’t that mean happiness is out of our hands?

Uncle: Your genes play only a part. Someone born with ‘glum’ genes can still become happier, as can a cheery person, if they have been undermining their core happiness and cease to do so. I’m not suggesting we can raise our level of core happiness above our natural level, but we can make sure it’s at the level it should be.

Nephew: Righto.

Uncle: Being happy is not about being a grinning idiot; it’s not about contentment, or suffering, or not suffering. It’s not about keeping yourself well back from the abyss. It’s about approaching the abyss and peering deep down into it, so that although your very soul may shiver, you know, on a deep and fundamental level, that you will not succumb. It’s that confidence, that knowledge that we can handle what happens in life, that allows our anxiety to evaporate, and core happiness to rise in its place.

Nephew: You give me the willies sometimes.

Uncle: Good.

Nephew: So, unlike my father, you think we should we try to be happy?

Uncle: No.

Nephew: No?!

Uncle: What does it mean to ‘try to be happy’? To ignore our dark feelings and pretend they aren’t there? To replace our dark feelings with ‘happy thoughts’, and a happy disposition? Of course not.  We can’t simply flick a switch and be happy. To think that is naive and simplistic.

Nephew: What then?

Uncle: Instead of trying to manufacture an emotion we don’t have – happiness – we need to deal with the dark emotions we do have. Those dark emotions are there for a reason, and when we get good at responding to them we gain the feeling that we can handle life. That’s when core happiness comes. If a well-meaning person tells you, ‘try to be happy’, dismiss the advice.

Nephew: Alright, but if we shouldn’t try to be happy, what should we do?

Uncle: We can aim to be happy. We can choose to do things that will satisfy our innate needs. By doing so, we can add to our core happiness.

Nephew: Choose to do what things?

Uncle: You could choose to clear off and let me do my work.

Nephew: According to your theory, me clearing off would only give you the pleasure kind of happiness.

Uncle: (Sigh)

‘Only through recognising my happiness did I really appreciate it.’
Gretchen Rubin.

* ‘Against Happiness’ by Eric G. Wilson

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The happiness researchers

Nephew: How do you know so much about happiness? Correction: what makes you think you know so much about happiness?

Uncle: There are different types of researchers into happiness.

Nephew: You’re the one I’m asking about.

Uncle: There are the researchers 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 wealth disparity between the rich and the poor make a difference? Is an adult more likely to be happy if they are married? Or religious?’

Nephew: They’d be academics.

Uncle: Yes. And there are those who focus on a person’s upbringing. They ask questions like, ‘How can a child be raised to ensure they grow up well adjusted and happy? Are children better off breastfed? And spanked?’

Nephew: Not at the same time, I hope.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: And we have the academics who study our biology and ask questions like, ‘What role do genes play?’

Uncle: Yes, that’s another field of research.

Nephew: And the problem fixers? Counsellors, psychiatrists and other concerned people?

Uncle: Yes, they aim to make a person happier by helping them deal with their individual problems.

Nephew: That’s four kinds of researchers. Where do you fit in?

Uncle: And there are those who focus on how we, as individuals, can be happy regardless of our circumstances. We ask, ‘How can a person be happy despite their environment, despite their upbringing, and despite their problems?’ The people in this field are the self-help gurus, spiritualists, life coaches, and motivators.

Nephew: And you.

Uncle: And me, I suppose.

Nephew: So the academics look at the environment to see how it influences the individual, and you lot look at how the individual can respond to their environment?

Uncle: That’s a fair summary, but I don’t like being lumped in with the self-help gurus, spiritualists, motivators and life coaches.

Nephew: Suck it up.

Uncle: You cheeky blight!

Nephew: In what way do you think you’re different?

Uncle: The self-help gurus tend to suggest we change our thinking, or change what we feel. ‘Be a positive thinker,’ they advise, as though it’s easy to choose our thoughts. ‘Practise gratitude . .  practise compassion . . . be forgiving’ they might say, as though we can choose what to feel. But it’s too hard to change our thoughts and feelings. I focus on changing our awareness and our behaviours. When those things change, our thinking changes.

Nephew: I can see the difference, but no, you’re all lumped together. Suck it up.

 ” . . .  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.

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The need to feel safe.

Nephew: You reckon that if we want to add to our core happiness we need to satisfy our innate need to feel safe.

Uncle: You’ve been listening?

Nephew: I managed to stay awake at that part. But we feel safe every day. It’s not like we are in a war zone. When do we not feel safe?

Uncle: Every day we experience fears, like the fear of failure, of rejection, of looking stupid, or the fear that our dinner will get cold . . . Every day we have countless fears. If we can reduce those fears . . . if we can reduce that anxiety, corehappiness will rise in its place. We will feel lighter and more relaxed. And happier.

Nephew: So the less anxious we are, the happier we will be?

Uncle: That’s a big part of it, yes.

Nephew: How do we reduce those fears?

Uncle: By taking control of our life. But I don’t mean trying to control the outside world. People who try to control the outside world – their spouse, the people they meet, the situations they’re in –do so because they’re anxious. They are trying to reduce their anxiety but they are only making themselves more anxious, because we can’t control the outside world.

Nephew. No. James Bond won’t let anyone do that.

Uncle: What? Look, the control I’m talking about is an inner control, an inner authority. ‘I can handle failure. I can handle rejection. I can handle looking stupid. I can handle my dinner getting cold.’ If you feel you can handle what happens in your life, you’re not going to fear it, are you?

Nephew: I guess not. So how do we gain the feeling that whatever happens, we’ll handle it?

Uncle: By taking full responsibility for how our life unfolds.

Nephew: That’s not fair! Why should we take responsibility for everything that happens in our life? If a meteor destroys my home, why should I take responsibility for that?

Uncle: We need to take responsibility for how we respond to what happens. Many people don’t. You’ll hear people say ‘She ruined my life,’ instead of, ‘I have made poor decisions,’ or ‘He made me angry,’ instead of ‘I became angry’. These people blame the world for their troubles, or they blame themselves, which is just as bad, instead of taking responsibility.

Nephew: Yes, but . . .

Uncle: It’s like they are in their little boat of Life, bobbing about in the ocean, and they just sit back hoping for good weather. When a storm approaches they say, ‘Gosh, I hope that storm doesn’t affect me,’ and when that storm does come, and capsizes their little boat, they blame the storm! Or, they blame themselves, and complain about how useless they are.

Nephew: Yeah’ okay.

Uncle: If instead they were to grasp the mainsail, and grasp the tiller, and take responsibility for their little boat of Life, and give their life direction, they’re going to fare a lot better when that storm does come along. They might even say, “Bring it on, I’ll handle it.’

Nephew: Hold back on the metaphors, would you.

Uncle: When we take full responsibility for how our life unfolds we come to understand that our happiness does not depend on the outside world, but on how we respond to it. And then we come to understand that we are in control of our life – we have an inner control, an inner authority, a feeling that whatever happens, we’ll handle it. And, when that happens, anxiety evaporates and core happiness rises in its place.

Nephew: Sounds creepy, to be honest.

Uncle: It’s comforting to know that what I say sounds creepy. Thanks for that.

Nephew: Well, Uncle Sarcasm, I’m going to take full responsibility for how my life unfolds right now. By taking off.

Uncle: Watch out for meteors.

“Peace is not only in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace is in the midst of things as they are, when there is calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.” 
(Author unknown)

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The difference between stoicism and resilience

Nephew: I disagree with you.

Uncle: What? Why? I haven’t said anything! You just got here!

Nephew: You said we need to develop the feeling that whatever happens, we will handle it. That’s rubbish. Our neighbour, Mr Flan, was super tough. He could handle anything that came his way. But he killed himself.

Uncle: Don’t confuse resilience with toughness, or stoicism.

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle: A resilient person might endure hardship, but will recover. That’s what resilience means: having the capacity to recover from hardship. Resilient people might express their pain by talking about it, or they might cry and express so much emotion that it scares the pants off the rest of us. Whichever way they express it, they recover.

Nephew: Right . . .?

Uncle: A stoic person can endure hardship without expressing their pain. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can recover. It doesn’t mean they are resilient.

Nephew: So okay, we want to be stoic and resilient?

Uncle: We want resilience. And with resilience, comes stoicism.

Nephew: Now you’re losing me.

Uncle: A man might be stoic his entire life. He might endure hardship and worry, day after day, while desperately hiding his pain, believing that if he were to reveal his suffering he would be seen as weak and unworthy, and would be letting himself down, his family down, and his manhood down. And, in that ‘weakness’ he would feel shame so damning, so overwhelming, it would split his world apart.

Nephew: Have you swallowed a poetry book?

Uncle: At least, that’s how it feels to him. That’s the threat. And so he continues to conceal his pain, day after day, until finally, mercifully, he dies of natural causes. ‘He was a tough man,’ his friends might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’

Nephew: I’ve heard that said.

Uncle: Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, he cracks. He suffers a breakdown no one sees coming and does something awful. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘He seemed to be coping. Who would have thought?’

Nephew: I’ve heard of that happening too.

Uncle: Or, wonderfully, he seeks help and gets it. As a result, he not only gets through the pain, he gets to keep his stoicism. However, this time his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it.

Nephew: Good on him. What are you saying?

Uncle: Do I have to spell it out? Were you even listening?

Nephew: You’re saying it’s no use just being able to hide our pain, we need to be able to cope with our pain, even if that means bursting into tears.

Uncle: I’m sort of saying that, yes. Stoicism is good to have; we don’t want to burst into tears in every awkward circumstance. But if we develop resilience – the feeling that whatever happens we will handle it – we tend to develop stoicism as well.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Knowing we will recover from the pain makes that pain easier to bear. That knowledge makes us stoic.

Nephew: So a parent aiming to make their child stoic should instead aim to make their child resilient?

Uncle: Yes, because when the child becomes resilient, it becomes stoic.

Nephew: You’re still losing me.

Uncle: When we cry it’s as though we dissemble, and when we assemble again we are a little more solid than we were before. When a child is allowed to express their suffering, with the support of those around them, they come to realise that the suffering passes and that they have handled itAnd once you discover you that, it’s easier to be stoic.

Nephew: What do some parents do?

Uncle: Some parents tell their children to not cry because they want their child to become tough. They want their child to be able to bluff the bullies, and show strength instead of weakness. That’s understandable. However, they are confusing resilience with stoicism.

Nephew: So what should a parent say to a crying child?

Uncle: I don’t know. But telling it to stop crying isn’t going to help.

Nephew: You don’t know, do you?

Uncle: They could try, ‘Do you feel frightened because the dog is barking? Is that possible?’  ‘Do you feel sad because you are missing your sister? Is that possible?’ ‘Do you feel angry because you believe we should give you the lolly? Is that possible?’ That way, the child learns to label their emotion. They are then on the way to learning how to deal with it. That’s when resilience comes.

Nephew: I know a woman who cries freely when she watches a movie or reads a book. I used to think she was fragile, but she seems to handle life well.

Uncle: There you go.

Nephew: I also know an adult who cries at any little thing.

Uncle: Some people cry because they are not coping; others cry because it provides the necessary release for them. In some tribes in Papua New Guinea the men cry freely, yet there is no suggestion they aren’t resilient.

Nephew: So you’re saying if I feel like crying, I might as well? Don’t hold back?

Uncle: Yes, if you’re alone, or in a supportive environment.

‘It can be a great release to cry. If you stay quietly present, your tears will run their course. Do not fear. They never go on forever. Tears wash the soul. They cleanse the heart. Unshed tears can hurt.’  
Susan Halpern, author.

‘Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is get real, get ugly, express your emotions and bawl your eyes out.’
Caroline Southwell.

Nephew: What if I want to cry but can’t?

Uncle: At least make the choice to cry. Give yourself permission to cry. That’s a start. And give yourself permission to suffer. Even that can provide relief.

Nephew: You’re weird.

Uncle: By the way, a person resilient in one area of their life may not be resilient in another.

Nephew: Like, someone physically resilient might not be emotionally resilient?

Uncle: Or vice versa.

Nephew: So where does this get us?

Uncle: I have no idea. You started this conversation by having the temerity to disagree with me.

Nephew: Did I? What did I say?

Uncle: (Sigh) The point is, don’t aim to simply ‘tough it out’. Instead, focus on developing the ability to feel you can handle whatever happens.

Nephew: You keep saying that. How do we actually do it?

Uncle. One good start is to be aware of what we are feeling.

Nephew: I’m feeling hungry right now. How does that help?

Uncle: (Sigh)

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