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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