Being happy is not about living ‘life’s spectacular journey’. Nor is it about avoiding pain. A happy person feels all the dark emotions: anger, fear, sadness, grief . . . They’re just not broken by them.
There are two kinds of happiness: ‘temporary happiness’ and ‘core happiness’.
Temporary happiness occurs when we experience the pleasure of winning money, seeing our team win, being with someone 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.
In troubling times, like when a pet dies, our happiness can plummet, but we again return to normal.
Core happiness, or ‘set point’ or ‘baseline’ happiness is that general day-to-day sense of wellbeing we experience when nothing in particular is happening, like getting up in the morning, or taking a shower, or walking down the street. It’s innate. It is our default happiness. It’s the happiness which makes life worth living. We are not usually conscious of it, but it’s the lubricant to life.
This book focuses on our core happiness, but don’t get me wrong: pleasure is important. Life would be drab and pointless without it. However, people with access to countless pleasures – think of some celebrities – will still find life unsatisfying if they have a weak core happiness. Conversely, people with a strong core happiness, although they may not have access to many pleasures, will find pleasure in the little things of life.
Of course, if something bad happens in our life – if our house burns down for example – we will understandably suffer. Our core happiness will be swamped by suffering. But midst the suffering we will still consider our life to be a happy one; we will instinctively know that life is worth living. We will endure the pain with the knowledge that at some point our grief will cease, and our happiness will return.
Core happiness has nothing to do with joy. It’s what we feel when we are not joyful, and not suffering. As I said, it’s what we feel when nothing in particular is happening. When our house burns down, something in particular has happened, and understandably, our core happiness will be overwhelmed.
It’s helpful to distinguish between the two types of happiness. 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.
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?’
To sum up, to have an enjoyable life we need to experience both the temporary happiness we get from short-term pleasures, and the milder, more pervasive ongoing core happiness. You can figure out for yourself what pleasures give you temporary happiness, but what about core happiness? How do we get that?
To answer that question we first need to figure out why we have it. We’ll need a basic understanding of the process of natural selection. See you in the next chapter.
‘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.