The monster we call Happiness

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a famous phrase from the United States Declaration of Independence.

We all have the right to pursue Happiness, it’s the Law after all.

But what happen when happiness is out of reach ? Are we going to be just content or somehow neutral, or are we going to be suffering ? But let’s ask even a deer question. What is in fact happiness ? Is there a definite answer to this very old question ?

Aristotle held that happiness is the practice of philosophical contemplation in a person who has cultivated all of the intellectual and moral virtues over much of a lifetime.

Buddhism pursues happiness by using knowledge and practice to achieve mental equanimity.

Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “Happy” is way different: “Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”

A simple search on your favorite search engine will give you millions of different answers. Some of them may ring true to you some of them will seem abstract and unrelated to  how you understand happiness. Also, many people assign some deeper meanings to the state of being happy making it more than a feeling, making it a transcendental event.

So what is happiness ? For simplicity let’s start considering happiness a feeling, something that we feel, more precisely a pleasure feeling. But is it simply just pleasure ? No, we actually also feel exhilarated, a bit anxious maybe, our  senses are sharp, colors appear brighter. So it is actually a more complex feeling. What gives the feeling of pleasure ? Well, it seems to be some chemicals in our brain, like Dopamine for example. Dopamine is released as a reward, we feel good because we did something that helps us somehow. Let me give you some examples, we get a dopamine release when we win something, when someone appreciate us or our work, when someone likes us on Instagram, when we help others, when we punish some offenders and so on.

Ok, but that’s good isn’t it ? Why you call happiness a monster ?

Well, the reward system in all species seems to be adaptive, it changes in such a way that after a while a smaller amount of dopamine is being released for the same level of stimulus. In other words, if everyone keeps telling you, you are beautiful, you get used to it and not get the same pleasure as in the past and eventually you will feel nothing at all. To get the same feeling of pleasure, you need a bigger praise, more. You need to make more money, you need to have a more expensive car … you actually need to work more, exercise more, be more fit, more beautiful. More. Always more.

But what happens when you can’t get more ? Do you settle ? Do you become somehow used to it ? No, the answer is no, you actually start suffering. When dopamine starts missing from your system, it feels like an withdrawal symptoms from ordinary drugs. Intense suffering initially, but the suffering decreases over time, because the reward system it’s adaptive, after a while it changes back.

But what do we do to avoid the suffering ? We start supplementing our dopamine levels using outside chemicals such as: drugs, alcohol, tobacco smoking. And we have been doing this for ages, smoking a pipe was part of a ceremony or spiritual offering in Woodland Indian rituals. Same rituals can be found in old Chinese traditions.

We become addicted with ease on everything that elicits a dopamine release  we talking here, social media addiction, gambling addiction, gaming addictions and so on.

So this beautiful human endeavor, the pursuit of happiness, is not that harmless. What happens with people born in difficult situations when they can’t do much to improves themselves ? They are born ugly or fat in a world that treasures beauty and fitness. They are born poor, not able to acquire  a good education and never able to change their lives ?

The pursuit of happiness can lead to suffering and addiction, for life.

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