I'd like the emotion on the right, please...

I’d like the emotion on the right, please…

An acquaintance recently said, somewhere in public, “I wish I could just be happy.” And that statement got me musing on how my concepts on the nature of happiness have changed in the four years I’ve worked for OIRED.

…which, in turn, has derailed the post I’d intended to write today. Something about puppies, it was. I think. I forget.

It hasn’t all been a result of doing my work—web design—for an office that does grant-funded international development work, though that’s certainly been part of it. But I experience the past four years as being a period of tremendous growth for me, both professionally and personally. And I’ve had some profound experiences which also have been a factor in shaping my current understanding of emotions in general, and happiness in particular.

So while it would be the height of hubris to suggest that I have The Answer, when the subject of happiness comes up these days, I have these responses. I hope they’re worthwhile.

Emotions, Experimentally

I’m an analytical guy. If I’m trying to understand something, I often look to what might be the concrete reality underlying it. Even something as abstract as “How do you feel?” So it was inevitable that I should see what Science has to say about this.

Science is conflicted. (This is more often the case than most people realize; scientific consensus takes decades, sometimes centuries.) We have documented theories on emotion dating back to Ancient China and Ancient Greece. 2300 years ago, the Stoics of Ancient Greece believed that certain emotions, those deemed “destructive,” came from errors in judgment. Reason and emotion as opposed: “you feel that way because you’re thinking wrong.” This belief has been persistent—even Mister Spock from Star Trek would relate.

Only as recently as 150 years ago, more or less, have we started to apply our modern scientific method to the study of emotion. And only 60 or so years ago have we mapped enough of the human brain to be able to understand the role it plays. So we’re finally getting to the bottom of it, but scientists don’t yet agree on what that bottom is. If you’re interested, Wikipedia has a far better summary of the conflicting theories than I could come up with here. Emotion as evolutionary adaptation; emotion as secondary to physiological response; emotion as arising from cognitive appraisal of the environment; emotion as a perceptual reflection of the balance of three neurotransmitters. They even have charts and graphs. But, even if we were to understand the Wikipedia article well enough, how is a layman to sort through all these not-fully-compatible theories?

I figure that more-than-one of them is more-than-a-little right, and pick out bits that seem to usefully fit with my experience. In particular, the evolutionary approach seems useful; it would suggest that when we feel disgust (for example), it’s a useful revulsion towards something that it would be healthy for us to be repulsed by. Call me crazy, but I figure that the kids who avoided playing in the sludge pits had a better chance of living long enough to raise kids of their own. Disgust, though unpleasant to experience, is your friend!

Emotions, Experientially

This view is also nicely compatible with what I’ve been told by people whose expertise I trust. “You don’t get to decide what emotions you feel,” they say, “only how you react to them.” And, more controversially: “Emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are.” (Oh really? Because some of these things we feel sometimes are powerfully uncomfortable—I’m not going to be first to volunteer for a big dose of Annoyance, thank you very much.) And the trickiest one for me to figure out: “You don’t get to decide what you feel, only whether you pay attention to the feeling now or instead try to ignore it, in which case it will find expression in other ways later.”

These kinds of statements stand in opposition to the kind of “emotion versus logic” paradigm that has been an aspect of Western thought for millennia. These aren’t the kinds of things you accept out-of-hand. These need to be brought out into the world, taken for a spin, to see whether they work as advertised. Your Milage May Vary.

I can only speak to my experience, and for me the take-away is this: emotions are indeed normal, “natural” reactions to the things around me. And that’s very comforting. It means that people aren’t monsters for feeling road-rage toward nearby aggressive drivers, nor weak for feeling grief over the loss of something precious. At the same time, it does not mean that retaliatory aggression is an appropriate, inevitable consequence of feeling road-rage. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you let emotions make your decisions for you—something I’ve found is rarely an optimal choice.

Emotions, I’ve come to believe, are messengers. They come to you with important information about something that’s going on around you, information that’s not always straightforward to interpret. Don’t shoot the messenger, howsoever unpleasant it may be. Because, as I’ve also come to believe, you either process your emotions (i.e., take the time to experience them fully), or your emotions process you (i.e., later affect your behavior in ways that are usually unproductive).

That, at least, is where I’m at with it all right now. It’s an ever-evolving work-in-progress. Again, YMMV.

Happiness, Internationally

All of which begs a couple of questions. The first that often comes to my mind, from working in international development, is “what right do I, a citizen of probably the most privileged country in the world, have complaining about any deficit of happiness in my life?” It’s even a meme. But how does the United States stack up against other countries, and are there any surprising trends in that data?

There are many ways to measure whether a country’s people are happy, almost as many ways as there are reports that purport to measure such a thing. Most take into account the country’s wealth, economic growth, freedom from corruption, citizens’ healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, social support, quality of life, and any of a variety of other factors. I’ll link to some reports at the end of this post.

So, how does the United States stack up? In an informal sampling from available reports: pretty good, but maybe worse than you’d think. Top 20 consistently, but consistently not in the top 10. Scandinavian countries, especially Norway and Denmark, are at the top of the list. Other top-ranking European countries include Switzerland and the Netherlands. Australia and New Zealand usually crack the top-10 list, while China ranks in the bottom half of countries worldwide. In North America, Canada is top-10; in some reports, Mexico just outranks the United States. Costa Rica and Israel are said to be among the happiest nations; Haiti and Syria among the least happy. Developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa—such as Senegal and Tanzania—often find their way to the bottom of these rankings.

So clearly we’re doing pretty good as a country—but not so good that we should let it go to our heads. If you were born in the United States, chances are you’ve had more opportunity to find happiness than people in most other countries.

But is that what matters?

Happiness, Internally

Which brings me to the second question that comes up for me, namely: what is happiness, really? Simply an emotion, one in a long list of other normal, natural human emotions? Or a natural consequence of the prosperity of the country you live in, and the freedoms and social support it offers you?

It seems to me that “happiness” is indeed a word to label one of the range of emotions we experience, but in that case it is sorely outnumbered by uncomfortable experiences such as fear, sadness, loathing, and anger. I think that answer alone isn’t enough. So perhaps when someone longs for “happiness,” their wish is to never have to feel a powerfully uncomfortable emotion again—or to be free of subtly uncomfortable emotions that they carry with them all the time. But again, if emotions are messengers that bring us important information, I think it unrealistic to hope that we’d never feel “bad” ones. I don’t even think I’d want that.

My working hypothesis? Perhaps half the answer is to figure out a way to be okay with those times when we are not okay; to look our sadness, fear, or disappointment in the face and accept it as part of what we’re experiencing in that moment; maybe even try to figure out what message they’re carrying. And perhaps the other half is to seek out moments that bring us anticipation, serenity, amazement, acceptance, joy, and awe—and when we find them, look them square in the face and acknowledge them, with as much gratitude as we can muster.

Or puppies. As always, YMMV.



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