Throughout this past week's debate on happiness, a set of printed off pictures were passed around the group. Each attendee was asked to indicate if they thought that what was presented in the picture is something that makes them happy (by a checkmark), or it isn't a part of their happiness (by an X), or that it is key to their happiness (by a star). Here are the results with some commentary.
The first picture had the title "At simple rest" and was described as not doing anything and just enjoying the moment. No one put an X and the checkmarks to stars were about two-thirds to one-third respectively. This picture was purposefully put within nature to add within it the context of the feeling of sunshine on your skin and the smell of grass and flowers around you. Someone added the comment "Sunshine, breeze on my skin, blue sky, an open day, carefree!" to further describe what the picture was saying beyond its title. At my side of the table, a part of our discussion centred around what it is about nature that makes us so happy. We talked about the sort of focus that it gives you to physical sensations and to its variety of animal and plant life, which often stops us from thinking/worrying about all the stuff that is usually on our minds. It was also pointed out by several people that nature is where we belong so it is only 'natural' that it gives us peace. It reminds me of one of my favourite JFK quotes: "I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except that I think it's because...we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean...And when we go back to the sea -whether it is to sail or watch it -we are going back from whence we came."
The second picture had the title "Mindful/ Meditative/ Search for Higher Spirit" and was described as the search for the true or transcendental outside of one's own self. About a quarter of the attendees put an X on this sheet, there were a couple stars and the rest were checkmarks. I am tempted to attribute the Xs to the fact that this type of search for happiness is sometimes nauseatingly trendy and people often adhere to it with a religious fanaticism, even if they don't consider what they are doing to be religious. I was more surprised by how little enthusiasm there was for this sort of pursuit of the higher-purposed life. We did have some discussion about what having a prescriptive approach to life, something that sets out right and wrong actions to find personal fulfilment, means for finding happiness. One of the videos posted in the discussion section said that having less choice in your life leads to greater happiness, contentment found in accepting the things that cannot be changed. There can be something to be said for the structure provided living by personal or religious rules.
The picture entitled "Physical Contact/Love" was by far the most popular sheet, with almost all stars and a few checkmarks. A few attendees, when describing their 'happy place' in the opening exercise mentioned being with a loved one and I know that my second choice as a happy place is being in the arms of my beloved. However, for as much enthusiasm that this sheet showed for this sort of happiness, there was very little discussion about it on my end of the table. We left unanswered so many questions about why we seek out love, how it provides us with happiness, if it is more than just a biological reaction in us. Looking at the responses, I believe that there is something more to be looked in this love thing and we may return to it in a future debate.
"Social Interaction/Friends" was almost as popular as love, with just a few more attendees selecting to checkmark this one rather than star it. There are a number of questions as to why
community and friends make us happy. It is certain that we are hardwired to be social. During our discussion we brought up the security of being accepted and valued by your social group. We
further explored what it meant to fill your role within that group. However, there seemed to be a general consensus that this was a false sense of happiness that would only lead a person to rebel
and search out their true happiness. We didn't seem to come up with any real conclusion as to why social connectivity could be a source of such joy but, sitting in that group and sharing our
thoughts, we all seemed to feel it.
The fifth picture was given the title "Entertainment/Escape" and was explained to include any form of cultural consumption, including theatre, art and reading. All of the attendees gave this one
a checkmark, with no stars or Xs. This is another thing that was not discussed much but seemed to have a general consensus. It is nice to see so many people willing to admit that they find
happiness in mental escape into theatrical performances, music or novels. It is the opposite of the purposeful life of meditation and sobriety that so many people prescribe as the path to true
happiness. It makes me wonder if happiness is more about simply feeling it than finding it.
The final picture was entitled "Basic Biology" and was explained to include general health as well as things such as chemical and hormone levels. This one received almost all checkmarks with a
handful of stars. I went into this debate with a fairly strong prejudice to this definition of happiness, feeling that it was our genes, our health and the bacteria in our gut that had a whole
lot more to do with whether we were happy than anything else. However, I decided to take each example of happiness and see if I could make it fit my belief in biology. I was successful in this
task in most cases, but I found myself confronted with there being something more going on. A good deal of Hungry Minds' debates have to do with trying to understand if there is something about
us humans that is anything more than sophisticated concepts for animal instinct and what it means for us if there isn't This debate certainly did a lot to further that quandary. I particularly
like the comment from one person at our table who said perhaps we are wrong in calling it "simple biology" -perhaps there isn't anything simple about it.
The final sheet was left blank and the attendees were asked to answer the question "What else is happiness?" Some of the responses were feel goods such as "sitting in a comfy chair with a good book," "enjoying the simple things in life -having children laugh and play," "being close to water and the noises of nature," and "laughing at the ridiculous." There were also answers related to mental health such as "bright light, warmth, colours," "travel, stimulation, love," and absence of depression/intrusive thoughts/feelings of hopelessness/suidical ideation." Two other themes emerged from these answers. The first has to do with personal freedom, as respondents put it, the "pursuit of happiness," "unlimited access to wants and needs," "the pursuit of knowledge and love." recognizing what you want, giving it room in your life and allowing yourself to take it," and "freedom to pursue intentions and preferences." The other theme was finding happiness in the pleasure or contentment of others. One person wrote "knowing the people I love are happy makes me happy," while another wrote "when groups of people live in peace and ensure basic needs of all are met (socialism?), knowing others are not suffering," and yet other said "having your needs met and sharing with others so their needs are met also."
During the debate, I half jokingly highlighted two personality types that I said we all are probably familiar with. The first is the person seemingly obsessed with finding their happiness and expressing themselves as fully as they can. The second is the person who is always expressing their own despair, obsessing about the lack of happiness that they possess. After the debate, a member wrote me and said that he was reminded of the quote ""Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder." I think that there is value in this sentiment, no matter how inaccurate it is (how many butterflies do you find on your shoulder?). Happiness is simply what you find when you stop focusing so much on looking for it.