What is Happiness? A Begginer’s Guide to Cracking the Happiness Code

I started this website as a way of codifying the lessons I’ve learned about life and happiness as I travel the world. My interest in psychology, anthropology, travel and language have led me to search for answers to questions like “What is happiness?” and “What makes you happy?”

Though the topics I write about are many and varied, they’re all tied together by this common thread: How to love the life you have, escape the hedonist treadmill and create the lifestyle you always dreamed of – or in other words: how to be happy.

First and foremost: I want to demystify the frustratingly elusive concept of happiness and give us clarity – a simple blueprint for happiness that’s easy to apply to our specific challenges.

Once we understand happiness, what it is, and how to experience it, we’ll have a clear idea about the relationships between the important domains in our lives: our careers and finances, our social network and intimate relationships, our physical and mental health, our creative endeavors and contributions to our fellow creatures.

It gives us a framework for all the things that happen in our lives, a sense of purpose and direction for every moment. Things are no longer random or haphazard. We don’t have to question all our actions because, when we understand happiness, we can finally see how all the puzzle pieces of our lives fit together.

Why Happiness?

No matter how we choose to describe it or define it – joy, excitement, fulfillment, euphoria, contentment, passion – we all want to be happy: to feel good about who we are and the lives we lead. Every action we take, we do so with the intention of increasing our sense of well being in some way.

We may feel that we need to make more money, lose weight, or find the love of our life – but no matter what we’re pursuing, happiness is the underlying desire. Even a masochist pursues happiness, just in a way that likely seems strange to you and I.

In a sense, being happy is the purpose of life – albeit a very general sort of purpose.

However, we often find our lives to be a struggle and that we suffer far more than necessary. And when we try to escape from our problems, we find it easy to see what we don’t want, but much more difficult to define what true happiness looks like – never mind how to get there.

How can we achieve something if we don’t even know what it is we’re looking for?

What Is Happiness?

People have been trying to define what it means to lead a good life for all of recorded history and we don’t seem to have a satisfying answer that lets us take decisive action. Even with all the success modern science has had explaining the biological mechanisms of happiness, it remains an elusive concept for most of us.

Most people equate happiness with joy or excitement, those intense but short-lived feelings of euphoria or pleasure we experience when we do, achieve, or even just anticipate something good, such as getting a promotion, marrying the love of your life, or finishing a marathon.

But this type of feeling is, in fact, NOT something we want to experience all the time. Maniacs, the people that experience this emotional high constantly, can be a danger to themselves and others and struggle to function in society.

So while joy seems to be an important part of what happiness is, it cannot be the entire picture.

But this already provides us with a useful insight: the reason we find happiness so difficult to define is because it’s not a single emotion. There is no one, simple thing for us to focus on.

In fact, happiness is the collection of pleasurable emotions that tell us things are going well. Furthermore, it is the natural state for us to be in.

This makes much more sense once we look at the problem from an anthropological point of view:

Over millions of years, our ancestors evolved under certain environmental conditions that shaped their genome, encouraging traits that aided their survival.

Just as we developed mechanisms to ensure that we kept a regular heartbeat, maintained a consistent internal body temperature, and an appropriate blood-acidity, we developed the ability to feel emotions to tell us to do more of beneficial activities and less of activities that would hurt our chances of surviving and reproducing.

For instance, someone that enjoyed sex would be far more likely to survive and reproduce than someone who was indifferent or found it painful.

Two Types of Happiness

So while we can feel many varieties of happiness, the totality of happy emotions evolved to tell us essentially one of two things:

Feelings of joy would tell us that an activity was helping facilitate our survival (eating, sleep, sex, warming ourselves in the sun).

We might call these feelings joy, passion, bliss, ecstasy, euphoria, inspiration, or pleasure.

And feeling of contentment would tell us that everything was alright the way it is – that we didn’t have any unmet needs and we could rest and relax. That there were no threats of predator attack, we were warm and well fed, we had strong social ties etc.

These feelings we might call contentment, satisfaction, peacefulness, completeness, and fulfillment.

Just as your body keeps a constant internal temperature, these two types of happiness – joy and contentment – work in concert in order to keep us in a state ideal for survival.

And just as your body will work to cool off or heat up if things are getting too hot or cold so we’re a comfortable temperature most of the time, positive feelings direct our behavior so we can continue feeling them. This means that we should naturally be happy most of the time, as we make whatever adjustments necessary to continue experiencing joy and contentment.

Yet, most of us are not happy most of the time. What gives?

Negative Emotions & The Hedonist Treadmill

Negative emotions evolved alongside positive ones to tell us when we needed to change something to improve our survival chances. Fear, anger, jealousy, stress – all say “change something!” This could be something obvious like an enemy tribe attacking, or less so, such as being irritable when tired and hungry.

One interesting insight we can gain from this anthropological view of happiness is that our negative emotions (“change something”) are actually much closer to being opposites of contentment emotions (“everything’s fine the way it is!”) than joy emotions, even though we usually consider them to be opposites of the latter.

And here we encounter our huge problem. When we feel negative emotions and try to cancel them out with joyous ones, we create a vicious cycle of highs and lows, usually with far more lows than we’d like, and never attain a lasting sense of relief from our suffering.

This is what I call the hedonist treadmill – when we run away from our suffering and towards pleasure, but ultimately stay in the same place. Not matter how fast or far we run, we cannot escape our discontent this way.

And that’s because joyful emotions can never eliminate negative emotions, that is not their function.

This is why hedonistic pursuits of pleasure (food, alcohol, drugs, sex, extreme sports…) in order to mask or outrun our problems always result in us feeling empty and dissatisfied. We inject (sometimes literally) ourselves with pleasure, but never eliminate the signals telling us to “change something”.

Thus, these very same pleasure-seeking activities could bring us great amounts of lasting happiness (though I’ll leave drugs open for debate) if we were feeling strongly content!

Moments of great euphoria without the constant, underlying sense that something is wrong require both joy and contentment.

Consumer Culture

I believe a large reason for our misguided pursuit of joy is a result of our modern socio-economic structure which emphasizes consumption as the path to happiness.

Most advertising messages are created and most businesses are built around triggering our desire to feel joyful emotions – it’s the only way to get us to buy stuff. And we are mercilessly accosted by these messages our entire lives, 24 hours a day.

To complicate matters, our modern society fabricates many signals telling us that we should be unhappy, because people who are feeling satisfied, fulfilled, and peaceful don’t buy things.

These false signals prey on our genetic disposition to pursue joy and avoid unhappiness, and have propagated the idea that pleasure can obliterate discontent.

They’re designed to make us feel like something is wrong with us and needs to change when no such need exists, and they exist either to sell us something or to make us “behave appropriately” and avoid cultural taboos.

For example, the marketing message the diamond industry created in the middle of the 20th century: that a wedding ring should cost 3 months salary.

This creates a losing proposition for the consumer no matter what. The stress of a large financial obligation, guilt, and possibly feelings of unworthiness if one doesn’t make much money. The sense that, if we don’t or can’t do this, we’re a failure and a bad partner.

At best, one can experience a brief jolt of euphoria upon making a purchase, but as countless studies have shown – this cannot result in lasting happiness.

All these false signals can be expressed with the words “I should”:

  • I need to experience deep love and intimate connection, so I should buy an expensive ring.
  • I should choose a high paying career.
  • I should have many interesting hobbies.
  • I should have an immaculate house.
  • I should keep an up-to-date wardrobe.
  • I should have perfectly behaved children

Not all shoulds are bad things, after all, we’re all better off if we obey traffic laws, but many are pure fantasy that have no real-world benefit when it comes to our happiness.

How to Stop Suffering

Whether the reasons for our struggles are societal fabrications or anthropologically legitimate (health problems, social isolation…), we need a way to diffuse our negative emotions so we can feel content and pursue joy from a place of stability.

Consider an expert martial artist: it’s much easier for them to parry, absorb, and respond to the forces directed at them when they’re properly balanced around their center of gravity than if they’re standing on one leg, leaning over sideways and flailing their arms.

Likewise, it’s much easier to respond to life’s challenges and opportunities if our negative emotions aren’t keeping us off-balance. When we feel content (satisfied, fulfilled…), we’re able to pursue joyous experiences that build upon and reinforce each other, reaching ever higher levels of happiness, and not just using fleeting pleasures to mask our pain, distract ourselves from suffering, or to fill a void in our lives.

Technique #1: Think “I am HERE“: No matter what difficulties exist in your life right now, if you’re sick, in pain, in debt, if we lost a job, ended a relationship, or experienced any other number of hardships, you are still right here.

Nothing, NOTHING can ever take that away from you. It is the fundamental point on which you can always stand, the balance point from which you can begin to make positive change.

I am here and I am okay.

The fact we exist at all is rather miraculous to consider. The fact we continue to exist despite the suffering we’ve experienced makes it even more so.

No matter where we feel where we should be, as soon as we realize that we’re here and we’re okay – we’ll continue to be here despite whatever has happened, we break the power our problems have to control how we feel.

Whenever we feel we don’t have enough, aren’t doing enough, aren’t smart, capable, or worthy enough, we can silence those negative thoughts by reminding ourselves over and over “…but I am here. I am HERE” and visualizing ourselves being grounded and stable like the karate master.

The slings and arrows of life may continue to batter us, but now we have tthe power to respond to those harmful forces.

Technique #2: Exercise Compassion – Think about how you can help other people: The fields of psychology and neuroscience continue to show us that altruism is, perhaps, the most effective form of selfishness – nothing creates a lasting sense of happiness in ourselves like helping out others.

Why this should be the case is quite fascinating, and has been shown through many variations of an experiment called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

At it’s core, we seem to be better off if most of us get along most of the time than if we’re all cheaters and liars who think only of our own self-interest. The second type of person would have to live in constant fear of being caught and either murdered or outcast (also a death sentence).

But thinking about how we can help other people is useful for other reasons. It also takes us out of our own mind, our normal thought patterns, our focus on our problems, and puts our focus elsewhere.

There’s a saying in psychology: Neurons that fire together wire together. The more we think about something, the easier it is to think about and the more often we’ll think about it. When we continually think about our own struggles, we make them grow at the level of our brains by strengthening the neural network that’s associated with those struggles.

When we think about helping others, we break the negative thought loop and begin to rewire our own brains.

Consider this: what would someone who has all their needs, wants, wishes and desires met DO with themselves? Someone who is experiencing maximal levels of contentment? Probably help out the people they care about.

When you think about helping other people you are telling your mind that you are totally content where you are. And that’s the type of neural network we want to be strengthening.

This is the ultimate shortcut to the element of happiness that is most often neglected, our feelings of satisfaction.

Then of course, we can take off the training wheels and actually help others to solidify this pattern of positive thought.

Technique #3: Be Creative: Exercising our creative spirit is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have.

Creativity likely arose as another one of our survival traits – the ultimate tool for an animal that is relatively weak, slow, and defenseless.

Once the trait had developed, there was nothing to stop us from using it in ways nature hadn’t intended – yet still give us the same reward signals.

Whatever the reasons are for our creativity, there’s little doubt that we humans love to play with our environments, experiment with ideas, and create things that don’t have immediately apparent utility.

When we honestly express ourselves – whether through art, sport, play, a hobby, or some other domain, we are also sending ourselves the message that we’re alright where we are (“I’m here”) and we don’t have any urgent unmet needs.

In other words, creativity is another shortcut to contentment, not to mention a great source of joy as well.

Striking the Balance

I believe that true happiness is feeling high levels of both joy and contentment. I think this is most apparent when we look at the extremes – people who pursue exclusively one or the other.

Pursuit of joy (hedonism): Cycles of highs and lows, constantly running toward or away from things, many great moments but no lasting sense of fulfillment. Something is always missing. High potential for self-destructive behavior.

Pursuit of contentment (monkhood?): Meditative, monklike pursuits of inner peace have shown using brain imaging that extremely high levels of lasting happiness are attainable.

While it is possible to lead an incredibly happy existence this way, I don’t believe for a second that it’s right for most people. It seems to be, on some level, a denial of our human nature.

The problem with this lifestyle is that it provides an extremely narrow breadth of experience and in some cases represses our instincts. The hedonist might go too far, but the monk may not go far enough.

Personally, I’d rather experience rushes of adrenaline, intimacy, adventure, occasional gluttony, and other, more-primal experiences of joy and pleasure than devote myself to a life of meditative inner work, no matter how transcendent the experience may end up being.

However, contentment must be the starting point for our pursuits of passion, lest we fall into the hedonist trap. Our level of contentment sets a limit as to the depth, duration, and impact of our joys.

The more content we are the better our joys become. If you hate yourself and your life an orgy of sensory ecstasy will have little impact on your overall well being, but if you love yourself and your life, the mere scent of a flower or sight of a sunrise may evoke transcendent levels of pleasure.

Removing All Limits

We’ve already explored three of the best techniques to go from wherever we are now to being highly content, but we can make them even more powerful.

From techniques 2 and 3 (help others, be creative) we can make a formula for feeling fulfilled:

Contentment = Compassion + Creativity

Act with compassion and expressing ourselves honestly are the two best ways in the world to create both joy AND fulfillment in our lives.

So the question becomes: How can we maximize our ability to act compassionately and creatively?

Finally, this is where the main, specific areas of our life come into play: Our health, relationships, and professional lives.

In order to maximize our abilities to be compassionate and creative, we have to make sure that our needs in each area are being met. A lack in any area also prevents us from being at our best in any other area.

For instance, if we are constantly sick because compromise our immunity through a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress, we’ve just severely limited our ability to be there for the people we love and to fully express ourselves, as well as adversely affect our careers and finances (medical expenses).

You can probably see how one problem can cascade into others and we can end up in a vicious downward cycle.

We owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for our health, financial life, and relationships and make sure we’re not neglecting any area (for instance, sacrificing our health for money).

What to do Now

Change always starts with a single step. We don’t have to do everything at once – nor should we try to. That will just lead to overwhelm and ending up back where we started.

Rather, pick one thing that you’re going to work on right now – and either get started, or take an action that will enable you to get started when the circumstances are appropriate. For instance, if you’re reading this at work, you can set yourself a reminder on your phone to take your positive action first thing when you get home.

If you need any more ideas about what changes to make, I’d recommend checking out the archives.