Andrew Siegel, MD Blog #104
What causes us to experience the emotion of happiness? Certainly, under the right set of circumstances, our bodies release a “cocktail” of “happy” chemicals including serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and numerous other elusive mediators of the mysterious mind-body connection. But what is the root source of this reaction—what sets this biochemical cascade of happiness into motion?
There have been several recent articles on the subject of happiness in the New York Times—Gary Gutting and Elizabeth Weil have both opined on the determinants of happiness. Reading them has provoked me to wax philosophical on the topic
I begin with a quote from Martha Washington that I believe to be factual: “The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not our circumstances.” Every human has a happiness set point that is probably largely genetic in basis. When “favorable” events occur and the “threshold” is surpassed, our happiness sense is triggered; with “unfavorable” occurrences, the threshold is not achieved and not only is happiness not triggered, but unhappiness may be prompted.
We bring that set point (disposition) into any and every situation that we face. For example, when I recently found out that my daughter (who is completing her junior year in college) was accepted into a paid summer internship program in the field in which she desires to work (marketing/fashion), I was elated, both from the practical standpoint of her obtaining a solid position aligned with her career desires, but also from the vantage point of my being happy for no other reason than because of her being happy. The Yiddish term “naches”—meaning happiness at another’s success—was brought into play here. On the other hand, when earlier this week I received a letter from a lawyer about a copyright infringement based upon two Google images that I used for my educational videos and blogs, I became quite distraught and unhappy, and felt a sullen heaviness of my jaw line, blunting any possibility of a smile.
As Gary Gutting articulated in his New York Times article, there are a number of factors that determine our happiness or lack thereof, and I will highlight them in boldface. Happiness typically demands that we are sufficiently free of physical and emotional suffering. I deem this to be largely true, with rare exceptions, as some remarkable people even in the most dire of circumstances—such as being confined to a concentration camp or being severely physically compromised—are able to maintain happiness and meaning in their lives. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’
Luck certainly plays a prominent role in determining our happiness—the good fortune to be healthy and to be born into a family of reasonable means that can provide basic necessities. Although money cannot buy happiness, it can buy food, shelter, medications and security, all of which can help us to be rendered free of suffering. As my father’s friend Stuart Goldsmith stated so succinctly with regard to money: “It’s not so good with as it’s bad without.” In other words, as desirable as it is to have means, it is even more desirable to avoid not having means.
Pursuing meaningful and fulfilling work that is satisfying to both the individual and society at large is an important determinant of happiness. Unfortunately, there are many meaningful and fulfilling sources of work that do not provide a sufficient means of earning an adequate living, many of these occupations being in the creative arts. On the other hand, there are many sources of work that provide sufficient means to earn an adequate living, but are unfulfilling—what comes to mind are the many unhappy lawyers I know of who have left the profession for more satisfying work. The challenge is to find work that provides both meaning and sufficient means. Although much of my work can be routine, repetitive and even monotonous at times, my profession certainly brings me moments of great human connection where I have been able to truly help someone in terms of his or her quality and quantity of life, and making such a difference brings with it a heady sense of happiness and satisfaction.
I’m not sure of the source from which I co-opted the following lines, but I appreciated it enough to have it framed and displayed in my office. It is a parable about one’s personal sense of the meaning of their work experience. Three stonecutters building a cathedral in the 14th century were interviewed regarding their work. The first stonecutter replied with bitterness that he is cutting stones into blocks, a foot by foot by three quarters of a foot. With frustration, he describes a life in which this is done over and over, and will continue to do it until he dies. The second stonecutter is also cutting stones into blocks, a foot by foot by three quarters of a foot, but he replies in a somewhat different way. With warmth, he tells the interviewer that he is earning a living for his beloved family; through this work his children have clothes and food to grow strong, and he and his family have a home, which they have filled with love. But it is the third man whose response gives us pause. In a joyous voice, he tells us of the privilege of participating in the building of this great cathedral, so strong that it will stand as a holy lighthouse for a thousand years. Clearly, one’s perspective and disposition can affect one’s sense of happiness.
Human connection and love is a sine qua none for happiness: our spouse, our children, other family members, and friends. It is in the company of others that we are often most happy, although we need to be reasonably intrinsically happy in order to be happy in others’ presence.
Pleasure—defined as immediate gratification of one or more of the five physical senses (but also aesthetic feelings directed towards art, beauty and nature)—is an obvious determinant of happiness. In my opinion, pleasure is not so much derived from things and possessions as it is from activities and experiences. In the words of Graham Hill: “Intuitively, we know the best stuff in life is not stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are staples of a happy life.”
The “little things” that pique my senses (sensual happiness) provide more “happiness fuel” than possessions such as a fancy car or jewelry including, for example, the following: a bike ride on a beautiful and sunny afternoon with birds chirping and the fragrance of honeysuckle; walking on the beach seeing and hearing the waves crash at your feet while inhaling the scent of the sea and hearing the gulls; rolling on the carpet frolicking with my English Springer Spaniel; a great massage; reading an engaging book; laughing; watching a movie lying on the couch in comfortable well-broken in jeans and a cozy old sweatshirt with my leg intertwined with my wife’s; a very early weekend morning on a gray and sullen, Seattle kind of winter day, clacking away on my computer keyboard, articulating my thoughts into the written word while my family sleeps safely and peacefully upstairs; drinking a St. Pauli Girl beer from a frosty mug when I’m so thirsty that my mouth is parched; listening to beautiful music; watching my youngest daughter sing and perform; hitting a perfect, soft approach shot on the green; crafting a delicate drop shot on the tennis court; etc.
What can make many of us happiest is when we can overcome an issue or circumstance that previously made us very unhappy. I digress with a short anecdote to illustrate this point. I am a recreational doubles tennis player who participates in a U.S.T.A. league. Several years ago, my team won first place in the men’s 4.0 league in Bergen County and had to compete against the first place team in Essex County in order to determine who would go to the regional play-offs in Syracuse. When I arrived at the outdoor courts in Essex County, I was introduced to our two opponents. One player had been on the doubles team that had beaten my doubles team 6-0, 6-0 the previous year. The other opponent was an aggressive, incredibly unpleasant plaintiff’s attorney who had represented a party that had sued me in a medical malpractice case that went to trial on two occasions; I had prevailed in both of them but, nonetheless, they had proven a source of great frustration, anger and annoyance for me. I didn’t recognize him at first, but it soon became readily apparent who he was. So, my opponents were a player who embarrassingly “double-bageled” us on a previous occasion and a vicious, relentless plaintiff’s attorney who had caused me indescribable angst. The match became much more than a match, and in a grueling victory of 6-4, 6-4, our win became the deciding match in propelling our team to the regional matches. I was hyper-focused and single-minded, as the need for that win became of exaggerated, all-consuming importance and the victory never tasted sweeter or brought me a greater sense of happiness and justified retribution and redemption for all that had gone before. It was with the greatest of delight that evening when I sent off an email to the attorney, informing him that it was an absolute pleasure having prevailed in both the court of law as well as the tennis court…yes, I am perhaps guilty of a little schadenfreude.
I end this composition with a quote from Viktor Frankl that nicely sums up some of the salient features of happiness: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
And yes, you may have gleaned something about my general feelings about lawyers!
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com
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Tags: biochemical cascade, determinants of happiness, dispositions, dopamine, Elizabeth Weil, endorphins, free of suffering, Gary Gutting, genetics, happiness, happiness deconstructed, human connection, love, luck, meaningful work, mind-body connection, naches, pleasure, schadenfreude, seratonin