Thursday, 13 September 2012

Figuring out what makes you happy

I have recently been exploring what makes me happy, or perhaps more accurately, I have recently been questioning my own ability to determine what will make me the most happy. One of the big reasons for this is that I have been experimenting with internet dating. There is something about the process of looking through a large number of profiles of potential dates which allowed me to realise a few things.
Firstly, there are clearly a few things which I am attracted to that I wasn't previously aware of. It was only once I had such a large sample size and was exploring that side of myself in such detail that I was able to see them. I think it is clear how this applies back to the topic of this entry, that there are often things which make you happy, foods which you make like, people you may get on well with, activities you may enjoy, that you have no awareness of until you try them (and often until you've tried them at length).
Secondly, I found more and more often I was able to see that I could be happy, I could have a good time, doing a great variety of things. That is, I could see someone and think, 'yes I might like going walking with them' or 'I could enjoy going to the theatre actually' or all manner of other activities. Partially this is because I am a people person and with the right personal accoutrement I could see myself enjoying almost anything. However I think it is also partially an example of just how wide the potential space of my enjoyment is. My point here is that although there is a lot available to me, it is actually surprisingly difficult to rank those things against one another in my mind, especially something like learning to a skill, where it may be difficult and I have no idea how long it will take before it starts to become enjoyable.
Finally, there is a problem whereby it is difficult to ascertain the long terms 'fun' returns on any particular activity. This is especially true of dating, because experience teaches me that someone I get on well with in the short term may end up being a mortal enemy in the middle to long term and often vice versa. I might commit a lot of time to learning to play the piano, but the end result could be either that I have a new relaxing fun activity or that I'm never very good and don't ever come to like it. All of which comes to a head when you balance it against short term activities which I know to be fun (should I watch one more video of a kitten falling over, or make a start on writing my novel?). I tend to think that this category of problem is the reason that most people are quite static in their likes and dislikes. They know that they enjoy science-fiction or long distance running so it doesn't seem worth the cost or risk to attempt to branch out and explore even similar activities.
Hopefully all of this indicates why when I think 'what will make me happy?', I find more and more that question actually poses quite a difficulty.

My instinct, as with most problems, is to see what happens when you take a step back, what the problem looks like when I attempt to look down upon it from a little further away. Honestly from this position it is obvious to me that there is no real difference between how happy it will make you to spend your Friday nights doing martial arts or dancing your pitoot off. That is, they both fulfil some need, but they are interchangeable in doing so. Though people may feel some connection with or attraction to certain activities, I feel that the reality is that other activities would substitute just as well.
The question is then which needs can we best fill to make ourselves happy. Once that is answered, we can find activities and ways of filling our time that suit these in a pretty much paint by numbers fashion. Obviously most of you are probably now thinking that I'm treading old ground and that Maslow's heirarchy of needs suits this purpose rather well. Honestly I was a little worried that it did myself that's one of the reasons that this entry has taken so long. However having looked closely at Maslow's set up I feel that it is inadequate to truly describe a path to happiness. Ideas like self-actualization seem poorly defined and frankly the top end of the hierarchy seems woefully thin to me.
Obviously then it's time for me to try and define my own set of needs. Of course this is sheer arrogance, Maslow was quite a while ago and I'm sure psychologists and their ilk have expanded his ideas significantly since then, but I think it will serve as an interesting personal exercise to try and define them myself. Here then are my list of human needs to achieve happiness:
Novelty – I think the way our culture and society is organised caters to this quite well generally. We get new films, television and gossip on a daily basis and I think in a rudimentary sense, these are enough. However I believe our drive towards new experiences is one of our strongest and most vital and although the daily mush which appears on our screens is enough to fulfil that desire, we can make ourselves so much happier with a diet of richer novel experiences. I think this is one of the main roots of peoples enthusiasms towards holidays, they provide a concentrated burst of fresh input and that is extremely exciting to us.
Social interaction – I've written an entire entry on this and I am sure I will write more. What I want to add to that discussion here is that social interaction can mean any number of things, from dancing, to a deep conversation about the universe, all the way to a water cooler conversation about the weather. The common element which I think is necessary for happiness is for it to be explicit that other people are recognising you as a separate agent, that they show they are aware that you are another full human, like them. This is why some types of interaction do not satisfy this urge, for instance when somebody ignores your input into a conversation in favour of what they want to say. I think it is also why being patronised is so annoying. I'd also guess that it is why people who do not feel they are getting this interaction often act out in very strange ways which ensure they will be recognised and reacted to. Additionally I used to believe that the deeper a conversation the more it satisfied this urge for a social connection. I now no longer believe this, I think that any connection, so long as it has a required level of novelty*, fulfils this need whether it is a two minute conversation or an eight hour one.
Physical activity – There is a lot of research about how physical activity helps to improve our mental state (here's a nice simple run down article). My feeling is that this is because while you are exercising emotions are naturally damped down by the body and that this allows the breaking of what can otherwise be self-perpetuating cycles of depression or anxiety. Whatever the reason (I'm probably wrong) it is clear that exercise is a good thing for us. Having said that I am not entirely convinced that it could be said to contribute to our happiness. I think an argument could be made that this need, above any other, could be subsumed into other categories (that it's effects come from them, not from something inherent to exercise).
Personal action within the world - I'm not sure how clear that term is, but it's the one I've been using in my head for months so I'm afraid you're all stuck with it now too. This originated from my thoughts about Magik (here) but I realised it has an effect in many different areas of life. The fact is we like to feel as though we have some power over the direction of our own lives and when we don't it is extremely frustrating. We can lose this sense of control through any number of ways. Coming to terms with our lack of it is one of the aspects which is most difficult about any personal tragedy. At its worst when we feel powerless against our emotions it leads to all sorts of attempts to take it back, such as cutting or even contemplating suicide. However I think it is a mistake to think of this only in terms of the lack of it. I feel it is noticeable that for even very stable individuals the more that they feel they have a sense of personal action over the events around them, the happier and freer they seem to be. In that sense, it is always worth striving for more of this (yet another reason why picking a book from your bookshelf or the library is a better option than accepting whatever dross is doled out on television that evening).
Achieving excellence – Almost anyone whose ever done anything really well knows how good it feels. Beyond wanting to achieve success and become popular I believe that simply doing a task well is a joy onto itself. One side of this is in the awareness of how much we have personally improved, this gives a sense of progression and accomplishment. The other side is that I believe any skill, when taken to a certain level, enriches and deepens. A master furniture maker may understand and appreciate things about furniture which I don't even understand, and that will naturally add whole new vistas to his enjoyment of the process. I have my suspicions that this extra depth also does something strange to our brains, that once an obsession has taken hold it allows us to reprocess and re-frame events in our lives in a completely different manner. I don't want to get too bogged down just now though, so for now I'll just say that doing things well is fun. Whether it's building an intricate chest of drawers, or playing Pacman, seeing ourselves do well is a powerful feeling.
Achieving flowFlow is a psychology term which I've generally seen explained as being when you are so involved in an activity that your awareness of both yourself and the outside world falls away, leaving only that activity. The classic examples given are dancing and martial arts. In both of these thinking about what to do first and then doing it will likely be too stilted, to be truly proficient you are forced to let yourself react instinctively, through learned responses. Still, I think most human activities can allow this kind of deep involvement and loss of self, even sedentary ones like fishing or intellectual ones like writing, though they may both produce it less often and to a lesser degree. It is fairly known that flow is an extremely enjoyable process to go through, however there seems some argument as to why. As far as I am concerned I tend to think that it is because we spend so much of our time dedicated to our inner dialogue and sense of self, that putting it aside for a few moments is a huge mental relief.
Long term goals – All I mean by this is that we like to be able to see beyond our current horizon. That we have a tendency towards short term thinking and having something more long term (whether, actually, it is in the future or the past) to look at outside of that short term bubble allows us to see ourselves as more permanent and well defined within our worlds. It also provides perspective, allowing us to see beyond local mishaps. Again I think these kinds of goals could be something as simple as a holiday or a bigger task, like learning to play the piano.

That then, is my list of needs. Honestly I learned a lot just from writing those definitions. It concerns me a little that I can't see any specific space up there for either sex or love, both of which I think are fairly central to human lives, but then I'm happy to leave myself at a stage of incompleteness as I think even attempting this list was an act of severe foolishness and arrogance (both admirable qualities in their way).

I expect that I will revisit many of these over the next few months, as nearly all of them warrant their own entry all to themselves.

I thought it was worth taking a paragraph to apologise for the lateness of this new entry (not the best start to the new season). Also to point out that I know this reads like every self help book ever. I suppose my defence is that I think talking about these things in a strictly “this is what I think” way can be helpful and illuminating, even if it is a little silly.

*[when I say novelty what I mean is that a simple: “How's it going?” “Good you?” “Yeah okay” is often not enough for us, as there is no room for either player to act as their own agent]

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