Happiness in the Mind

It’s All a Construct

What if I told you that almost everything in our world was an imagined reality, completely made up and not existing in the material world? While you may have heard that norms like masculinity are nothing but constructs embedded into society, what if I said that this logic extends to the United States, Nike, and money? Yes, you heard that right, there are no such things as nations, companies, or even currency. 

Before you begin questioning my sanity, saying, “Of course the United States exists, it’s a global superpower and a long-standing country for centuries!” take a moment to consider this prospect. Try to define what the United States is. Is it the physical territory of the land? In that case, that doesn’t exactly make sense as there are no geological differences that would separate say Toronto from Michigan. Those lines are artificially drawn on a map and mutually respected by both parties, but does that make it real? Similarly, if the United States was somehow invaded by another country and its land size reduced, does that mean the United States falters to exist? Of course not, it still would continue to operate as a collective entity. Others might argue that the United States is more abstract, such as the system of government, containing all it’s presidents, congress members, and citizens. However, remove every single member of the national government, and does that dissolve the United States? I would argue it doesn’t as the people could simply elect new legislators, and the concept of the United States would continue to exist. So if we can’t define it clearly in material terms, is it even part of the material world?

To preface, many of these thoughts and this remaining article are largely inspired by the New York Times Bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’ll try not to spoil too much as I believe this is a book everyone should read (it’s recommended by Bill Gates and Barack Obama so you have it on their accounts as well), but I’ll go over some of my own key takeaways. As you’ve already witnessed, there’s no shortage of controversial statements. Obviously I acknowledge that I live in the United States and know it’s a country, but I think it goes to show how we can challenge even the most basic of principles if we really want to. Taking this mindset forward, I want to elaborate further on what this means for our own well-being, namely finding happiness and trying to pinpoint what it is. It’s once we take a closer inspection that we can reframe what we should know about this seemingly universal feeling. 

Definition Please?

The question of what happiness is has been heavily debated by philosophers, psychologists, and theologists alike for millenia. While this may be an overgeneralization, there have been essentially three schools of thought that have risen out of these inquiries 

  1. “Happiness can be defined as the subjective well being.” This is the most common and generally accepted theory on what happiness is. It takes the assumption that happiness is on a relative scale, our expectations in constant flux with our external stimuli. On this presumption, we can’t value happiness solely based on quantitative luxuries such as wealth, health, and material possessions. Sure, these things have a temporary effect on our general well-being, but the amounts we already have and our personal experiences shape our perceptions. Take for example an affluent corporate business owner and a minimum wage worker. Now give them the same exact car, say something moderately pricey like a used Prius, and their happiness will differ immensely. The business owner feels deprived of his Corvette, while the worker feels on top of the world. While this oversimplified example sounds like common sense, it’s unbelievable to see that you can give two humans the exact same object and their reaction will be polar opposites. Why is this?
  2. “Happiness is the result of chemical releases in the brain.” In more recent decades, scientists have entered the realm of the brain to further examine how to achieve happiness. Many of us have heard of serotonin or dopamine as the chiefs of biological happiness. However, this distinction between biological contentment and our external extrema is largely never expressed enough. From this standpoint, money, status, and relationships mean nothing in terms of happiness; chemicals have absolute authority. Sure, these things may cause the release of an extra dose of serotonin, but the attainment of said luxuries does nothing from a biological position. To use the example Harari uses, consider a modern Parisian building his mansion and an 1800 French peasant constructing a hut out of mud. When the two complete their respected buildings, they are both infused with a dose of rewarding chemicals despite the clear difference in their states. It doesn’t matter that the peasant’s house is made of mud, but rather that he successfully completed a task he set out to do. Our brains are largely blind to these differences, pumping out chemicals when it sees fit. So it raises the question: even as we progress in what we think is better, from huts to mansions, do we ever get happier?
  3. “Happiness is an objective state.” Some of us have been raised with a commonly accepted ideology called “liberalism.” Liberalism is the belief that we know best for ourselves and can identify our feelings properly. This correlates strongly with the idea that happiness is a “subjective feeling” that can only be understood by the individual. People can’t tell us how we feel because they aren’t in our shoes. For many of us this makes sense, however, it’s surprising that this is not actually an absolute line of reasoning. Many religions are rooted in the belief that the individual is ignorant of their own state and must be guided to their happiness. Christianity believes that the human must stray away from their sinful desires to reach a blissful heaven, and Buddhism believes in the reaching of Nirvana through the elimination of self-desire. Who’s to argue whether Liberalism, Chistisanity, or Buddhism is “correct” is not for me to speak on, nor is it the point I’m trying to make. What I mean to get at is that we are far from drawing any definitive conclusions on what happiness is (I’d say that’s fairly apparent when this point is literally the exact contradiction of the first). So are we back at square one?. 

What’s it All For?

I can understand if readers feel that they have been cheated and led down a rabbit-hole of indefinite conclusions. If anything, I think there’s been more questions discovered than definitive answers. However, I hope that this article brought to light how to zoom out a little and have a perspective that is more objective and concise when it comes to analyzing our well-being. We are often wrapped up in our daily lives to even process why we react the way we are. Similarly, as point two touched on, as we look to the future and the rapid changes we as individuals and a society will encounter, will we be actually any happier? Because if not, what’s it all for?

Life’s meaning is obscure and ambiguous, and the definition of happiness as we’ve just seen is hazy at best, but I think we can all agree that the two need each other to coexist. We might not know what happiness precisely is, but what we do know is that it’s been one of man’s missions to harness it. So with every step we take forward, ask yourself the question: is this going to make myself happier? While this isn’t a reason to stop progressing and working towards goals that will bring you fulfillment, make sure you are happy while doing it. So many times do we get caught in the trap of, “Just get past this week,” or “I just want to coast until college,” that we forget to be happy in the short-term. Largely this cycle repeats and it becomes another tough week or waiting until graduate school, and we miss out on all the great things right in front of us. It’s hard to define what happiness is, but it’s even harder to argue why we should do anything that doesn’t work towards it.

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