Today the issue of human wellbeing has become a major focus of social and political policymaking. This trend gained particular notice in 2012 when the United Nations General Assembly named the first day of spring as the International Day of Happiness. They did it to recognize “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.” Moreover, on that day each year the UN releases a World Happiness Report which rates “156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.”
As it turns out, in every one of these reports “the five Nordic countries—Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland—have all been in the top ten.” As for the United States, it continues to rank lower. In 2020 it was in eighteenth place. Canada was in eleventh. By contrast, at the bottom of the scale are the most stressed African countries as well as Afghanistan, Yemen, and India—nations often in the news because of internal military or civil struggles, famine, grinding poverty, or population stresses. These nations thus reveal many of the barriers to happiness.
The research and analyses behind these reports are the collaborative products of a number of independent scientists and policymakers. Given such professional interest in the subject, it should come as no surprise that there is also a college-level Science of Happiness course. Offered by the University of California at Berkeley since 2014, it has registered on campus and online more than half a million students for the eight-week program.
So then, what do scientists say happiness is?
One expert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of positive psychology at the University of California at Riverside, defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
A lot of words but not very helpful unless unpacked. So let’s begin by noting what happiness isn’t.
Clearly, serious national problems like hunger, violence, and disease are impediments to happiness. But their mere removal can only provide a prerequisite or foundation for happiness rather than its realization. The same is true on a personal level. Human beings have basic survival needs for air, water, food, and so forth. These are the necessary but not sufficient conditions for happiness. Similarly, pain can prove overwhelming and thereby an almost impossible distraction from the pursuit of happiness—and not just physical pain but psychological suffering, such as fear of becoming a victim of violence or the imaginary fears generated by mass hysteria, superstition, and religious or political paranoia. But a life free of pain and fear isn’t automatically a happy one. This is because happiness, instead of being a list of checked-off “need” boxes, is an overall positive evaluation of one’s life and an overall positive state of mind. And getting there is a separate task—after sufficient relief of suffering has been accomplished.
There are other things that happiness isn’t.
Happiness isn’t to be confused with morality. Although we hear frequent claims that moral life choices make people happy, we know that virtue isn’t always rewarded. Indeed, when brave people advancing noble causes take the moral high road against opponents who are too powerful, these brave people can be made to suffer, whether through physical or emotional pain. Whistle blowers can be purged of their jobs and publicly defamed and hounded.
Happiness isn’t to be confused with personal achievement or money. While these can serve as a cushion against certain barriers to happiness, such as defamation or poverty, they are no guarantee that actual happiness will emerge within that relatively safe framework.
As for pleasure, the problem is that intense pleasures are fleeting and longer-lasting ones may amount to little more than relaxation. Moreover, a determined effort to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, weighing costs and benefits while maintaining a balance between the intense and the tranquil, can require a level of planning, evaluation, and calculation that would add up to a lot of unpleasurable work. Beyond this, unsatisfied yearnings are often long while satisfactions are short. And pleasurable feelings, once experienced, are often forgotten.
This all returns us to the question of what happiness is. In summarizing part of what science has learned, the Mayo Clinic reports the following:
Only a small percentage of the variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and—more importantly—thoughts and behaviors that can be changed.
This confirms the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who in addressing the problem of unhappiness in Roman times said, “People are disturbed, not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”
Which means that happiness is a state of mind, a positive evaluation of one’s overall situation.
One aspect of this positive evaluation is the idea that one’s life is “meaningful.” This doesn’t refer to some belief that one is cosmically important or has a significant place in the universe. Nor does it relate to being loved or having a sense of belonging.
It has to do with having a sense of purpose.
The Mayo Clinic reports that people who “strive to meet a goal or fulfill a mission” tend to be happiest. Albert Einstein, with a bit of hyperbole, went further: “All that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” As the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto III declares, “We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence.”
Our aspirations don’t have to be grand, however, like finding a cure for cancer or writing the great American novel. They can be more commonplace, like rearing children. They can even be purely recreational, like planning a vacation or restoring an old car.
A central feature of goal-oriented pursuits is struggle, the overcoming of obstacles, and even failing. This process is frequently painful or frustrating. But these aspects don’t take away from the role that a vital and absorbing purpose can have in one’s overall happiness. Here’s why.
For almost all of human history throughout the world, human life has been, in the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet people have continued to work hard, persevere, and build families. At the beginning of World War II Winston Churchill energized his nation with the purely pessimistic promise, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Why did this work? When the going gets tough why don’t people just give up?
No doubt some have. But those usually haven’t been the ones to pass their genes onto the next generation. As a result, we today are the descendants of the survivors and thrivers—the ones who not only endured the struggle for existence but felt driven to stay in the game. And what is true for humans is true for every surviving animal species. All have had to run the gauntlet of the Darwinian jungle.
So today, when life is comfortable for those lucky enough to live in the global north, the drive to engage in struggle still persists and needs to find new outlets. Think about a typical housecat. Why would it play with a mouse and run the risk of losing it? Why wouldn’t it just eat it? The answer is that it isn’t hungry but it still wants to hunt. Likewise with humans. We who live comfortably in rich nations don’t have to forage for food, fend off predatory animals, risk political chaos, and otherwise fight to stay alive. But we still feel invigorated by the prospect of struggle and can’t go long without new pursuits, contests, adventures, conflicts, and dramas. Even during the current pandemic people in the wealthier nations have yearned for entertainment, such as sporting events, as well as opportunities to party. Hence, when the real problems and obstacles that plagued our ancestors—or that plague poor nations today—disappear, people make up imaginary ones. We play games, create art, join political causes, “dream the impossible dream,” and even fight with our neighbors. Such things excite us and provide not only a reason to get up in the morning but a reason to live.
The conflicts involved don’t have to be negative, however. They can instead be engaging, involving us in something we deeply enjoy. Some of us find that the work we do for a living falls into this category: it is gratifying and thus more rewarding and lasting than short-term satisfactions. The hours seem to fly by because we’re so immersed and “in the zone.” This afterwards leads to a positive mood as we reflect on a day well spent.
Finally, when we regard life as “worthwhile” we’re concluding that we’re engaged in something of value, experiencing a suitable portion of enjoyment in that enterprise, or at the very least finding some point in soldiering on. Thus our sense of purpose is expressed in actions that engage us in short- and long-term pursuits and strike us as bringing value day by day and year by year. These are basic ingredients.
Still, they’re only among the necessary ingredients. They aren’t sufficient by themselves. Thus you can be driven by a passion that provides meaning and energizes each day but you can experience that drive in a context of a general dissatisfaction with life. One example would be working hard to bring aid to victims of a disaster while all the while railing at the world for making the disaster happen in the first place or feeling disgust for the politicians and others who aren’t helping you enough. Just ask a frontline aid worker at a local hospital caring for victims of COVID-19. Hence motivation and striving don’t, by themselves, equal happiness.
Which brings us to the title of this essay: “Live a Happier Life with a Free Mind.”
What is meant by a free mind?
This refers to an independent mind capable of rationally analyzing life’s situations and then managing personal emotions in ways that foster a positive response.
The aforementioned Epictetus provided an interesting example:
When you’re about to engage in an activity, remind yourself what that activity entails. If you’re going to the public bath, think about what often happens at baths: the splashing, pushing, cursing, stealing. For you will encounter it more calmly if you start by saying to yourself, “I intend to bathe but also to keep my mind at ease.”
This sort of emotional self-management not only prepares a person for the worst but also has an upside. Since the bad things that you brace for don’t usually happen, you can often feel a sense of elation when things go smoothly.
The underlying principle is this: happiness and unhappiness, which occur within your own mind, are the result of regulating your demands on life in contrast to the reality about you. This makes happiness relative to the relationship between your demands and what life actually delivers. So if the world provides outcomes that are more positive than the emotional requirements or expectations that you’ve placed on it, you’ll feel happy. On the other hand, if reality turns out more negatively than what you had required or emotionally insisted upon, you’ll feel unhappy. This is the “relativity of happiness” principle. And it means that happiness can be managed by the manipulation of your level of tolerance for, or acceptance of, what happens or what is.
One way to manipulate your tolerance is to consciously lower your requirements for what you would consider emotionally acceptable—as Epictetus did before going to the public bath.
That’s the age-old secret of happiness in a nutshell. You have two polarities to work with, reality and the standards you set for it. Work the polarities one way and happiness results, work them the other and the outcome is misery.
For example, chances are you know someone who strongly desires that people always obey the rules and behave decently. And this person wants that result so badly that she or he readily notices imperfections and complains about them. A reasonable preference for better behavior has been turned into an urgent need for it, a requirement that leads this person to engage in a sort of mental policing of what others do. And this renders the imperfections and hustle and bustle of the real world as sources of unhappiness. This person requires that the realities of human life be better than they really are—and suffers as a result.
This doesn’t have to be you. All you have to remember is that you aren’t in direct control of what life delivers. But you can take control of the requirements you place on life. You can take control of what you’ll regard as necessary for your happiness.
Specifically, if you harbor unrealistically high requirements or expectations, disappointment will be a frequent and possibly devastating companion. But if you have realistic requirements or expectations, or even ones a little on the low side, your prospects for happiness go up. The same applies to events of the past. If you require yourself to have had a happy childhood in order to be happy now, and you conclude that you didn’t have that happy childhood, you’ll feel miserable. But if you have no such requirement, or if you allow yourself to remember and focus on the happier times, you’ll feel better.
All other things being equal, this process of effectively managing the requirements you place on life will lead you to more contentment—a positive sense of wellbeing. When you punctuate this with occasional moments of joy or delight, perhaps amid pursuits you find meaningful, the overall result is what we call happiness.
The main point here is that a free mind is one that is willing and able to take responsibility for happiness and take control of it. A free human being is one who acts to do so. Success at such action is what we call self-mastery. And with self-mastery comes self-respect and happiness.
This essay is adapted from a talk given in 2019 at the Humanism and Self-Respect Conference jointly sponsored by the American Humanist Association and Periyar International.