Today, March 20th, is International Happiness Day. I have just finished reading an epic book entitled Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I have loved this book, which is an account of our story from apes to rulers of the world, describing many revolutions along our journey, including the cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions. Near the end of the book Harari talks about happiness; what it is and how we measure it and different perspectives on whether we can increase it.
One point of view is that happiness is simply a biological and chemical state that only changes for brief periods and then resets itself to a set point that is mainly controlled by our genes. The chemicals oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin produced by our bodies in response to pleasurable physical sensations make us happier for a while, and when those biochemicals subside our bodies return to a relatively constant level of happiness. We are all born with a genetic tendency to be on a scale from cheerful to gloomy and outside influences do not permanently change our disposition.
Another viewpoint is that of the Buddhist approach. When we are happy we crave more of that pleasurable bodily feeling, wanting it to intensify and when we are sad, angry or in pain we crave to extinguish those unpleasant feelings. This constant pursuit of bodily sensations leads to dissatisfaction. If we accept the impermanent nature of all our feelings we stop craving them. This is the essence of Buddhist meditation practices. “In meditation you closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. You live in the present moment.”
Perhaps we can increase our overall happiness levels or perhaps we can’t, but we can all learn to appreciate what we have in this present moment, how we feel right now and accept that those feelings are transient. I guess do more of what makes us feel good and enjoy those euphoric feelings while they last.