Happiness and well-being

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Your brain is trying to get you to be happy

In utilitarianism, the assumed goal of ethics and morality is the greatest amount of "good" for the greatest number of people. But what counts as "good"? Evolutionary psychology tells us the answer: happiness and well-being.

A good word that captures the holistic sense of well-being that is being described here is flourishing.

See also: Meaning of Life.

Roots in Evolutionary Psychology

How do we know that this is the goal? Evolutionary psychology.

Our brains are a neural network based machine learning device designed for survival and reproduction. In machine learning, there are two mechanisms for producing a learning effect. Reinforcement, which we can say "strengthens" connections between neurons, and punishment which "weakens" them.

Our brain's reward system causes actions that result in pro-survival outcomes to be reinforced, strengthening the connections between neurons that fired to create this action and increasing the likelihood that the action will happen again. Those that result in anti-survival outcomes are weakened so the negative action will be less likely (see Behaviorism). Humans experience these effects subjectively as pleasure and pain.

It follows logically that our brains are wired to maximize behaviors that result in pleasure and minimize painful ones.

Though the evolutionary goal of this wiring is survival and reproduction, the brain itself only responds to the internal reflexive pleasure and pain reactions regardless of their actual survival benefit. Hence our goal is not to maximize our lifespans and population, it is to maximize our experience of pleasure and minimize pain.

When we live a life that gives us robust and varied sources of pleasure, while avoiding unnecessary pain and hardship, we experience this as a general sense of well-being and happiness. Therefore, the utilitarian goal of maximizing happiness and well-being for the greatest number of people can be derived logically from the observation of our brain's neural network.

We have studied the brain and determined that its goal is to be happy.

Defining Happiness

The term happiness and well-being was selected to distinguish momentary joy from lasting contentment and satisfaction. Perhaps there is a better word for it in German or Japanese. There usually is. But for now, this wiki will use happy as a shorthand for the state of being that you achieve when you live a life that brings you satisfaction, joy, stimulation, love, connection, and all the other things your brain gets off on, while avoiding unnecessary pain and dealing constructively with necessary pain.

Keep in mind that there are many ways of achieving this state of being, and for most people it simply involves being surrounded by the love of their family, having an honest, stable career with fair pay, and stimulating hobby or two. Most people don't need to be movie stars, billionaire CEOs, summit Everest, or jump out of a plane to have a rich and fulfilling life. Many times, the pursuit of these peak experiences can be a distraction from the things that bring lasting happiness.

When defining happiness for yourself, listen to your heart. But if that has not produced good results in the past, definitely listen to someone else. Or just try new things randomly until you find something that works for you. If you aren't doing what makes you happy, and you aren't trying new things, then you're not going to find what makes you happy. This author is a philosopher not a psychologist, and the goal here is to come up with a working definition of happiness not to solve all your personal problems.

Measuring Happiness

Yes, it is possible to obtain very useful statistical metrics regarding happiness levels within a population of people. Definitely useful enough to weigh in on utilitarian ethical questions within the legal and political systems to determine best-practices.

[1] [2] [3] [4]

If we can measure happiness, then we can determine through scientific research whether our laws, economic systems, family and relationship structures, religious beliefs, etc. are truly making us happier.

How Do We Measure Happiness?
How Do Scientists Measure Happiness?

What If We Made Happiness the Goal?

What would be the impact on society if maximizing happiness was the primary goal and measure of our success?

Gross National Happiness is already in use in Bhutan and there is a movement to replace or supplement GDP with something similar in other countries.

It is unfortunate that the only country that has fully adopted GNH is a small, poor, autocratic country that has not always served as the ideal model. Until basic services are universally available, GDP is probably a better meterstick. But once that is achieved and the vast majority of the population are able to live comfortable lives, a transition towards GNH is needed. It is very similar to individuals, who benefit greatly from additional money up to the point where they can live comfortably, after which the pursuit of other goals takes priority. [5]

Some examples where measuring success via GDP fails us. For one, GDP can be considered to increase when a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes [6], when it is objectively a bad thing for society that would be accurately reflected in a GNH measurement. Unproductive economic output like the widespread sale of modern Snake Oil in the forms of homeopathy, fad diets, misinformation generation, etc., would not contribute to GNH as they do with GDP.

Given that happiness is the objective goal of human existence, it stands to reason that the primary measurement of our success as a society should be happiness directly, and not a corollary proxy like money.

What is Gross National Happiness?
The Happiest Countries in the World

Don't Think About It Too Hard

Obsessing over your personal happiness is a surefire way to be unhappy. Happiness is the feeling you get when you do things that make you happy. So, find ways to do things that make you happy. Find ways to structure your life to give you more opportunities for those things. Don't wonder constantly about whether you are maximizing your happiness. Instead, periodically set aside time to reflect and plan. Then you can be present and mindful when those things that make you happy happen.

However, if you are one of those people who is happiest when they contemplate happiness, you should sign up to be an editor for this wiki.

God and Happiness

See the god concept page for a discussion of the impact that belief in god has on happiness and the brain patterns behind it. When done right, the concept of god is a self-organizing happiness engine that makes the enjoyment of life automatic.

See the Tree of Knowledge for a syllogism demonstrating that god wants us to be happy.

Pod and Happiness

The Science of Happiness and the Happiness Lab podcasts are a great resource for interesting and informative stories about scientific research into happiness.

Hidden Brain has a number of great episodes relating to creating happiness and long term well-being, especially their Happiness 2.0 series, and the recent episode on Languishing and Flourishing.

Strategies for Improving Happiness

Links to articles and other content with useful advice for enhancing happiness in yourself or your society should go here.

The Meaning of Life

Find the Meaning of Life here. No, really.

Most of These Ideas in a Book

For a popular book that has lays out all of the best ideas that the science of positive psychology has to say about finding happiness and meaning in life, from a secular spirituality perspective that is very similar to this wiki, check out The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

Music Makes You Happy

Pharrell Williams can go either way depending on your mood, but you can't go wrong with Louis Armstrong.

Pharrell Williams - Happy
Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World