Ever conclude that the pursuit of sustained happiness is hopeless, a lost cause? We may have the right to “pursue happiness”, but it seems that happiness also has the ability to reject our courtship. And does so quite regularly and successfully. Why does it sometimes seem so damn hard?

Although rooted in the word happen, most experiences of happiness don’t just occur out of the blue. Some do, but most often we must create them; ever try to bake a cake without a solid understanding of the fundamental principles involved? Without baking skills? How’d that go? Were you happy with the results? As in baking a cake, the better we understand and skillfully APPLY the principles of attaining the desired result, a cake or happiness, the better the results.

So, what are the principles of happiness? As complicated as happiness is, research has reduced it to three basic elements: genes, conditions, and choices. Furthermore, studies have discovered that happiness is about 50% genetic, or inborn temperament, 10% conditions, and 40% life choices. Each of those three elements makes contributions to our overall happiness, so happiness ultimately comes down to some aspect of who you are. While some of our happiness is out of our control, a big chunk is up to us. In each of the three areas, you are the key to the results.

It’s In Your Genes

The genetic component of happiness doesn’t mean people have a fixed level of happiness that never changes, that they are always happy, or that others are permanently stuck in misery.
We’ve all known people who are blessed with joy filled natures and hardly anything seems to disrupt their balance and throw them into negativity. They’re easy going. And, if they do experience some downer, they quickly recover their happiness. That’s because the genetic component is more like a set point; the level we naturally return to after the inescapable setbacks of living. It’s like a thermostat set at 70 degrees, when the temperature goes down, the furnace turns on and restores the warmth to the preset level. So, some return to a higher level of joy set by their genes after a setback, and others typically revert to feeling down, negative, and pessimistic at some lower level.

Genes have other impacts on our happiness. But we can also impact those effects.
Humans, for example, seem to have evolved a negative bias. We tend to look for the worst, expect the negative, and continually prepare for danger. While this enhances our chances for survival by keeping us vigilant for risk, it can make happiness harder to attain and maintain. Being too comfortable can blind us to the dangers in our environment. There’s no possibility of happiness if we don’t first survive, so this tradeoff makes a great deal of evolutionary sense.

We also seem to be programmed to become “habituated”, “used to” our life’s reality. That shiny new car, that wonderful new house, or that perfect new relationship eventually becomes old hat. Been there, done that. What’s next? We seem to be genetically programmed to a certain degree of discontent. That’s not all bad either, discontent is one of the things that compelled early humans to leave dry Africa and hunt for better conditions. We also can adjust to negative situations so they don’t bother us much as time passes. Another adaptive advantage.

So does this mean our innate need for happiness is a lost cause? Irredeemably blocked by our genetic realities? Not at all. Recall the last time you were happy. Regardless of genes, happiness is not impossible. Afterall, 50% comes from conditions and choices.

Unconditional Happiness? How Can That Be?

Beyond the three basic contributing factors, happiness can be reduced to two categories: Happiness from within (genes and mindset) and happiness from without (conditions). This distinction provides us with a clearer view of happiness and better ways manage our ultimate well-being.

Happiness from without refers to the external conditions that produce or reduce good feelings. Happiness from within is the source that we have inside us, and the one we have the most control over: our reaction to those external events.

Living, as we do, in an ocean of inescapable external conditions, many of them will naturally have an impact on our happiness. When we feel safe and see our physical, emotional, and social needs as fulfilled by the circumstances of our life, we tend to feel happy. Things are going our way; the world and I are in harmony, not in opposition. So, freed from worry and want, we experience the world as a place that welcomes us and meets our needs…and feel happy.

But, when we face deficiency, frustration, adversity, we feel unhappy. Imagine happiness as a level of life that we reach for from a level below that ideal. When conditions thwart, obstruct, hinder, or impede closing that gap between where we are and where we want to be, we feel unhappy. And we often take the indirect approach, trying to change our inside (our feelings) by changing our outside (the circumstances of our lives). The “unconditional” approach to happiness goes directly to our “inside”.

But if conditions are “inescapable”, how could we possibly attain “unconditioned happiness”?

Conditions can assist or reduce happiness.

Some conditions are sometimes under our control. We do, for example, have some choice in where we live and work and who we partner with, and how we spend our fleeting and precious life moments. But as carefully and effectively as we sometimes arrange our life conditions to produce happiness, we are never, ever guaranteed those circumstances will remain unchanged. What one day brought us happiness may the next day be completely reversed. And if our happiness is totally dependant upon those ever changing externals, our happiness is always at the mercy of events often beyond our control.

This has led some curious and restless beings to seek unconditional happiness; happiness that is not at the mercy of shifting, changing reality; a happiness that is not vulnerable to unchanging change. And to achieve that, we have to turn our focus inward, away from changing externals.

Two Means of Attaining Unconditional Happiness

As mentioned, there are two types of general happiness, from within and from without. And there are also two sources of inner happiness: 1) A flexible ability to rebound from unwanted change and restore our happiness by managing our perceptions of those changes. We don’t escape changing conditions but we manage them effectively. And, 2) The discovery of place within us that is always happy regardless of externals.

More about option 1: Remember that we can manage and maintain internal happiness by managing the MEANING that we give to the changing externals. The weather changes for the worst. We may be powerless to restore the sunshine, but are enormously capable of restoring our good feelings by changing our perceptions of that event. Our choices are to feel sorry for ourselves, OR we can realize that the world wasn’t created especially for us and that sometimes the external reality will be at odds with our wishes. If we cling to some notion of how things should be, of what we are entitled to, we’re going to find ourselves frequently in a damaging – to us – adversarial relationship with reality, and that’s a fight we are unlikely to win. For instance, instead of thinking the world is unfair, we can be grateful for how good the weather has been recently. By doing do we change the MEANING of the changing weather, and thereby change our feelings for the better. The whole damn universe is not out to screw us, even though it seems that way sometime.

Another way to manage the perceptions that impact happiness is to remove our SELF-IMPOSED conditions to happiness. Many of us have an IF ONLY mindset . . . if only I were rich and famous or, WHEN I’m rich and famous, THEN I’ll be happy.

Ask yourself, is it really impossible to be happy BEFORE being rich and famous? Am I setting unnecessary conditions on my own happiness? Am I myself, rather than reality, preventing my own happiness? If I see happiness as something only possible under certain conditions, am I denying myself the pleasure of happiness that can occur before achieving my goals? Am I afraid to free myself of those self-imposed conditions because I fear losing my motivation to become rich and famous? Does being rich and famous really assure happiness?

Our Inner Core of Happiness

The second option asks: WHO are you, really? Your thoughts and feelings? Your perceptions? Your physical sensations? Your history? Your experiences? Your personality? We are all those things . . . more or less . . . and those things can change; they come and go.

The spiritual masters who have achieved unconditioned happiness would point out that we are what is permanent and unchanging in us; our awareness. The unchanging, permanent observer behind that impermanent river of thoughts, feelings, etc., is who we really are.

And what does meditation show us about that awareness when we remove thoughts and feelings? It’s calm, peaceful, content, happy. And UNIMPACTED by conditions.

So unconditional happiness is enjoyed by going to the condition of peace and happiness always within us: our awareness. Our knowing that we know. The innermost observer.

YOU, at your essence, then are happiness. No, not the “kids turned loose at recess” type of happiness. But the calm, imperturbable type of awareness.

I know. I know. All this sounds kinda flakey, airy-fairy to the western ear. But, may I recommend that you explore it, experience it before you reject it?

To sum up, there are 3 basic approaches to optimize your happiness:
– Manage the external conditions of your life—-to the extent we can.
– Manage your REACTIONS to those conditions—-learn the skill of changing our mindset.
– Manage your access to your imperturbable, calm, inner happiness—learn to meditate.

Change ourselves, improve our happiness.

Any of this make sense?

Tony Johnson is a retired university mental health center psychologist. He explores, learns, and lives happily in the Southern Zone. He can be contacted at: paradise.we.have.a.problem@gmail.com

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