4 January 2011

hap·pi·ness (n.)

The pursuit of happiness begins with defining it. We each have our own ideas about bliss, mental pictures of what would make us smile or give us satisfaction: a new dress, a sunset, a goal met.

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of happiness. I remember an assignment in primary school when we had to write down our ambition and draw a picture: mine said “I want to be a happy man when I grow up” with a picture of a smiley face next to it. I can’t remember what the teacher’s reaction was, but I like to think that it was one of those “wisdom from the mouths of babes” moments which give adults pause for reflection. (She probably just gave me a C and moved on to the next one -- it was quite a badly-drawn smiley face. I remember my classmate had a really nice astronaut.)

My interest in the topic of happiness continued all the way to university, where I studied it from an economic standpoint, and chose one of the pioneers of happiness economics to be my supervisor. Why didn’t the Americans, the Japanese, and the Chinese become happier over their individual “glory periods” when their countries enjoyed economic success? Why did most lottery winners end up wishing they never won? Why do people who reach incredible heights of success commit suicide?

Perhaps we should go back to basics, back to defining what makes us happy. We can start by boiling down our ideas of happiness into their essence – the needs that drive them. Although our individual ideas of happiness can take on vastly different forms, our basic needs are the same: borrowing from Maslow, they are self-actualisation, esteem, love, security and physiological. A new gadget boils down to satisfying a need for esteem, a higher salary the need for security. Our needs underpin our wishes, our desires, our hopes and dreams.

Viewing happiness as the fulfilment of a need has been a liberating paradigm shift. It feels like being elevated to a higher level of consciousness of myself. The allure of many a thing has diminished after I understand exactly what part of me they are tempting, which usually leads to the subsequent realisation that that particular thing doesn’t actually meet that need at all. Ever bought something that was so overwhelming when it wasn’t yours and underwhelming when it was?

Another insight is the recognition of the danger of our physiological needs. These are a cluster of short-lived, high-satisfaction desires: food, sex, sleep, et cetera. These are the “drugs” of the lot. If we look at the usual suspects behind unhappiness, we find that they usually link back to an over-indulgence of physiological desires. Families broken over a spouse’s sexual exploits, people going bankrupt in pursuit of the physiological thrill of winning. How many have spent their lives overindulging their physiological desires, oblivious to the very end that lasting happiness cannot be obtained from them?


  1. Anonymous6:15 pm

    'physiological' is such a broad term though... does physical brain activity, aka intellectual satisfaction count? or what about the emotional need to be appreciated for things you do? does emotional need count as physiological need?

    sorry if this is a weird question, just trying to clarify meaning of physiological.


  2. Hmmm, generally speaking physiological needs refer to the needs of the body e.g. food, sleep and so on. Intellectual stimulation for its own sake would fall under self actualisation, which is highly personal and closely associated to self fulfilment. It was a bit of a stretch for me to categorise the thrill of gambling as fulfilling a physiological need, but it seemed to be the most fitting category within Maslow's framework (also a friend of mine once described a winning bet as 'orgasmic') :)

  3. darius2:42 am

    so, too much sex can cause one to be unhappy? i beg to differ. =P