Why Young Lives Lives Are Losing Meaning and Purpose III: The Happiness-Unhappiness Seesaw

By M.K. Styllinski

Photo: Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

[“Happiness is ] the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

– Sonjia Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher

Reading time: (10-15 mins)

Are you happy?

The answer to this question will depend on your life experiences to date, your culture and your age. But there may be a universal set of principles which we might adopt in order to achieve some level of contentment with our lot.  It won’t surprise you that meaning, purpose and social support are integral to that state of being.  Although there is much to be happy and certainly unhappy about in our world, perhaps there is a way to transcend the weary swing from either pole?

Happiness generally exists as an emotional seesaw between the future and the past, with the present squeezed out of existence. We are constantly told that we will only be happy when we get the girl/guy, marriage, the car, the house, the income, the career. For the young, if ambition still exists, it is tied to relentless consumption and the economic uncertainty that comes with it. Happiness can only arrive it seems, when we are safe and secure or lost in the adrenalin of the moment. Many Millennials and Generation Z have been molded that way so that any kind of contentment is dependent on material gain, identity/image and peer group status. It’s normalised to the point that we don’t pay it too much attention anymore. Sure, it’s been that way for a long time, but the difference is that young people generally do not have the desire, will or capacity to wait longer than the click of a mouse to discover that true happiness might just be gained from something other than social media, porn, computer games and SMART society consumption in general. Why should they? What is there to be happy about when to make sense of reality you are offered a daily diet of lies and misinformation and a 24hr streaming of corporate CEOs, TV/movie stars and gold-toothed rappers as role models?

The message to our youth today is to strive for the gold at the end of the rainbow even if most conventional wisdom keeps telling us it’s a pot-holed road to nowhere. Yet, the technosphere is powerful. Superficial stimulants to engage for the short-term fix are endemic for the young and keep them tied to a variety of cultural addictions, which includes being driven into the opoid arms of Big Pharma and its disgusting exploitation of generations of spiritually disppossessed. Yet, the very state of happiness must be conditional and transitory since it is rooted in the ebb and flow of the personality subject to the above; that is either growing, thus in a state of flux, or undergoing stasis and prone to disintegration. So, we seek that unassailable “happy” state as a means to stave off discomfort (and opportunities to grow thereby) rather than to surrender and embrace the unknown and reconfigure what happiness really means.

Unfortunately, young and old alike are more miserable than ever before. Why is it for instance, there’s been hardly any change at all in the levels of happiness experienced by Americans since 1972? [1] Indeed, loneliness and isolation play a huge part as a product of our woefully value-less economic nightmare we call “progress”. In the U.S., nearly half of all meals are eaten alone; the average American has fewer friends than twenty years ago and by 2008, less than one third of people had socialised with their neighbours compared nearly half that number about twenty-five years previously.  It’s no better in the UK, with folks less likely to know their neighbours or have strong friendships than any other country in Europe. [2]

The narcissistic culture of social media and entertainment creates the paranoia that you are the only one who feels inadequate and insecure, lost and miserable when compared with your colleagues and acquaintainces who, judging by their Facebook and Instagrams pages, are having a permanent roller-coaster of delerious ecstasy. But most of it is just candy-floss fantasy trying to plug a spiritual abyss.  So, we continue to look for that elusive key to instant happiness, that shining pot of fake gold.  And we do so, despite article after article telling us that us that the more you search for happiness not only are we less likely to find it but we will actually increase the probability of becoming unhappier.

Thanks to the self-help and positive psychology movement and their often highly selective and cherry-picked statistics used to buttress a multi-billion dollar industry, this encouragement to value happiness as a separate, almost transcendental life goal is not producing the results, except that is, in the bank balance of its pop psychology salesmen.  As author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop? Ruth Lippman describes it: “It feels as though the happiness industry is almost manufacturing a culture of anxiety, trapping us in a self-feeding loop of self-doubt. On top of this, the message that the real solutions to human distress lie within rather than without seems to actively encourage us to focus on ourselves and ignore the genuine issues of the wider world.” She believes further that the “happiness rat-race” has “…a kind of institutionalised emotional dishonesty that punishes people for experiencing the normal range of human feelings.”

The irony is that yes, solutions do lie within but not by ignoring reality or denying certain aspects of existence. And certainly not by be expecting to be whisked to the top of the mountain of bliss without some effort. The happiness industry is much like the self-development industry, the equality/victimhood industry and much of the new age religion and its “create your own reality” and Law of Attraction memes. They all appeal to the part of us that wants a short-cut to bliss without looking at the icky stuff. When the warm afterglow of all those books, CDs, seminars, intensive courses and retreats has worn off we are back to wondering why happiness still eludes us. What compounds this frenzied marketing of the Holy Grail of happiness is the basic adaptability of the human being which is partly genetic; it seems we have a natural threshold for how happy we can be in standard sense of the term. Whatever miraculously beneficial stroke of fortune befalls us extensive studies show that we return to our previous level of happiness after that event, come what may. Hence the continual attempt to claw back that happiness through the hedonic treadmill. As author and doctor Nikolas Christakis’ describes it: “Although the effort to … become happier is helpful it is counteracted by the process of adaptation that forces one back to one’s original state.” His findings regarding social networks, happiness and our genetic inheritence show that there is indeed a “set point” or long-term disposition that is not easy to change: “Studies of identitical and fraternal twins show that identical twins are significantly more likely to exhibit the same level of happiness than are fraternal twins or other siblings. genetic set point, 10 percent on their circumstances (e.g. where they live, how rich they are, how healthy they are), and 40 percent on what they choose to think and do. What we experience in life can, of course, change our moods for a period of time, but in most cases these changes are transitory.” [3]

Yet, being embedded in a vibrant social network can increase your happiness levels up to 45 percent and this is occurs due to the highly influential resonance of that network. This percentage can rise simply if a friend became happy in the previous six months…These effects tend to wane however and it seems our ability to scupper deeper levels of lasting happiness stems from a misunderstanding of what happiness constitutes.

Shunning and denying negative emotion means we are giving a message to our brain that we must also shun and deny positive emotions since they are entwined in an archetypal and mythological embrace that is as old as Adam and Eve. That embrace should help us achieve balance in navigating through life. When we view life only through the lens of positive thinking or turning the other cheek and attuning to the light, we are inviting the divorce between these polarities that are designed to work together by complementing each other. Left-brain critical thinking alongside right brain intuition. These skills protect us from wishful thinking, lies and distortions by honing our discernment; to keep us grounded and alert to danger. They favour pragmatism and practical solutions and see the flaws in design and destiny. If we pretend that the working partnership of positive-negative exists apart we invite unhealthy perception and mental and physical imbalance. And more dangerously, we become prone to ignoring negative behaviour and the dynamics of evil because the search for happiness has atrophied our ability to discern and discriminate – shrivelled into submmission by excess “light”. Then being unhappy becomes not only probable over time but ironically forces the mind-body to “reset” until health is restored.

The H spot

The truth is, we need others.

At the evolutionary biologial level, we are intensely social animals. Setting simple goals within a community of people striving to assist each other will allow us to reach the fulcrum of this constant seesaw – an “H spot” if you will – which can eventually deliver the balance required to satisfy our hardwired need to belong. Support from parents, family and an extended community of friends will potentially assist in self-understanding and self-knowledge. Meaning and purpose tend to emerge from the challenge of interpersonal relationships and shared goals thus ameliorating motion of the seesaw overtime, an oscillation more dramatic in isolation.  When supported by a network of people who are a) like-minded and b) focused on constructive goals for the integrity of the group/community as primary, this permits a parallel space for introspective and extrospective discovery. It’s also true that it’s better to have learned to be comfortable in our own skins by being alone for a time, before achieving interpersonal harmony. If we cannot stand to be alone and do all we can to shun contemplation that inevitably comes from being with our own thoughts, it’s unlikely authentic relationships will be forthcoming since learned dependence tends to trump independence and inner self-sufficiency.

After all, if we can’t influence ourselves how can we influence others?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was convinced that happiness came from within when he wrote in The Happiness Hypothesis (2007): “you’ll never make the world conform to your wishes, so focus on changing yourself and your desires.” However, by the time he had finished writing the last chapter, he had changed his mind and realised there was something more: “Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.[4]  In other words, by cultivating that creative tension which inhabits the place between those two poles, “something larger than yourself” is allowed to enter in and become an antidote to self-absorption. It is also a way into a more meaningful (sacred, authentic and “divine”) relationship with life.

Haidt believes that we must not only understand our dual nature but accept that our “groupish overlay,” and desire to belong and cooperate with those of like mind as well as our kin, is essential to happiness. It doesn’t matter whether you are atheist or religious, a higher ideal binds people together. There’s a reason why there is something in the latin root of religion religio and the verb religare which refers to monastic vows which bind one to God. But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary we have a host of meanings dating back to c. 1200: describing “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power,” from Anglo-French religiun (11c.), Old French religionpiety, devotion; religious community,” and directly from Latin religionem (nominative religio) “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation; fear of the gods; divine service, religious observance; a religion, a faith, a mode of worship, cult; sanctity, holiness,” in Late Latin “monastic life”.  A divine power is the intermediary and arbitor of meaning and purpose. And regardless of what you consider that Divine Power to be, it still acts as “…something larger than yourself.” And to gain some level of happiness what is it that we do in daily life if not to make  “vows” to that end?

Something that has a foundation of moral values consistantly provides meaning and purpose to individuals and groups, the latter of which outlasts more secular attempts at communities if we are talking in terms of thousands of years rather than the two hundred years of the Enlightenment. Morality and values which emerge from a sense of devotion to community “under God” promotes the bonding referred to above – the very stuff of life, from molecules to minds. It is the biology of shared knowledge which binds people and ideas together. That may be the primary role of non-organised religion. Purpose and happiness derive from these learned lessons of life translated into mythical narratives and archetypes, thus spiritual meaning. This provides a bedrock of nourishing assistance to transcend the narcissism of Official Culture and attune to the wisdom of our ancestors. And that may not be mere flights of fancy either. Storytelling, fables, myths and their spiritual wisdom have shaped global cultures in immensely powerful ways; they are in our very DNA, and in ways that may include much more than just haplotypes and geneotypes. We would be foolish not to access such a heritage if it offers ways to cope with the darkness in our world.

In this sense, atheism and/or nihilism does not have a good track record in providing a bedrock of meaning that binds. Quite the opposite. And if the father of psychology William James is right and “[Religion is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” [5] then the transference of this moral foundation – from whatever balanced spiritual belief is in operation – becomes a part of overall group direction in service to a higher ideal. Such a directive appears to not only to act as the “glue” of a community but an important road to core happiness.

We don’t have to embody faith in God or even an intelligent Universe, but we must be willing to face ourselves. That means developing our abilities to receive and to act on self-knowledge. It’s far from easy of course, we are vulnerable to emotional chaos that’s always there between the upswing and the downswing of this relentless seesaw. But  we can’t move too far from it either so that we end up seduced by a homeostasis of safety and security. This seldom delievers the friction we need to find a happiness which endures – whatever life throws at us.

By finding the H spot we can adapt to any given situation drawing on the strength and will to face adversity precisely because we creating our own resources within. The kind of slow-burn contentment that emerges from that creation is what we are after. And it comes from a committed, creative act. However, we live in a time where almost everything is designed to prevent such a natural state of being. How the hell can we break free from the happy/unhappy seesaw when there are so many forces creating these extremes?

The answer(s) may be more simple than we think – even counter-intuitive.



[1] https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction
[2] Ibid.
[3] pp.55-56, Christakis, Nicolas; Fowler, James, Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives (2009)
[4] pp.283; Haidt, Jonathan,The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics (2012)
[5] p.31; James; William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature. (1902)

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