Happiness is Not Your Natural State

Photo via Moyan Brenn

I came down the stairs at home not long ago to hear our youngest daughter whining. This is not, to say the least, an unusual experience. Since the day she was born, our youngest has been more inclined to whine and cry than her older sister ever was. On this particular day, her complaint was that the only thing that wasn’t boring for her was to play My Little Pony and her older sister “never, ever, ever wants to play My Little Pony.”

My wife was doing her best to respond with a mix of comfort and firmness. We don’t like to see our children cry and we don’t want them to grow up to be bored, whiny people who fall apart when others won’t comply. The kerfuffle was settled by the simple suggestion that she play My Little Pony alone, which after expressing all her residual melancholy, our girl accepted.

Experiences like these are familiar to anyone who’s raised a child. They are everyday stuff. Given how frequently parents must calm, discipline and instruct a child about how to be happy, it is amazing that the general culture believes happiness and contentment are natural states of existence for human beings.

They are not.

Let me say this again bluntly:

Happiness and Contentment are NOT the default states for human beings.

The default states for human beings are self-centered anger, sadness, and anxiety.

Think again about raising children. No one instructs a child about how to get mad about not getting her way. No one trains a child to form habits that will lead to a life of anxious pouting. No, the job of parents is to train a child to adopt the behaviors and perspectives that are most likely to lead to inner and outer peace. If peaceful, contented happiness came naturally to us, this wouldn’t be unnecessary.

Once again, our culture obscures what ought to be obvious. Most people in the modern West operate on the assumption that the human being in his natural state is a beam of radiant joy, greeting each new day with eager excitement.

Media reinforce this. Everybody on those floor polish commercials smiles so broadly when they’re smearing that stuff around on the linoleum. The people on all those HGTV shows never suffer seriously. They all smile, even when the house is falling down around them. Everything, the media tell us constantly, should be fine so long as there is plenty of money to buy, buy, buy.

We’re led to believe that happiness should be our normal state by an even deeper force. The whole of the modern outlook rests on the notion of human beings’ inherent goodness. The assumption that human beings, freed from the corrupting influence of social expectations, are naturally peaceful and happy permeates all our social institutions, including the education establishment.

As is the case with most modern ideas, the real-world result of this one is increased misery. People who find themselves depressed, anxious, and angry adults wonder what’s wrong with them. Having imbibed the belief that their normal state should be calm joy, when emotional realities arise that don’t fit that belief, people see themselves as broken, abnormal, and feel even worse.

The assumption that happiness is the natural state is clear in the way we talk about depression. People speak as if depression is a variation from the norm, something novel a few must endure. The truth is that something like depression is the natural state of human beings when we fail to make serious efforts to control our emotional state, when we haven’t been trained to be happy.

Depression is automatic. Happiness is an achievement. Being happy requires making serious efforts to control our thoughts and actions. To be happy, we must submit ourselves to discipline. We must be trained in how to think and behave. We must be reigned-in from the excesses of emotion and narcissism and oriented outward toward our goals and the well-being of others.

The product of this training is a set of habits we call character. The cultivation of character offers us an escape from our natural misery. As we pursue greater character, we are lifted above the petty squalls of passing emotion and placed upon more solid ground where we can be, if not always happy, stable enough to attend to our duties which, in the end, always satisfies.

If you need some help developing your character, this book can help.

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8 responses

  1. I think that CS Lewis made an interesting distinction between joy and happiness. Happiness is that fleeting, pleasurable feeling that comes from a fun vacation, a delightful romance, small triumph, etc, etc. Joy is deeper, more of a spiritual condition, that does not fluctuate in the face of day to day challenges. I think that should be our goal and there is much we can do to achieve this, as you in your piece. The type of happiness you describe is so transient, just like daily irritations, grumpy moods, and times of sadness that are so unpleasant. I agree with just about everything you have said and you have said it well. Too many TV commercials and we think that even chewing gum should make us shudder in ecstasy! Our DESIRE for this state of happiness, contentment, is there from the beginning and we put a lot of effort into obtaining it. Ag I think we should be aiming for the spiritual state of joy but we often settle for happiness as a shortcut. The only thing I would add to your discussion, and I am sure you will get other similar comments, is that depression is a mental illness, caused in large part by abnormalities in the brain. Most people with depression cannot just change their attitudes, buck up and feel better. There is a reason that those who suffer from it are at such high risk for suicide. It runs in my family and I have seen the enormous suffering this disease causes. I only mention this because people who have mental illness find it painful to be told that they just need to try harder or change their attitudes. I do not believe this is a natural state of being, but an abnormality that can get much better with treatment. Thanks as always for your fine blog posts.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Mary Lou.

    I understand that depression has been conceived to be about a poor balance of chemicals in the brain for the last couple of decades. However, that theory is giving way now.

    Here is an article from a psychiatrist critiquing it. This is just one of the many pieces I found suggesting there is more to depression than just brain abnormalities.

    http://joannamoncrieff.com/2014/05/01/the-chemical-imbalance-theory-of-depression-still-promoted-but-still-unfounded/

    That said, I am not so much talking in this post about serious, clinical depression, but a lot of what people call depression that is, in fact, just the misery that comes about naturally from people’s self-centered attitudes.

  3. Great post Dean and I agree. As the saying goes “Happiness is a choice” it doesn’t come naturally. Once you realize this you can be happy at any moment at any time but only a few will believe this and use it to their advantage.

  4. Coincidentally, I just finished 7 habits for the local business book club.
    I’m sure it’s often recommended these days, but a book on the subject that’s helped me greatly was Enchiridion. This has been -so far- my favorite book on stoicism. Even more than Seneca’s.

    The fact that I’ve been seeing more and more people promoting living honorably, and on twitter of all places, gives me a bit of hope. It’s a dark, dark world if nobody reaches out.

  5. Deep stuff Dean and I agree that people have unrealistic expectations of how they should or shouldn’t feel. I don’t know enough about clinical depression although I do know some sufferers. But putting that aside, I’m a believer that you can choose your mood. You can see things as positive, negative or neutral. Seeing more life events as positive or neutral can have a big impact on how I view the world day to day.

  6. The notion that happiness is not a natural state because we don’t teach children to get angry is inconsistent at the least and immediately contradictory. The immediate counterargument is that we don’t teach kids how to be content either. Thus, according to your logic, children are naturally happy. We don’t teach an infant how not to cry. We may teach kids how to play with toys but never how to enjoy them (or dislike them). Yet they accomplish this. The interesting thing you mentioned is that something had to occur for the child to become whiney. It appears, naturally, that the child was fine until receiving the devastating news that the elder child did not want to play with them. They had to reason themselves out of content. However, we know that we don’t have to reason ourselves into happiness. Is it possible to? Sure, if one got themselves out of it in the first place. Anger, anxiety, all those bad things, etc. are completely natural things to have. They all stem from discomfort. Babies don’t cry because they’re pissed, or sad, they cry because they experience discomfort and aren’t equipped to cope with it. Hungry, cry. Hurt, cry. Sick, cry. As we get older, crying evolves as we begin other methods (even accompanied with crying) of coping with our discomforts. However, we don’t have to cope with happiness. We don’t have to learn how to handle joy. Why? Because it’s natural to be such. We’re used to it. It’s comfortable. I could go much further, but it’d be rambling really. So I’ll refrain for the moment. Also, I’ve seen both sides of the media and often. Not only that, media isn’t the only thing we learn from, you left out social interaction. That is another discussion itself as well.

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