On Happiness and the Environment

In our modern times, achieving happiness seems to be a priority. Only ego validation – in the form of career fulfilment, personal success, and fame, or their less flattering versions of vanity shows and chase for online followers, views, and ‘likes’ – can compete with individual happiness today to the top of the list. And although happiness has, quite understandably, always been an important human goal, there were times where promoting a certain idea or particular beliefs; where defending certain values; where furthering an institution, team, or nation; and, hopefully for some still, where achieving familial and group betterment, all were as or more important than individual happiness. Notwithstanding, great deal of recent talk and media are dedicated to the topic of happiness, as if it is the ultimate end goal of human existence. In societies where some of the religious beliefs have been shed, this has become an all the more important subject.

Without a doubt, happiness is a needed state of experience to all living beings, and the alleviation of suffering in particular is of primary importance. But happiness is the result of something else; it is not an enduring end goal that one finds and clings to like a gold chest. It is wrongly assumed that hedonism is simply the blind search for pleasure, and Epicurus’ advocacy of happiness is quite different from that which is commonly construed today. Moreover, what makes us happy at one stage of our lives is not necessarily the same at another stage; we are endowed with different characters that enable us to be happy differently; and of course, happiness cannot be equated with material prosperity, the latter being only a contributor, if at all.

Happiness is an emotional state that the agent experiences as the result of certain interactions with the outside world, other agents, and/or one’s own being (as with meditation or working out). It is limited in time and is actually quite rare. In fact, we spend most of our time not being overly happy, and it is a normal aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, happiness would cease to be that special thing to which we long. All else in the individual being equal, the type of happiness to which he aspires and which he ultimately realises, and all the consequences of this realisation, are factors of the environment in which he evolves. I have previously talked about the importance of the environment and its influence on the behaviour of any individual, no matter how strong or detached she can be; this is part of the reflection on the influence of the environment, only focused on the particular aspect of happiness, which has become a sort of pop culture torch.

Happiness is a somehow vague concept; it is common for two individuals to say that they are happy while experiencing slightly different feelings in the least. Happiness takes on different variants; it can resemble satisfaction; it can be a psychological state of peace and serenity; it can be an ego trip; it can be the excitement of action after restlessness; it can be tranquillity in cherished routine; it can be a feeling of reward after achieving a long sought objective (a case of dopamine rush); it can result from strong social bonding (a case of oxytocin rush); it can be sensual pleasure; and it can be relief from pain (a case of endorphin rush). There are different ways of reaching happiness; some are more ephemeral than others, and some are physical while others are cognitive. Nevertheless, it is rather clear that most of us need to experience on a not-too-rare of a basis one or several of those feelings, and that some of those ‘feel-good’ emotions can, temporarily or more permanently, compensate for the lack of others. When we lack one particular variant of happiness, we try to compensate for it by seeking more of another, even sometimes to the point of becoming addicted to such compensation.

The variants of happiness and the offsetting of one by another are central to the relation between the environment in which we live and the kind(s) of happiness that our environment favours. Consequently, some environments can be more constructive or pervasive in the manners in which they promote certain variants of happiness and limit others. The environment is the nation, the city, the neighbourhood, the media culture, the Internet, the workplace, and other. In some environments, the prevalent way of achieving happiness is through consumption and spending; in some, it can simply be family and human relations; and in others, it takes place through conflict, and even oddly through violence and warfare. Some people realise happiness through exploring the world of meaning, and some do so by probing truth and science. Prevalent variants of happiness can require increased consumption of particular resources or they can come with greater long-term cost. For instance, we say that inviting people to enjoy smoking leads to a society with higher cancer rates in the future.

In the same way that changes to incentives influence people’s behaviour, changes to the environment can alter the sources from which humans draw most of their happiness. Simple as it is, I find this to be an important sociological fact that is seldom considered when addressing the subject of happiness. Happiness is ultimately shaped by human interactions, fulfilled values, the perimeter in which a human being operates, and the incentives and rewards to which he or she is subject. We can live in environments where all lead to temporary, hindering and resource-consuming forms of happiness; and we can live in environments with enduring, humane and synergistic forms of happiness. Environments change dynamically, and such changes come to impact the way people become and stay happy. And importantly, we often have partial power to alter an environment or take ourselves out of it. The way Buddhist disciples in the mountains draw their happiness from contemplation is different from the way winning gamblers draw their happiness in Las Vegas or Macau; both are at some point feeling happy and fulfilled, and both can feel the satisfaction of having achieved something, only in remarkably distinct ways. The archetypical story of the rich and famous person who ‘has it all’ ending up miserable, with substance abuse problems, and dead by suicide or overdose can be better understood through such environmental considerations.

Once we admit the environmental impact on happiness, then we can deduce two easy correlates: (1) Happiness in societies with different climate, geography, demographics, and cultural environments can be different in kind, and arguably some of it can be more sustainable than other; and (2) Material well being and technological development only favour certain variants of happiness by changing the environment. From personal experience, I am inclined to say that the most enduring forms of happiness in society are those that grow organically and measuredly with culture; in several newly formed or economically changing cities, if you probe, you tend to find human relations weaker, and people falling on consumption and maybe temporary vanity as a way to compensate – repletion is the sovereign source of melancholy, as William James said.

It also reminds me of something J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad said in The Penguin History of the World, when talking about the great development of Ancient Greece while contrasting it with the limited means with which people there lived at the time, “That civilization was rooted still in relatively simple economic patterns; essentially, they were those of the preceding age. […] Such men were the typical Greeks. Some were rich, most of them were probably poor by modern standards, but even now the Mediterranean climate makes a relatively low income more tolerable than it would be elsewhere.” I suspect that, even today, many low-income people find life more tolerable, and even more enjoyable and happy, than the rich living in harsher environments.

JHTF