Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Happiness Not a Consequence, Merely an Assertion

Science is all about measurements.  Scientists try to determine the model that best fits the data to gain insight into the behaviour of the world around them.  They measure everything, from temperature to charge to chaos.  These measurements are dependent upon a number of things.  In thermodynamics, an engineer may like to measure the temperature of a body as a function of time for a specific set of conditions.  Here, temperature is a dependent variable, and time is an independent variable.

It is appropriate to consider the measured temperature of a body to be a consequence of several factors.  It may seem sensible then to apply this approach to assess our state of mind on a given day.  I aim to show that this is a misguided way to perform a self-assessment.  That is, it is nonsensical to attribute our mental state to a given set of conditions that is present in our lives.  The measured variable that I wish to focus on is happiness.

Happiness... That state of being that we are all encouraged to pursue from a young age.  But, how does one measure it?  How does one know when one has achieved it?  Whatever the answers to these questions, it is certain that the assessment is anything but absolute.  I would even take it one step further.

Unlike measurable quantities like mass or length or temperature, happiness is not a function of a bunch of parameters - at least, it does not need to be.  The total mass of a space ship, for example, is dependent upon its initial mass and how much fuel it has exhausted since take-off.  My happiness, on the other hand, is not, or rather, should not be dependent upon the fact that my friend said something rude or that I am late for work.  Happiness is not a consequence of the good or bad things that happen to us.  Happiness is a state of mind that we assert for ourselves.  After that, good and bad things happen.

The ideology that happiness is a choice is one that resonated with me the first time that I heard it some years ago.  In fact, I remember exactly where I was: sitting in a lecture hall for a special presentation by the famous medical doctor, Hunter Doherty Adams, who commonly goes by the name, "Patch" Adams (there was a film made of his life in which Robin Williams played the role of Patch) .  His talk that day can be summarized as follows:

...Being happy is a choice we make when we wake up in the morning.  There are, however, some blockades that can eliminate happiness as an option, such as loneliness or boredom.  If both of these ailments are remedied, then happiness is a state of mind we can choose, even in our darkest hour, when our health is failing.  Ultimately, if I choose to be happy, then I am happy...

The sad reality is that many people who have happiness as an option fail to choose it.  They see happiness, or lack thereof, as a consequence of the many variables in their lives, material or otherwise.  Like some mysterious recipe, happiness becomes the net result of one's health, 'x', family life, 'y', and career, 'z'.  The alternative is to treat happiness as an independent variable, like time; we simply assign it a value ourselves.

It may seem strange for an engineer such as myself to claim that one's level of happiness is not simply a linear combination of all of the pieces of one's life, including memories of the past, current situation, and hopes for the future.  But I refuse to place what defines me in the hands of my environment.  My mind is the only thing that I truly own, and therefore, I wish to dictate its state.

In addition, I recognize both the relativity and uncertainty inherent in describing happiness as a multi-variable function.  Here, the scientist is his or her own experiment.  The scientist purposely or inadvertently influences the results, and, what's more, does not possess a device to accurately record measurements in the first place.

So, in the end, we have a choice.  We can ascribe our happiness to our surroundings, or, make a conscious decision as to what our state of mind should be.  We can deem ourselves observers in the universe, or, elevate ourselves to actual sources within the universe.  I choose the latter.  As a result, my happiness becomes an independent variable, and a very powerful one indeed.  I quickly realize that it is my health, family life, and career that are, and always have been, the dependent variables, albeit very complex ones.  In fact, all three of these dependent variables are highly sensitive to the independent variable of happiness.

By inverting the way we view happiness, we ultimately empower ourselves.  It is one of the few things in life that is actually within our control if we so choose.  Patch Adams refers to it as replacing "because" statements with "so that" statements.  Rather than say, "I feel sad because I lost my job," we can say "I will go make new contacts so that I can find a new one."  When happiness is a choice, your identity becomes a cause rather than an effect.

When I first learned of functions in the tenth grade, I did not see the profound distinction between the x and y axes.  After careful reflection, I now see that in science, and in one's life, the only way to experience true freedom is to be an independent variable.


Yekaterina Kobtseva said...

Such a proactive article! I agree with it =]
As someone once said, "I am not what happens to me, I am what I choose to become."
In fact, not that long time ago, me and my friends were talking about happiness. The majority thought: in the end of their lives, all people want to be happy. In other words, the ultimate goal (or even the final destination) for each person is happiness. I didn't quite agree with them. For my friends, happiness was gaining something they "didn't have". However, for me, it's not about getting something you don't seemingly have - it's appreciating what you do have.
That is true what you mentioned: we, people, often think - if I just had THAT car, THOSE money, THAT hair, THAT family - then (oh, yes, then!) I would be happy!..
Nonetheless, in my opinion, it will never be true. People are very peculiar creatures. They can always find a reason to complain, even when everything is perfect! I believe it is always the case because people themselves aren't perfect.
In any case, as Abraham Lincoln said, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

The Engineer said...

Yekaterina ... "I am what I choose to become." What a positive mantra for one's life.