Happiness, joy and contentment: What makes us happy?

“Animals are born exploiters,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “They live off the hard-won energy stored in the body of plants and other animals by eating them” (p. 19).

Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, points out it’s not just animals who are exploiters; people do it, too. And it’s not just the strong people — weak people try to mimic the strong.

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority or deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence (p. 89).

But this is all a show. This “show of civility, even benevolence,” doesn’t make us happy.

We know that much of what makes us happy is anticipation of how we’ll feel about something. But what does make us happy?

In her book of the same name, Sonja Lyubomirsky debunks some myths of happiness.

Nearly all of us buy into … the myths of happiness — beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. This reductive understanding is culturally reinforced and continues to endure despite overwhelming evidence that our well-being does not operate according to such black-and-white principles (p. 1).

The things people tell us should make us happy? They don’t, necessarily. So again, what does make us happy?

Where have you been, where are you going?

“The pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting,” Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis(pp. 82-3). The idea really is to make what you want a moving target.

Let’s start first with where you’ve been. Lyubomirsky notes that “people who have experienced some adversity … are ultimately happier (and less distressed, traumatized, stressed, or impaired) than those who have experienced no adversity at all. Having a history of enduring several devastating moments ‘toughens us up’ and makes us better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas” (p. 3).

In other words, if you’ve been through some things, you’re ultimately happier.

Now, I don’t know if that just means the bar for happiness is lower for people who have struggled than it is for people who haven’t, or if it’s the perspective that struggle brings, or something else. For example, if you grew up a constant victim of domestic violence, any day that you didn’t get beat up might be a happy day for you; that’s just a normal day for everyone else.

Let’s say the low-bar argument is correct. What implications does that have for us in the modern Western world?

Pinker points out that the default state of the world throughout history is poverty, but that things are getting better.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth (p. 25).

“Here is a shocker,” he writes (emphasis his): “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it” (p. 52).

Think you’re smart? Take the Gapminder test. The world’s probably in better shape than you think. We were surprised over at JKWD.

“We are happier, in general,” Pinker writes, “when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual and loved” (p. 267).

So why do choose to spend our time battling it out on Facebook and Twitter? We’re addicted to the dopamine hit of likes and people agreeing with us.

Long before the advent of Twitter, Facebook, the Internet or even the personal computer, Rollo May wrote about happiness and our values in Man’s Search for Himself. More accurately, he wrote not about happiness, but one of its obverses: anxiety.

A shift in the values and goals of our society, he writes, is a central reason for anxiety (p. 28). Really, though, if you want to be happy, he writes, you have to live up to your own values.

On the deepest level, the question of which age we live in is irrelevant. The basic question is how the individual, in his own awareness of himself and the period he lives in, as able through his decisions to attain inner freedom and to live according to his own inner integrity” (p. 206).

Be true to yourself. Find a job that pays your bills and fits your values. Surround yourself with friends and family members who keep you safe but challenge you instead of allowing complacency. Simple to conceive of, but not easy to do. That’s a much higher bar for happiness than we used to have. Try new things, see how something else can make you feel happy, maybe the stress of your job or everyday life is getting to you, that type of stress can be damaging to the body and cause more problems for the future, some people in that position have turned to things like marijuana to help calm them and relax them to feel better or to get to sleep at night! Click here to read more about it and see what is out there, who knows it could be an alternative medicine for you.


“Set for yourself any goal you want,” Haidt writes. “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

This, again, goes back to our dopamine hits. “I hit a milestone! Yay! I hit another milestone! Yay! Oh, I reached my goal! Now what?”

James Victore addresses this in Feck Perfuction. He set himself a 15-year plan. When that 15-year period was up, he was far beyond his vision. Five years later, he was floundering, because he didn’t have any plan beyond his initial plan. It may be cliche to say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, but we should remember that the “destination” is just a stop along the way: we’re not done when we get there.

And remember this about goals: The universe, as a functioning entity, doesn’t care about your goals. We used to think it did, and then science came along — the Galileos and Newtons of the world — and discovered that things work systematically and predictably, and your goals have nothing to do with it.

“People have goals, of course,” writes Pinker, “but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness” (p. 24).

This doesn’t mean the spiritual side of the universe isn’t on your side. It doesn’t rule out the law of attraction. It means that you have to work within nature’s physical rules to capitalize on its spiritual rewards.

It is important, however, to set your goals to be your goals, or checkpoints along the path won’t mean anything to you. As May put it, we’re really good at articulating what society says we should want, not what we actually want.

From happiness to contentment and joy

Chade-Meng Tan was an engineer at Google. True to the company’s early style, he had an unusually job title — “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)” — and description: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

He started a little smaller than the world, creating a course at Google called “Search Inside Yourself,” then wrote a book by that name.

In Joy on Demand, he makes the case for meditation as a training mechanism for creating joy and thereby compassion, kindness and creativity, regardless of outside circumstances.

“People have a remarkable ability to adapt to both good and bad fortune,” he writes, “and that we each have a relatively stable level of happiness that we eventually return to even after major positive or negative life events” (pp. 3-4).

Lyubomirsky echoes that sentiment. “Which events are life changing, and in what ways, is often not immediately knowable” (p. 5). Beyond that, she writes, “instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change” (p. 3).

The same way that you can train yourself physically — start with light weights, get heavier, and eventually you’re strong, Tan writes, you can train mentally (p. 5), and part of that ability to train is the ability to train yourself to access joy (p. 3).

He proposes meditation as the training mechanism. Obviously, this is not a new mechanism, and it is not new as a path to happiness, joy, compassion, creativity and more.

“One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion,” he writes (p. 33).

But joy and its side effects also link to something like kindness and compassion, things that are going to be even more important as we move forward into an ever-more crowded world.

Compassion and kindness arise from inner peace and joy. Compassion is both the fruition and the multiplier of joy — another one of those cycles of goodness. In other words: joy makes you a kinder, more compassionate person, and kindness and compassion bring you more joy” (pp. 20-21).

Interesting notes on happiness

A few other items of interest popped up in the happiness research that aren’t worth separate posts but are definitely worth noting.

“Although it may appear that some” crisis points in our life “will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions” (Lyubomirsky, p. 2). If you’re not sure what that looks like, listen to our JKWD episode on response versus reaction.

A reaction often looks like anger; a response often looks like problem solving.

I was side-swiped while driving by a teenager a couple of years ago. I was driving in the left lane of a one-way street, and she took a left from the right lane. She didn’t know she was on a one-way street, and was looking in front of her to see if she was OK to turn, not behind her. We pulled over. I had some scraped paint; she had a small dent on her bumper, which was metal, being an older SUV. Nobody was hurt.

She was visibly shaken, on the verge of tears. I could have reacted by yelling at her for not knowing the rules of the road, not understanding where she was, not being careful enough with the privilege of driving — and with it, not only would I have ruined her day, but her self-confidence while out driving. Already that had taken a major blow, but I could have shattered the rest of it. Remember when you were first trusted to drive on your own? There was a sense of freedom with that, and I could have made her emotionally dependent on someone else to drive her around.

Instead, I calmly got out, made sure she wasn’t hurt, had her take her insurance paperwork out of the glove compartment, walked with her over to my car, got my insurance stuff out. We took photos of each other’s paperwork and exchanged phone numbers (it wouldn’t matter if she’d given me a fake number; I had her insurance information).

I made sure she felt OK about driving the rest of the way to her destination, and we went our separate ways.

That’s the difference between reacting and responding, and making the right decision in that situation can turn a crisis point in your life into something that propels you toward happiness rather than something that sends you into a spiral.


In a paper called Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon (PDF), David Lykken and Auke Tellegen discover that where we come from — our parents, not our place of origin — is the biggest factor in our happiness. Half our happiness, they write, is associated with genetics. No other factors studied — socioeconomic status, education, income, religiosity, marital status, etc. — accounts for more than three percent of overall happiness.

Don’t let that give you any excuses for wallowing, however. Remember, as Tan shows, you can absolutely train yourself to overcome whatever you need to!


One more. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert addresses the language of ranking happiness.

The language-squishing hypothesis goes like this: We get the same exact feeling as someone else from an experience, yet describe it differently. For example, you describe your feeling of happiness when you have birthday cake as an “8” while I describe it as a “4” — you’re not necessarily objectively happier in rank order, we just describe the feeling differently (pp. 50-51).

Experience-stretching, on the other hand, is like this: We might mean the same thing when we say “8” and “4,” and I’vee had experiences that make birthday cake seem mundane, while birthday cake is at the top of your experience for happiness (pp. 54-55).


Hopefully, this series was at least somewhat instructive for you. Let us know if there’s an aspect of happiness you’d like to get deeper in on.


One thought on “Happiness, joy and contentment: What makes us happy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.