The “I” of (Un)Happiness ~ is our increasing knowledge making us happier?

What do the Happiness Experts tell us? 

And is their knowledge helping us to become happier?

 ~ a weave of thoughts & writings ~

made and then re-made as a keynote presentation for

Critical Incident, Brighton

17th June 2012

We can be happy

We will be happy

We should be happy

We have the right to be happy

But how to capture this happiness is a problem that continues to elude us.

Has any one us managed to find the perfect formula yet, I wonder?

There are no shortage of candidates who want to tell us that they have. But staying happy seems to stay beyond our reach despite the barrage of answers now available to us from philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, psychologists, therapists, neuroscientists, economists, politicians, our own circle of family and friends and, of course, the advertisers.

Here is one of the more robust formulae out there:

Happiness = S (50%) + C (8%) + V (42%)

S is the Set Point that geneticists are now telling us we inherit in our genes.  Research now says that we each have a default level of happiness that, despite what happens to us or what we do, we will return to.  In a now famous study, a group of people who won the lottery were studied alongside another group of people who lost the use of their legs in a road accident, and within a year every one of them, new millionaires and new paraplegics, had returned to the same level of happiness that they had before their event.

So 50% of our happiness is already set by our genetic makeup and there is nothing we can do to affect it.  Add to this the ONLY 8% that comes from our current Circumstances – our wealth, health, and freedom from physical or psychological suffering.

This leaves a further 42% of our happiness that is down to our own free Voluntary individual choices.

And so, as it seems that this very large part of our happiness is in our own hands, the question for each us is:

what exactly should I be doing and paying attention to?

If we want to think seriously about happiness, it is helpful to consider the enormous knowledge we inherit from the past thinkers – vital clues into the ways we pursue happiness today …

Rewind all the way back to the 5th century BC …

In ‘The History,’ the very first written history of Western civilization, Herodotus tells us the story of King Croesus, the richest man alive, who wants to know if he is also the happiest man in the land.  Solon, the wisest and most travelled man around, tells him “no, he cannot possibly be,” because he, like any of us who is still alive, is at constant risk of whatever ill fortune the gods may throw. And in fact soon after this Croesus’ son is killed in a freak accident, his kingdom is destroyed by the invading Persian armies, and he only barely avoids death by execution. 

The message is clear:

Happiness is what happens to us, and over that we have no control.”  

From this point on much and great thinking goes into trying to lift us from this unacceptable position – to grab back our individual free will over our happiness despite whatever fortune may make for us

Socrates, refusing to accept that our happiness is down to luck, gives us our very first formula: happiness will be found at the top of his 5-Step Ladder, “climbing from the love of one person to the love of two; from two to love of all physical beauty; from physical beauty to beauty in human behaviour; to arrive finally to understand what pure beauty is… That, if ever, is the moment when life is worth living.”

Plato extends these ideas and tells us that through self-control the lover of wisdom can ensure the “better elements of the mind” and so ensure a life lived in “happiness and harmony.”

Then comes Aristotle, who advises us that to find true happiness we must temper our behaviour between extremes, seeking always the middle way and cultivating virtuous habits such as “moderation, gentleness, modesty and friendliness,” controlling our desires through rational restraint.  Our highest happiness, he tells us, can only come through a life of pure contemplation.

By 300 BC we have the two giant philosophies from the Epicureans and the Stoics, both determined that fortune and fate are ours to control and that happiness can be made for ourselves even when we have nothing else, if we realise that the person who “is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.”

Epicures assures us that we will have happiness by following our natural instincts to “minimise bodily pain and mental anguish for ourselves and others,Rather than fight against nature in the search for happiness on high, we should accede to its power… our own nature will lead us to our destination.

But “no no” say Zeno and the Stoics, our happiness depends upon bringing our individual natures into harmony with nature as a whole, by living a virtuous life and ordering our lives in keeping with the order of the world.  All secondary goods – riches, honour, status and beauty – are irrelevant.  “The happy person is content with their present lot, no matter what that is.”

And here we are caught, like Hercules at the Crossroads, facing the need to choose between the seductive path of pleasure, or the more difficult path of living virtuously.

“Do I find happiness better by following the appetites of my nature and listening to my heart, or does my happiness better depend upon studying and following the directives of the Happiness Experts and keeping to a more careful deliberate plan of living?”  

Will we follow the guidance of the experts and live a virtuous life with its promise of bringing us fuller, longer lasting happiness, when this means sacrificing the more immediate experiential pleasures of happiness that our human bodies are pre-programmed to want?

Fast forward now through all the centuries when the different religions maintained that happiness in this life was not even an option, and that the best we could hope for was to live a completely virtuous life that would get us our ticket to perpetual happiness after death in Paradise.

Fast forward to the 18th Century and the Age of Enlightenment when science arrives to renew our guarantee that we can have happiness in this life.  That, in fact, it is our birthright – as the American Declaration of Independence has enshrined and ever more of us lay claim to, our undeniable Rights to

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…  

And so to today, where we now believe that it is not only the right of every single one of us to be happy, but that if we are not happy there is something seriously wrong – with the system, with the government, with the world, with society, with the people around us or – maybe most likely of all these days – with ourselves.  

Despite all of the knowledge and wisdom we have accumulated through our history and in exponential abundance as we progress ourselves through this new century, and

Despite the fact that, in the western world, we now enjoy unprecedented levels of security, wealth, disposable income, health, long life expectancy …

              we are no happier today than we were in the 1950’s


              depression is set to become the second highest illness on the planet after heart disease.

These days it seems there are not just the two different paths Hercules faced, but hundreds we have to choose from.  Some of the finest minds alive today are working to try and persuade us with their formula for perfect happiness, and in all the noise they are making, just which expert advice should we really be listening to and following?

Here is just a very small sample of what contemporary writers want us to hear >>>

The purpose of life is happiness.

Happiness is determined more by a state of one’s own mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances or events – at least once one’s basic survival needs are met. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.

The key to happiness is in our own hands. [i]

Philosophers, commentators and religious leaders have been arguing for millennia about what happiness actually is.  Is it an end in itself or a by-product of what you do?  Does it disappear if you focus on it?  Is it a part of who you are, what you do, or where you find yourself in life? 

Is about the journey and the goal, as Aristotle says, or the high points on the way, as Epicureans argue?  Or perhaps it’s using reasoning to overcome negative emotions like the Stoics believed?  Maybe it’s the more Buddhist way of detaching and getting over it? 

There is one thing that happiness at work absolutely isn’t.  It isn’t about always smiling and being in a permanently sunny mood… And it’s not something you do on your own, you need others to help you achieve it. [ii]  

How do I determine whether I am happy or not?  At what point do I become happy?  Is there some universal standard of happiness, and, if there is, how do I identify it?  Does it depend on my own happiness relative to others, and, if it does, how do I gauge how happy other people are? 

There is no reliable way to answer these questions, and even if there were, I would not be happier for it. [iii]

Five Ways to Personal Wellbeing:


Be Active…

Take Notice…

Keep Learning…

Give… [iv]

You want something because you think it will make you happy, and maybe it does, briefly.  But then the new thing loses its shine, and you revert to your earlier less happy state.  This is the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ and we all seem to be trapped on it. [v]

True happiness, lasting happiness, can be achieved through a process known as Self-Actualisation. 

This is a natural state and within the reach of all human beings… Peak experiences, in Maslow’s words, are “Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder, and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable has happened … the sense of self dissolves into an awareness of one’s greater unity…. [vi]

Happiness shapes what coheres as a world. 

In describing happiness as a form of world making I am indebted to the work of black, feminist and queer scholars who have shown in different ways how happiness is used to justify oppression. Feminist critiques of the figure of “the happy housewife,” black critiques of the myth of “the happy slave,” and the queer critiques of the sentimentalisation of heterosexuality as “domestic bliss” have taught me most about happiness and the very terms of its appeal.  [vii]

Rule 1 – Stop feeling sorry for yourself

Rule 2 – Be grateful

Rule 3 – Say Yes more

Rule 4 – Follow your bliss

Rule 5 – Learn to   Let Go

Rule 6 – Do random acts of kindness [viii]

Polls over the years have shown that 82% of us have “experienced the beauty of nature in a deeply moving way”…

This is a surprising number, given that we’re generally held, ever since the industrial revolution, to be rushed off our feet and out of touch with our emotions.  Wilderness experiences seem to slice though all of that…  Elemental landscapes drive home how tiny we are, and how powerless.  On the other hand, any encounter with nature, even a two-mile stroll, requires self-reliance and demands that you take responsibility for what you control…

Sometimes it’s helpful to be jolted into remembering that most things we worry about seem absurd a few weeks later.  There’s a sort of serenity, too, in realising that even the greatest calamities wont mean much in 100 years time. [ix]

Lesson Number 7 –

It is a mistake to think that happiness is the destination. [x]

Work can make you sick and work can make you happy.  Which one depends on who you are, what you do and how you are treated at work. 

Work that is rewarding, involving good relationships with colleagues and opportunities to feel a sense of achievement on a regular basis is a key factor in psychological wellbeing. 

Dull and monotonous work, difficult relationships with others and work that is impossibly demanding or lacks meaning damages resilience, psychological wellbeing and physical health. [xi]

I have been part of a tectonic upheaval in psychology called positive psychology, a scientific and professional movement.  I have urged psychology to supplement its venerable goal of relieving misery with a new goal: exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living…

Positive psychology makes people happier.  Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapist, parenting little kids with positive psychology, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all make people happier.  The people who work in positive psychology are the people with the highest wellbeing I have ever known. [xii]

Subjective wellbeing is expressed in the following formula:

Satisfaction with Life

+ Positive Emotion

– Negative Emotion [xiii]

It has been said that a single butterfly flapping its wings can create a hurricane halfway round the world…  Each one of us is like that butterfly.  And each tiny move toward a more positive mindset can send ripples of positivity through our organisations, our families and our communities… By making changes within ourselves, we can actually bring the benefit of the Happiness Advantage to our teams, our organisations and everyone around us. [xiv]  

We have seen how the coaches and gurus dismiss real-world problems as “excuses” for failure and how positive psychologists have tended to minimise the “C” for Circumstances in their happiness equation.  It’s true that subjective factors like determination are critical to survival and that individuals sometimes triumph over nightmarish levels of adversity.  But mind does not automatically prevail over matter, and to ignore the role of difficult circumstances – or worse, attribute them to our own thoughts – is to slide toward a kind of depraved smugness… 

That happiness is not the inevitable outcome of happy circumstances does not mean that we can find it by journeying inward to revise our thoughts and feelings.  The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. [xv]  

The 6th Fact about positivity is that, through their own efforts, people can raise their positivity ratios and tip themselves up from languishing to flourishing. 

You have more control over this than you realise. [xvi]

The central idea of our movement is the personal commitment by its members to create more happiness in the world and less misery.  This applies to how they lead their lives at home, at work, as citizens.  The key idea is that, for society to be happy, individuals must derive much of their happiness from helping others… 

Now more than ever, people are asking: Do we want a society that relies so heavily on self-interest rather than on commitment to the welfare of others? 

Social trends are not always unidirectional, and this could be a turning point.  We can surely hope that in tomorrow’s world we shall do better at liberating and satisfying our better selves. [xvii]

Misguided hopes for future happiness still play a central role in fanning many of the most debilitating practices of violence and fraud and exploitation world-wide – not only happiness that might come from boundless wealth and power, but also that of serving a patriotic or religious cause…  Such death-dealing conceptions of happiness shed unexpected light on ordinarily benign injunctions such as “Follow your bliss.”  In this harsher light, Jonathan Swift’s caustic definition takes on new meaning: “Happiness [he said] is the Possession of being Ill Deceived; the Serene Peaceful State of being a Fool among Knaves.” [xviii]

The focus on extreme individualism has not in the main made for happier individuals. 

And millions of unhappy individuals make for an unhappy nation, and unhappy nations make for an unhappy world. [xix]

Happiness requires changing yourself and changing your world. 

It requires pursuing your own goals and fitting in with others… 

Each culture develops expertise in some aspects of human existence, but no culture can be expert in all aspects…  Liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimisation, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition and sacredness…

A good place to start looking for wisdom is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents… 

By drawing on wisdom that is balanced – ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative – we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning. 

We can’t simply select a destination and walk there directly…  But by drawing on humanity’s greatest ideas and best science, we can know our possibilities as well as our limits, and live wisely. [xx]  

How can we know whether we are happy?  Who sets the norm?  Why do we have to be happy, why does this recommendation take the form of an imperative?  And what shall we reply to those who pathetically reply “I can’t.”

In short, this privilege quickly becomes a burden: seeing ourselves as solely responsible for our dreams and our successes, we find that the happiness we desire so much recedes before us as we pursue it… we experience its promise not as a blessing but as a debt owed to a faceless divinity whom we will never be able to repay…

We now have every right except the right not to be blissful. [xxi]  

In societies that value happiness in all things, will we really decree that others must be “victims” of the fate of their genes?  Given the present cultural mood, this seems unlikely. 

But when, and if, human beings decide to take the fateful step of actually manipulating our genes in the quest to live as gods, they should know that in doing so, they will be leaving a piece of their humanity behind…

There are certain things that human beings will never know – certain riddles they will never answer – if they are to remain mere mortals.  The holy grail of perfect happiness is one of those things, and like that precious mythic relic, it, too, may exist only in our minds, a deliverance cup and a chalice to hold our pain.  To take that cup – to answer the riddle, to break the spell – would be to sacrifice something of ourselves.  We may discover that the knights who dare to do so are less like the brave crusaders or lore than like Cervantes’ knight of sad countenance, Quixote, who learns at the end of his journey that the road is better than the arrival. [xxii]

The crisis in happiness works primarily as a narrative of disappointment: the accumulation of wealth has not meant the accumulation of happiness.  What makes this crisis “a crisis” in the first place is of course the regulatory effect of a social belief: that more wealth “should” make people happier. [xxiii]  

We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which they can aspire. 

Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, “How can I become happier?”  This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point. 

I am happier today than I was five years ago, and I hope to be happier five years from now than I am today. 

Rather than feeling despondent because we have not yet reached the point of perfect happiness, rather than squandering our energies trying to gauge how happy we are, we need to recognise that happiness is an unlimited resource and then focus on ways in which we can attain more of it. 

Becoming happier is a lifelong pursuit. [xxiv]

When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will.  When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognise how we will think about things that happen later… 

There is no simple formula for finding happiness. 

But if our great big brains do not allow us to go sure-footedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble. [xxv]

Can we be happy?

Will we be happy?

Should we be happy?

Have we the right to be happy?


Our quest continues…



[i]  His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The Art of Happiness At Work
[ii] Jessica Pryce-Jones: Happiness At Work Maximising Your Psychological Capital for Success
[iii] Tal Ben-Shahar: Happier: Can You Learn To Be Happy?
[iv] Nic Marks: The Happiness Manifesto
[v] Oliver Burkeman: Help How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done
[vi] David Tuffey: Being Happy
[vii] Sara Ahmed: The Promise of Happiness
[viii] Karl Moore: The 18 Rules of Happiness
[ix] Oliver Burkeman: Help How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done
[x] Francois Lelord: Hector and the Search for Happiness
[xi] Cary Cooper & Ivan Robertson: Well-Being Productivity & Happiness At Work
[xii] Martin Seligman: Flourish A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing and How To Achieve Them
[xiii] Bridget Grenville-Cleave: Positive Psychology- Introducing a Practical Guide
[xiv] Shawn Achor: The Happiness Advantage The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance At Work
[xv] Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile Or Die How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
[xvi] Barbara Fredrickson: Positivity Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive
[xvii] Richard Layard: Happiness Lessons From A New Science
[xviii] Sissela Bok: Exploring Happiness From Aristotle to Brain Science
[xix] Alistair Campbell: The Happy Depressive
[xx] Jonathan Haidt: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science
[xxi] Pascal Bruckner: Perpetual Euphoria On the Duty to be Happy
[xxii] Darrin McMahon: The Pursuit of Happiness A History from the Greeks to the Present
[xxiii] Sara Ahmed: The Promise of Happiness
[xxiv] Tal Ben-Shahar: Happier: Can You Learn To Be Happy?
[xxv] Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness

4 thoughts on “The “I” of (Un)Happiness ~ is our increasing knowledge making us happier?

  1. Pingback: The “I” of (Un)Happiness ~ is our increasing knowledge making us … | Life And Happiness

  2. Pingback: Happiness At Work ~ edition one | performance~marks

  3. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyhow, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it
    and checking back often!

    • Thank you Madge for your interest and your lovely comments.
      I will try and make sure there is something new for you to come back and see before the month has run itself out…
      Good luck with everything you are making and making happen…

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