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Happiness, Laughter, And Why We’re So Often Sad

November 15, 2008

Tonight I’m going to take some time and talk about the psychological mechanisms of happiness, laughter, and sadness.  This is not a cheery article, and contains some dark aspects of life which most people cannot handle without a very mature mind.  So keep that in mind, and read at your own risk.  This article is kind of like the Matrix, where Morpheus offers Neo the pill.  I only offer you the truth, but I don’t guarantee you’ll like what you find out.

So what is happiness?  To most of us, this consists in feeling good, laughing, and smiling – a general enjoyment of life, looking forward to tomorrow, and the joys of the present moment.  Oftentimes when we’re feeling good, out with friends and good company, there is a lot of laughter.  Happiness and laughter seem to go hand in hand, and are so often associated together.

I’m going to break down what actually happens in our brains, and how the reward chemcials are released, and when.  Once you learn how things really operate in the mind, you’ll view the entire subject differently.

First let’s discuss the main problems of happiness, then we’ll move into the causes into why we feel good, and the mechanism of laughter.  I think Sigmund Freud takes a good position on happiness in his book Civilization and Its Discontents:

“We will turn, therefore, to the less ambitious problem:  what the behaviour of men themselves reveals as to the purpose and object of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to attain in it.  The answer to this can hardly be in doubt: they seek happiness, they want to become happy and to remain so.  There are two sides to this striving, a positive and a negative; it aims on the one hand at eliminating pain and discomfort, on the other at the experience of intense pleasures.  In its narrower sense, the word happiness relates only to the last.  Thus human activities branch off in two directions — corresponding to this double goal — according to which of the two they aim at realizing, either predominately or even exclusively.
As we see, it is simply the pleasure-principle which draws up the programme of life’s purpose.  This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the very beginning; there can be no doubt about its efficiency, and yet its programme is in conflict with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm.  It simply cannot be put into execution, the whole constitution of things runs counter to it; one might say the intention that man should be happy is not included in the scheme of Creation.  What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisifaction — most often instantaneous — of pent-up needs which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience.  When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted, it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves.  Our possibilities of happiness are thus limited from the start by our very constitution.  It is much less difficult to be unhappy.  Suffering comes from three quarters: from our own body, which is destined to decay and dissolution, and cannot even dispense with anxiety and pain as danger-signals; from the outer world, which can rage against us with the most powerful and pitiless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations with other men.  The unhappiness which has this last origin we find perhaps more painful than any other; we tend to regard it more or less as a gratuitious addition, although it cannot be any less an inevitable fate than the suffering that proceeds from other sources.”

Basically, in that short blurb, Freud has summed up the entire mental process of happiness and sadness.  It might help if I elaborate on what he said.

In short, we have desires – things we want out of life.  If the goals are small, and we achieve those goals, we feel a mild happiness.  If the goals are large, and we accomplish them, we feel a great intense joy.  If we fail and come short of these goals, we feel sad.

Happiness is a set of reward chemicals shot off in the brain at different times.  All kinds of things fire off these chemicals.  When you’re hungry and eat something, reward chemicals fire off.  Whenever you use the bathroom, reward chemicals fire off.  When you have sex, or masturbate, reward chemicals are fired off.  When you see a nice looking member of the opposite sex, etc.  Most of them revolve around maintaining your existence (staying alive), and reproducing.  If you did not have these chemicals firing off, you would be a robot.

Imagine you’re writing an AI algorithm for the software “brain” of a robot.  If you did not program in for the robot to “care” about itself, it wouldn’t care if its arm got ripped off, or even if it destroyed itself.  It wouldn’t care if it lived, or died.  It wouldn’t care if it had power to recharge itself.  It wouldn’t prefer one environment to another  (no sense of beauty).  You get the idea.  These reward chemicals that exist within us are what make us alive,  yet at the same time they are complicated, which is why it can be so difficult to be happy, and so easy to be sad.

Our bodies have evolved over a long period of time, and for the most part, they’re just barely holding on to life as it is.  Everytime I look in the mirror, I ponder how crazy it is.  Our bodies are so fragile.  We’re susceptible to so many diseases, starvation, malnutrition, wild animals, natural disasters, and the list goes on.  There’s weather – scorching heat, and freezing cold – and our need for clothing and shelter.  When you study the anatomy of the body, you find its a thin bag of water with a skelton, with some tiny nerve wires running through it which conduct electricity.  Our power source is from eating plant life, and the plants get their energy from the sun.  The energy we get from eating other animals and life comes indirectly from the sun, because those animals ate plant life (at least somewhere down the food chain), which is where they got energy.  Our bodies conduct this energy from plants sloppily, and it allows us to move around for short periods of time, before we need to eat again.

It doesn’t take long for us to die.  We can die literally in less than a week without food and water.  A lot of us in just a couple days.  If you’d rather see that expressed in hours, that’s just 70 or so hours.

These reward chemicals of ours keep us alive.  If you need food, they’re going to put you through intense pain and discomfort until you find the body some more energy.  If you’re bleeding and injured, pain nerves are going to be shooting off, telling you to take care of the injury.  If your body is in temperatures too hot or cold for it to endure without putting your body at jeopardy, chemicals start firing off telling you to find some shelter, clothing, etc.

The more you study the body, the more you’ll find it’s a rather slopped together mess.  There are nerve wires which run down to sections of the body (such as our ancestral tail), which no longer function.  There are bodily organs which serve absolutely no purpose at all, left over from periods of evolution when they used to have a purpose.  Our teeth rot out if we don’t brush them everyday.  We stink, producing nasty bacteria under our arms which smells disgusting.  Our skin naturally is grimy and oily, and if we don’t shower, absolutely disgusting.  Our insides are literally filled with shit – the same stuff that comes out when you use the bathroom.  If you don’t believe me, just go hunting and skin a deer or something.  It’s unbelievable.  We age at a very fast rate, and just as our brains start to figure out the world and get a little comfort, we start having health issues and die.  The insides of our cells do all these weird, oftentimes unnecessary processes.   When I was reading some books by James Watson on DNA, I sat back amazed at how sloppy everything was.  I’ll stop talking about our bodies now.

I didn’t say all this to discourage anyone, though it’s definitely something to think about.  I wanted to make a point that life is not easy, and that our bodies are not the most well constructed things out there.

So to make a point:  Why are we so often sad?  1) We’re barely holding on to life as it is, and our reward chemicals know this, and know that there’s no time to sit around.  Our species has survived because these chemicals have situated themselves in this manner, making us uncomfortable and moving in ways which have kept us alive.  2) Our bodies are created almost at random by evolutionary processes, most likely by forces which don’t care about our happiness or feelings.

These reward chemicals would make sense to you if you were to go back and view mankind 20,000 years ago, but to us living today, they seem a bit strange.  We’ve solved some of the problems that we were facing technologically, and have overcome many obstacles, yet our physical constitution is still as primitive as it was back then.  The human body is the same as its been for a long time, and besides a few vaccinations, little to nothing has been changed.  That’s why sometimes we sit around and feel empty, lonely, bored, etc., yet do not seem to have any good rational reason to be so.  That’s just those old chemicals firing off in ways that don’t make sense for a modern life.

Take boredom.  We work in an office all day long, but our bodies want to go out there and hunt things.  Most men want to kill, destroy, and bring back some food for the women.  We want to ride a horse and chase buffalo.  Sitting in that office chair, we think, “Man, there has to be more to life.”  Even in intelligent men, when you psychoanalyze them using depth psychology, you find those violent instincts are still in there, but they’re just sublimated into different areas of life.

All the heroes in the movies are saving distressed women.  Where do you think this comes from?  It’s old instincts.  In the past, women used to be attacked by animals, and the stronger male had to defend her by fighting.  That’s why young women like athletes, because instinctually women are wired to desire a man who is in good physical condition, so he can defend her and hunt food for her.  This doesn’t make sense in a modern world, as a rich fat man with money could take better care of her than some mindless jock, but the girl instinctually prefers the handsome (which is an indicator of health), muscular male.

Few children these days are actually breast fed, but men are still drawn to women by their breasts.  A woman with good healthy breasts can provide milk for the children.  They’re instinctually wired for this.

People confuse these instinctual things for the voice of God, calling us to serve Him.  “Of course there’s more to life!  Only God can fill the emptiness you feel!”  No, it has nothing to do with God.  It’s a complex situation which they do not understand.  It’s just an imbalance of chemicals, and your body being placed in modern society, yet your instincts being wired for a much more primitive time.

I find it interesting when I play video games, especially role playing games.  Of all the things we could make a video game do, what is every video game filled with?  Violence.  In RPGs all you do is hunt animals and other strange creatures, kill them, and take back their pelts and other loot back to your base or to town.  It’s like a modern version of the old Indians you read about in the history books.

Now we come to sexual frustrations.  Humanity has not been civilized for very long.  For most of our existence we were running around the plains and forests, chasing animals with spears.  We were a sparse race, and our sexual chemicals were designed with this in mind.  When a man saw a woman, he took her some food, had sex with her, and had kids.  There was so much death, and since neither of them survived for long, it was important that men had sex with as many women as possible, in order to produce children.  This is where our sex drive comes from.

Our old sex drive instincts don’t go well with modern society, which is why its so difficult to make a love life work.  Nowadays its about monogamous relationships, yet our anatomy is designed for a different lifestyle.  Take the male penis for instance.  When a man has sex with a woman, his penis is designed in such a fashion that it scoops out the sperm from other males.  80% of all sperm within the female is destroyed just by a few thrusts of the male.  Many women wonder why men lose interest in them after coitus.  This is an evolutionary thing, so that the sperm the man just injected into the woman will not be destroyed by his own thrusting.

But this isn’t all there is to humanity.  We have developed a pretty powerful mind, and this has a lot to do with our happiness and sadness as well.  One aspect of our minds is an unconscious comparison mechanism, which tells us how good we’re doing, relative either to its own unconscious standards, or standards we’ve imposed on ourselves with our beliefs.  This same system is also the root cause of humor, wit, and associate pleasure.

Let’s say you go to knit a scarf.  You’ve been knitting for a while, and say you’ve become pretty good.  Then say a newcomer comes and you see that person struggling to do the same task you do easily.  Then you feel good.  Why do you feel good?  Your mind has unconsciously compared how much effort it would take you to do the same task, and you could have done it much easier.  Your mind sees how much energy they used to do the task, and how much energy you would have used to do the same thing (automatically happens in your unconscious imagination), and the two are subtracted.  If you have energy left-over, the excess energy is spilled over in such a way that feels really good, with reward chemicals being shot off.  If the energy is a lot, this may come out as laughter.  If there’s only a little left over, it may be a subtle smile.

Now another person comes along who is a way better knitter than yourself.  This person makes you look like a novice.  Then you feel “intimidated”, and maybe even anxiety.  This is because you’ve compared the energy you would have used, and the energy the expert used, and you used a lot more.  You have work to do!  So your mind punishes you, and makes you feel inferior.

An expert in something is always someone who can do a complex task, with little effort.  That’s the meaning of an expert.  All experts can do a task as easy as possible – in other words, they use the least amount of energy to get the job done.  This is an evolutionary thing which has developed and our minds utilize.  It makes us feel good when we’re doing good, and feel bad when we’re not doing good.

Wit works very similarly.  Witty people are able to use very few words to communicate complex subjects.  You’ll notice that all wit is rooted in how pithy the statement is  (has to be short).  This is due to how our minds associate words together, their psychic intensities, and the dynamics of speaking.  Different concepts are charged with different intensities in the mind.  To create wit, one must quickly jump from one topic to the next with very few words, therefore leaving a spill over of psychic energy, which the mind releases in the form of humor.  Also, wit oftentimes takes advantage of repressed issues in our minds, and by dancing around thought associations, can relieve various repressed things which have been built up, and relieve the built up energy, while at the same time getting around our moral censors.  Comedians use this all the time, when their jokes indirectly reference and talk about taboo subjects, such as making fun of people we don’t think we should make fun of, or subjects such as sex, which have so many taboos.

Take sex jokes for instance.  If you don’t have any repressed issues regarding sexuality, then jokes or wit about the subject will not work as well on you.  One time I was with a group of nerds, and they kept making jokes about sex.  They’d say things like, “Your balls”, “My ass”, and they would make everything said into some sort of sexual innuendo.  Everything said was some sort of sexual reference.

This sort of thing has one of two causes.  One, these individuals never have any sexual experiences, and have pent-up sexual needs.  Or two, they use these sexual references to arouse the opposite sex members that are in the company.  With the pent-up needs, the indirect references are a way of letting out both anxiety, and sexual energy which is repressed.  To come right out and say, “You’re a loser, you never have sex”, would be too direct, and would be fought off by their conscious censor.  If that kind of thing was said, they’d probably snap back at the person who said it.  But to indirectly reference sex by using this crude wit let’s them let out some steam.

Another instance of this was when I was network administrator for a company.  I remember I’d go into some of the offices, and I’d see these signs up on the wall that’d say, “Bang head here”, and it’d have a big circle.  These are indirect ways of letting off steam.  There’s something worth noting here.  People who love their job do not have things like that on their wall – it’s the people who do not like thier job.  They wish to scream, “I hate this place”, but they cannot do it, but they can let off some steam by indirectly stating it in jokes like these.  I rarely see this sort of thing going on in highly respectable people’s offices, or people who think very highly of their job.  Such individuals normally have plaques on the wall of their educational degrees, awards, and other accomplishments.  The lower-end office staff hate their jobs, and have pent-up hatred for work, but cannot say it to the boss, because they’d get in trouble.  People without such pent-up aggression do not find such jokes even funny, and if they do not understand this psychological concept, find it strange that someone would put a picture of a circle on the wall, and bang their head on it.

Now in the company of successful people, a person less successful will feel intimidated.  They feel as if they don’t fit in.  This is due to the fact that unconsciously, they feel they have not accomplished as much, even though they may have had the same available amount of time.  But this isn’t always the case.  A young man may be a protege to a successful older business man, and he feels like he fits it, even though his master can perform the same tasks much better than he can.  How can this be?  This is due to the fact that the young man feels he is just as accomplished as his master if he compares himself to his teacher in respect to how much time it has taken him to get where he is, versus how much time it took his master.  If he’s doing just as well, or better, then he will feel as if he is an equal with his master.  If he’s progressing much quicker than his master did, he will feel superior, and think he has greater natural talent and abilities.

Of course, like most things with the human body, this unconscious comparison mechanism of the mind, though it seems to have evolved for simple situations to help us know when we’re doing well, and not doing well, is not full-proof.  Some people are really quite gifted, but due to psychogical issues such as inferiority complexes, they feel they are not doing well at all.  Beautiful women sometimes think they are ugly.  Intelligent people with good minds get depressed and think they are stupid.  On the opposite side of the specturum, sometimes people think they’re doing better than they really are.  People get arrogant and think they’re better than others, and their own arrogance destroys them.  Emotionally speaking, the only reality that exists is the one you believe in.  If you BELIEVE you are ugly and worthless, then that is how you will feel, regardless of how beautiful and talented you really are.  If you’re arrogant, you’ll go around FEELING like you’re a champion and can defeat anyone, but in reality you’re under a delusion.

What’s dangerous about the emotional life compared to reality, is that if the two are not in proper sync, you may try to take on something you’re not ready for, or not accomplish as much as you have the potential to accomplish.  Greg and I know a business man who went to some seminars and came out of them thinking, “Yeahhhh!  I can do anything!”  He then tried to rapidly expand his business, ended up failing, and felt worse off than he started.  He even ended up ruining some valuable business relationships.  Emotionally, after the seminar, there’s no doubt he felt great.  He really did think he could do anything.  But emotions are one thing, reality is another.

Now we come to goal setting.  We all know we feel good when we accomplish the goals we set for ourselves, and feel bad when we fail at them.  This works under the same principle.  At first we set a goal for ourselves and in our minds we estimate the amount of energy required to accomplish the goal.  We then set out to do the goal, and our mind compares how much energy we’re using against this imaginary energy budget we ourselves created in our minds.  If we’re left over with excess energy, we feel good, and end the job with a smile on our face.  If we end up coming short, we feel depressed and angry.

This is why having realistic expectations is so key to emotional health.  If you underestimate each task in front of you, you will always be unhappy.  What’s even more crazy about this situation is that you’re creating your own misery, because you yourself created this energy budget.  You tell yourself, “I’ll get this room cleaned this afternoon”, then it takes you three days, and you feel awful.  On the opposite side, if you would have got the same job done in 30 minutes, yet thought it’d take you all afternoon, you would have finished the job grinning ear to ear.

So one of the key components of being consistently happy is to have continual small goals, and realistic time-frames set for them, and to be continually beating your expectations.

Also with goals, if we have something we’ve been working on for a long long time, and have been suffering great difficulty trying to accomplish something, then finally are able to do it, we feel great joy.

To recap goals then, to feel mildly happy all the time, you must have lots of small goals and be accomplishing them.  In order to feel very happy, you must suffer a great deal, then finally, after a long arduous period of pain, finally break through and accomplish your goal.

This runs into problems.  Small goals with “realistic expectations” are tricky, because you know your own abilities.  You cannot lie to yourself.  You cannot tell yourself, “I’ll get this room clean after a month”, when you know you could do it in an hour, and still feel good about yourself.  To feel good about small goals, you REALLY DO have to outperform your own expectations, and beliefs.  That isn’t always easy.  On the other hand, to feel great happiness, you have to first suffer a great deal, which isn’t very inviting.

In other words, it’s almost impossible to feel happy all the time, because it’s impossible to know how hard various goals are going to be, and even if you DID know, then you wouldn’t feel happy about it, because you have to outperform your goals to feel happy.  If you only accomplish your goals on time, then to feel happy you must be comparing yourself to some standard, and feel yourself growing relative to it.  You might be comparing yourself to your family members, and telling yourself that you’re doing much better than they are.  Or maybe you’re comparing yourself to friends, your past self, etc.

You have to be careful about who you compare yourself to.  Christians make themselves miserable by comparing themselves to a perfect moral authority, who imposes rules on them which are unnatural.  Young Christian men feel they are horrible people because they have a desire to have sex with their girlfriend.  “Impure thoughts, impure thoughts!”  They continually come short, and beat themselves down.

Besides fighting our imbalanced instincts in modern society, our other battle for happiness is goal setting.  Set unrealistic goals and you’re unhappy because you come short of your own subjective mental energy budgets.  Set too easy goals, and you know that you could do better.  Then there’s the battle of comparing ourselves to all those we see around us.  There’s those who are more beautiful, get lucky breaks, make more money, etc., and we always feel like we’re short of them.

This brings me to an interesting note.  Though I’m not myself superstitious, Greg and I, a while back, decided to mess around with the I-Ching.  We asked it some questions, and then it gave us some answers.  The book told Greg that he’d be very rich, but unhappy.  It told me that I had great sucess coming my way, and happiness.  I’m not going to say this outcome will be true, because I don’t believe in such things, but I did think about it the other day.

Greg compares himself to others a lot, and sometimes I do as well, though not as much.  Oftentimes we refer to some business men we encounter as “real”, and others as “not real”.  Greg wants to grow in power, and seems more concerned about others image of himself.  This is where him and I have always differed.

I wondered about Greg’s mindset, and I noticed that he is dissatisified with his current situation, comparing it to where he wants to be, and rapidly striving to get there.  While he’s in the process of getting “to the top”, he’s unhappy, because he has to deal with crappy, low-end business men, who can’t make things happen.  Yet at the same time, when he gets to the top, he will not have anyone to compare to when he gets there, and because the work doesn’t seem to be about the work itself, but more so about the image other people have of him, he’ll be forced at this point to naturally compare downward, which is something he hates to do.  I’m not sure what the overall goal of this is, and I think recently he came to this conclusion himself.  He’s been developing his own ideas lately about “being in the moment”, and I think that will eventually lead him to figure out the flaws in his current mindset.  He’s led on to the idea in conversations we’ve had, talking about living in an “ivory penthouse”, yet being bored and unhappy, but at least he has tons of money.  I’ve figured that there’s no need to confront him about it, because he’s a smart guy, and it seems he’s found out the conclusions of the mindset himself.

The thing about comparing yourself with others, is that as you grow better and better, the opinion of others matters less and less.  If you suck in basketball, a high school basketball coach’s tips and compliments may mean a lot to you, but if you’re an NBA super-star, what a high school coach has to say will mean little.  Eventually you become so good that nobody’s opinion matters anymore, because the only person good enough to judge your quality is you.  There are people who enter such a state out of delusion, but others, like Einstein, reached this state by simply being so awesome nobody can even understand what them anymore.

My mindset doesn’t have these flaws.  I study science, and do not care what others think of me.  I just keep studying, and learning new things in a steady fashion, so I almost always feel good, at least when I’m doing my research.  My happiness in this revolves around continual growth, and I keep beating my old standard, which is simply the old Jason.  Even if I run out of science books, I still have my own research endeavors which it leads to.  There is no “top”, and there is no place that I exist within a current hierarchy.  I’m not competiting with anyone. I grow as a person, and become better, for me.

My current flaws though is my own denial of my more base instincts.  I’ve always tried to escape them.  I tell myself I don’t need a woman, or sex, but I do sometimes develop feelings toward girls I speak with a lot and admire, and would like to have an intimate relationship.  I tell myself it’s base, and unnecessary, and throws off my nice balance of research and solitary happiness, but this is the kink in my system.  My biological fate.

Maybe the I-Ching saw Greg and I’s current mindsets, and saw that mine eventually led to good things, and his, if he continued his current ways, led to unhappiness.  I do not know.

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