Happiness; You’re Doing It Wrong

The RoseVine by NSNRP
17 min readApr 16, 2020


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: these three things are guaranteed in the
Constitution of the United States of America as unalienable human rights, yet how does one actually pursue happiness? People all over the world search for happiness in money, in possessions, in nature, in faith, and even in other people. Howard Cutler and the Dali Lama show an interesting perspective on cultivating happiness in their essay “The Sources of Happiness,” which cites multiple sources of true happiness. While they write of peace in the mind and gentle responsiveness, none of their sources of happiness come from outside of the self. If happiness cannot be attained from the outside world, then what is happiness, and how can it be produced?

For starters, happiness cannot be defined because it has a different meaning for every person. Happy, a documentary directed by Roco Belic, tries to explain the puzzle that is finding happiness. The documentary begins by breaking down the differences of people’s happiness into a pie with three slices. This chart from the documentary shows that happiness is comprised of 50% genetics, or a person’s set point. It is comprised of 10% circumstance, like a lost job or socio-economic status, and the remaining 40% is comprised of personal choices, where people can affect their own level of happiness (Happy). Here, Belic illuminates that much of happiness is controlled by the self and one’s decisions. While, many people can control their thoughts and actions, there are also those with depression, who have little to no control over their happiness. Should there be a fourth slice of the pie for brain chemistry and function, or does that fall into genetics?

Happy teaches about a genetic set point of happiness, but the Dali Lama and Howard Cutler teach us about adaption, or the return to an original state, or baseline, of happiness after a life-changing event (Cutler and the Dalai Lama 22). This means that even those who have seen great death and horror, will, at some point, return to their original state of happiness. Adaption has been scientifically proven through case studies, and it shows that although people can go through life changing events, like winning a million dollars, the event will have little to no effect on their long-term happiness. This idea of how well “our spirits rebound” (Cutler and the Dali Lama 22), shows that happiness is a mental process that is automatic for some and cannot be achieved through short-term accomplishments or events. If someone deals with major depressive disorder, he or she may not have the ability to rebound to a normal level of happiness, and therefore, they cannot personally affect their happiness. This idea of adaptation emphasizes that material things and catastrophic events in fact do not and cannot make someone more or less happy than they were before. This theory of adaption also implies that happiness is not something people have control over.

Diving deeper into happiness, and how to control it, authors tend to say that to be happy is to not be sad, but authors like Mattieu Ricard, John Keats, and Eric Wilson write of a different notion. While there are those who believe happiness cannot be controlled, Mattieu Richard believes that people choose to be happy or unhappy. In his piece “The Art of Alchemy and Suffering,” Ricard writes that “one can suffer physically or mentally…without losing the sense of fulfillment that is founded on inner peace and selflessness” (39). Ricard believes that suffering does not have to destroy a person’s happiness, for the outside world should not be able to affect what is going on inside oneself. He believes that people choose to let things make them sad, distraught, or melancholic, and that happiness is found in those who are wise and aware. Here is another author referencing a stable inner self as the only way to attain true happiness.

Similar to Ricard, John Keats and Eric Wilson write about suffering and how it does not have to necessarily lead to unhappiness. The two authors connect melancholy and happiness through an intricate web of compare and contrast in their pieces written decades apart. The authors argue that although happiness and melancholy are on opposite ends of the spectrum, to have one you must also have the other. The authors argue that through life’s difficulties, where there is despair, depression, and melancholy, there is also happiness. In “Ode on Melancholy” Keats writes that happiness “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die 21” (265). He urges the readers to find happiness in the things and moments that, although fleeting, highlight the beauty of the cold and broken world. While Keats gives an answer as to why death is part of what makes happiness beautiful, Eric Wilson writes about how to treat unhappiness and bad events.

Similar to Keats, Eric Wilson writes about suffering and happiness in his essay called “Terrible Beauty”. In his analysis of John Keats and the poem “Ode on Melancholy”, Eric Wilson writes “that suffering and death are not aberrations to be cursed but necessary parts of a capacious life existence” (249). Wilson furthers Keats’ idea that through suffering comes, not from, but with happiness. Collectively, they believe that suffering is not bad. Keats and Wilson urge us to remember that death is imminent in all things, and by doing so they believe we will appreciate our lives and find happiness. The two authors show that although a person cannot control the bad experiences of life, a person might possibly be able to control their own level of happiness.
Although some authors like Keats and Wilson choose to find happiness in the darkness, Graham Hill finds happiness in “relationships, experiences, and meaningful work” (Hill 311). In “Living with A Lot Less” he writes of the unhappiness he had after scoring big by selling his internet companies. Hill eventually became depressed and burdened by an overcrowded and unhappy life. He found a new mantra while dating a girlfriend and learned that living with less is actually more. He learned “that the best things in life isn’t free stuff at all…” (Hill 311). When he learned this, he sold everything and started living with minimal material items and maximum personal experiences and conversations. Hill shows that he found his happiness by changing himself and his lifestyle (Hill 311). Here, he is saying that today’s society is blinded by material items, and that to find true happiness is to a live minimalistic lifestyle. Hill says he can control his happiness by changing his environment and the people around him, but wouldn’t the environment and the people be affecting his happiness not his decision to change the people and the environment? When Hill chooses to leave all of his expensive belongings and friends behind, he became happier. Therefore, his happiness is derived from his nature, or his environment and the things, people, and places around him. When Hill was feeling lost and depressed, he could not control his happiness, it seems as though he could only control the factors which can influence his happiness.

Ultimately, after seeing so many perspectives on happiness, where to find happiness, and how to stay happy, there are a multitude of unanswered questions. Do brain function and chemistry control happiness? Can people actually control their own happiness? Can pharmaceuticals actually help people create a higher set point for happiness? Do humans even make themselves happy, or is it all a façade? All of these questions have been asked for years and years and years. With all of the answers pretty much left up to an individual’s opinion, it is easy to wonder if happiness is tangible at all. If happiness is something that humans can actually obtain, or is it a standard that people are constantly looking up to?

To understand the answer to this question, one must first understand the history and definition of happiness. Happiness has been the subject of study and conversation for millennia. It is human nature to want to be happy, and yet there are so many people who miss the mark and claim to be unhappy every year. Tanya Lewis, a staff writer and contributor to LIVESCIENCE, an online news journal has been researching unhappy people for years. Recently, Lewis discovered that two-thirds of Americans are unhappy due to financial status, to work related issues, to a personal loss, or even to being a minority (1). Lewis points to an array of problems leading to the loss of happiness, but she does not help readers towards more happiness. Why is this? Why is happiness defined by ones’ money, job, and/or race? What is the true definition of happiness, and can it be controlled? To find the answers to these questions, one should look towards the philosophical, scientific, and psychological definitions of happiness.

To understand the control of happiness, one must first look to its definition. Per Stanford author and philosopher, Dan Haybron, philosophers believe in two types of happiness. Haybron says that there are philosophers who believe that happiness state of mind, and that it should be treated and researched as any other psychological state such as sadness, anger, fear (2). This viewpoint leads to studies with the brain and a lot of scientific answers. The second definition of happiness, which Haybron offers to the reader, qualifies a person’s happiness by whether their life is going well (2). Here, he shows that the two widely accepted philosophical definitions of happiness are either that happiness is found inside the mind, or that happiness is an accumulation of the events, past and present, of someone’s life. If the first is true, then happiness can be controlled by changing our perspectives or by adding therapy and medication. If the latter is true, then humans are doomed to run a never-ending race searching for something they cannot control. While there are multiple philosophical definitions for happiness, there are also scientific and psychological definitions for the term, as well.

Throughout history, academia has tried to define happiness with words, studies, and even art. When Helen Buckland was writing her dissertation on the happiness of young adults with schizophrenia, she searched for a baseline definition of happiness that could be held true across the board. Buckland found the true scientific definition to be, “the degree to which the overall quality of one’s own life as a whole is judged to be favorable and liked” (Buckland 28). This allows for happiness to be quantified and measured. Like a yo-yo, Buckland believes that happiness can bounce up, down, and around depending on what is put into the equation. This scientific definition allows for quite a bit of wiggle room when researching happiness. While this definition for happiness is broad, the psychological definition for happiness is short, sweet, and to the point.
Where many scientists have allowed for an overarching definition of happiness, psychologists have worked happiness down to an exact science of the brain. In his novel, The Psychology of Happiness, Michael Argyle writes that happiness is the reactions of your brain’s neurotransmitters to positive life experiences, and that happy people have been proven to think differently than those who are unhappy (200). He points to a stable mind as a key to happiness, and he notes that though there are many ways of improving happiness, most improvements only last for short time periods, before a person returns to their genetic set point for happiness. If happiness is all within the limits of one’s brain, then wouldn’t happiness be easy to control? Though there are many ways to define happiness, there are countless theories on how to control, and obtain, it.

For ages, not only have people tried to define happiness, but they have also worked to control it, as well. One way psychologists have sought to control happiness is through cognitive therapy. Dedicated psychologist Michael Argyle has researched how to be happy and found some amazing results. He defines cognitive therapy as “a complex collection of techniques that share the goal of making interpretations of events rational and realistic” (Argyle 210). Argyle finds that unhappy people tend to think irrationally and self-blame, and that through cognitive therapy, people, especially those who are clinically depressed, can emerge from the darkness and learn to create the perfect environment for happiness to thrive (210). There are many forms of cognitive therapy, but Argyle focuses on three proven methods. The first successful type of cognitive therapy is a two-week course, with eight two-hour sessions, that focuses on “improving insight and understanding and correcting irrational beliefs” (Argyle 210). This type of therapy allows for a person to be fully submerged into happiness training, where they will learn about thoughts and behaviors which can all lead to unhappiness. Another way people attempt to control happiness is through a one on one course plan directed in positive thinking (Argyle 216). Psychiatrists have found that teaching positive thinking can increase the amount of time people spend thinking about happiness, and therefore, increases their personal set point of happiness (Argyle 216). This method of cognitive therapy is very direct, and can be good for some people, but it does not always allow for the bigger picture to be seen. Thinking positively, or learning to think positively, is not the only thing that needs to change to become a happier person. Fordyce, a highly respected psychiatrist, had one of the highest reported gains of happiness after his “Personal Happiness Enhancement Program,” which includes several cognitive components such as working on a healthy personality, lowering expectations and aspirations, developing positive and optimistic thinking, valuing happiness, being better organized, reducing negative feeling, and not worrying (Argyle 216). This Fordyce Package has been proven to increase long term happiness by 69%, while improving immediate happiness by 81% (Argyle 316). This shows that cognitive therapy can help someone’s mindset and that happiness dwells within the deep pits of the self with its’ irrational wants, thoughts, and desires. Although cognitive therapy has been proven to assist people in controlling their level of happiness, social skills training, or SST, is said to have a large impact on helping people control happiness, as well.

While searching to control their own happiness, people and scientists alike, have found that Social Skills Training, or SST for short, has improved the general set point of happiness. SST is a class directed by a counselor or therapist, where students learn to have positive interactions with their peers and with life’s different situations (Argyle 216). SST is known to improve a person’s genetic set point of happiness for more than three years (Argyle 216). While SST is not considered cognitive therapy, it works by altering thoughts and teaching the mind how to interact with and react to those around them. This may be the reason people claim to be happier for years, but this also may just lay the path down for a more positive tone of thinking, which can then lead to a higher happiness set point. Although SST is an important way to learn about others and how to not let their decisions effect one’s own happiness, many psychiatrists recommend the use of anti-depressive and anti-psychotic medications to control happiness.

Different from cognitive therapy and SST, over the counter medicines may be able to control happiness chemically. Medicine is not a cure for depression, unhappiness, or any other mental disability. Prescription anti-depressant drugs, such as Prozac, stabilize the levels of neurochemicals in specific areas of the brain that are related to happiness, so they can reach a happiness set point (Argyle 213). Doctors and pharmacists alike say that these medications can have hazardous and deadly side effects, and that the best way to control happiness is through a combination of cognitive therapy and medication (Argyle 213). While medication can be helpful in controlling the chemicals that lead to happiness, many times the harmful side effects, such as weight gain, increased appetite, and manic moods, can deter people from using this form of controlling happiness, instead of leading them to it. Though a combination of medications, SST, and cognitive therapy can help people learn how to elevate their baseline happiness levels, there are also many natural ways to improve a person’s baseline of happiness.

When it comes to controlling happiness, a far more rudimentary way to increase one’s happiness is by increasing the brain’s naturally occurring neurochemicals, which produce the frenzy we all call happiness. In his article The Neurochemicals of Happiness, Christopher Bergland breaks down seven of the many neurotransmitters in the brain, and then shows how they can be naturally released through daily activities. For example, Bergland shows that if someone sets a goal, and then accomplishes it, dopamine is released in high amounts and makes a person feel naturally happier (2). This shows that by simply following through on plans and aspirations, people can be happier. GABA, another naturally occurring neurochemical which is linked to happiness, has been found to be released in high levels after a session of yoga or meditation (Bergland 2). This proves that happiness is a reaction to a cause, and cannot, in itself, just be created. Other endorphins included in Bergland’s list are endocannabinoids, oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, adrenaline, and epinephrine (1). Bergland gives the reader multiple ways to trigger the natural release of these “happy chemicals” in his essay, but he does not allot for the many daily stressors which can counteract the release of the chemical transmitters. Whether naturally trying to increase one’s neurochemicals or using a combination of medications and therapy, there are multiple studies which teach the ways to indirectly control happiness.
In the end, researchers are claiming that humans can create, control, and/or alter happiness through cognitive therapy, social skills training, medicine, or by purposefully completing actions which naturally increase “happy” chemical transmitters, yet no one is finding happiness, nor are they staying happy. When all people, and their definitions of happiness, are different, instead of searching for happiness, maybe one must grab happiness by the horns and tell it to stick around for a while.

As a species, humans have constantly been in pursuit of peace and happiness. This never- ending journey has led many scientists, psychologists, and researchers to study how happiness is cultivated within the brain. Helen Teresa Buckland, a well-known philosopher, has studied happiness for quite some time in the hope of creating a plan for young adults with schizophrenia to find long-term stability with happiness. Buckland writes that the definition of happiness is “the degree to which the overall quality of one’s own life as a whole is judged to be favorable and liked” (28). She emphasizes that people can only influence what they do in their life but not how their life is judged by others around them. While Buckland may run into issues allowing the definition of happiness to rest in the hands of others, she also sets a precedent for happiness to be uncontrollable by the self. Although humans have tried to control happiness for millennia, happiness cannot be controlled directly, but is rather indirectly influenced by one’s genetics, thoughts, and activities.
While there are many who believe that they can control their own happiness, scientists have proven that all people are born with a different genetic set point of happiness that is not affected by rare events such as a death, a sudden increase in wages, or even the news that a loved one has cancer. “The Sources of Happiness,” written by the Dali Lama and Howard Cutler, reveals proof of the genetic set point of happiness through the process of adaption, or the return to an original state, or baseline, of happiness after a life-changing event (Cutler and the Dalai Lama 22). This means that even those who have seen great death and horror, will, at some point, return to their original state of happiness. Adaption has been scientifically proven through case studies, and it shows that although people can go through life changing events, like winning a million dollars, the event will have little to no effect on their long-term happiness. Furthermore, evidence of a genetic set point of happiness demonstrates that happiness cannot be regulated. When a baby is born, its brain is already hard-wired to have a certain level of happiness, and factors which have commonly been thought to make a person happy, like money, sex, drugs, and even the lottery, have all been proven not to produce long-lasting happiness. The genetic set point of happiness and the process of adaption can influence a person’s happiness, but no one has been able to increase their genetic set point of happiness nor have they been able to stop the process of adaption. This evidence has led way for scientists to find that happiness may be influenced by one’s thoughts, but it cannot be controlled by them.
Although people’s thoughts and mindset may influence their level of happiness, individuals cannot directly control their happiness with their thoughts. In 2011, director Roko Belic produced a documentary entitled Happy, which followed the lives of people from different cultures and explored how happiness is defined in multiple communities around the world. The documentary includes data that illustrates that people’s intentional actions have 40% influence on how happy they are (Belic). Belic demonstrates that people’s choices influence their levels of happiness, yet while people can govern their actions, they cannot control their happiness. For example, if someone is charitable, their generosity may make them feel better about their lives, and therefore happier with their overall well-being, but people cannot take their sadness and turn it into happiness. One can only hope for positive emotion and happiness, not create it. What this means is that, while people can choose to think positively or negatively, they cannot choose to be happy, for happiness is a mental process in which neurotransmitters are released from participating in certain activities.

Ultimately, there are those who believe that they have control of their happiness, but, in reality, only the subconscious brain can control the neurotransmitters which release the chemicals that make people happy. In “The Seven Neurochemicals of Happiness,” Christopher Bergland describes how many neurotransmitters in the brain can be naturally released through daily activities. He demonstrates that the neurochemicals in the body are influenced and released by the things people do, eat, and say every day like practicing yoga, setting goals, and even practicing mindfulness (Bergland 2). Here, Bergland illustrates that humans cannot directly control the neurochemicals in their brains, but that they can control what they eat, they say, and they do in order to release more of these happy transmitters. Some would argue that this allows for personal control of happiness, but it is, in all actuality, an indirect method of monitoring happiness and has been proven not to be long term. Although research has proven that happiness cannot be controlled directly, there are those who still argue that happiness is controllable.

As opposed to many acclaimed scientists and philosophers, there are still those who believe that controlling happiness is within the grasp of every person. Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer for The Huffington Post, researches and writes about the pursuit of happiness quite frequently. In “Scientific Proof That Happiness Is a Choice,” she writes that by changing daily routines, people can alter their level of happiness (Gregoire 1). Gregoire believes that happiness can be controlled through personal choice and a positive mindset. While happiness may be influenced by positive thinking and by making decisions which release happy neurotransmitters, these are only indirect ways of attempting to achieve happiness. In reality, happiness cannot be controlled through these simple actions but rather can only be superficially influenced by them.

In conclusion, happiness cannot be controlled directly by any actions or effort. Although there are many ways to influence the neurochemicals in the brain which allow for the feeling of happiness, no one can grab happiness and tell it to stick around. At the end of the day, happiness is created by our brain’s responses to the events in our everyday lives, so rather than try to pursue happiness, one might try to live a positive, giving, mindful, and grateful life where the neurotransmitters which create happiness can flourish and replicate.

Works Cited
Bergland, Christopher. “The Neurochemicals of Happiness.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Buckland, Helen T. Young Adults with Schizophrenia: Defining Happiness, Building Hope, University of Washington, Ann Arbor, 2009. Web.

Cutler, Howard and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “The Sources of Happiness.” Pursuing Happiness: A Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt and Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 21–32.

Gregoire, Carolyn. “This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Happy | The Happy Movie. Dir. Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, 2011. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2016.

Haybron, Dan, “Happiness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Hill, Graham. “Living with Less. A Lot Less.” Pursuing Happiness: A Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt and Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 308- 312.

Keats, John. “Ode on Melancholy.” Pursuing Happiness: A Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt and Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 264–265.

Lewis, Tanya. “Two-Thirds of Americans Not ‘Very Happy,’ Poll Shows.” Live Science., 30 May 2013. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

Ricard, Matthieu. “The Alchemy of Suffering.” Pursuing Happiness: A Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt and Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 34–42.

Wilson, Eric G. “Terrible Beauty.” Pursuing Happiness: A Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt and Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 247–257



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