06 August 2022 12:00
It has been over two years since I became Atlantic’s correspondent on happiness. The address book How to build a life, how to build a life, was launched on April 9, 2020 as an experiment: was it possible to transform the unhappiness and loneliness of the first days of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to think more about one’s well-being?
The experiment is still going great: this is the hundredth column article that we publish. On How to build a life there has been talk of procrastinating and owning animals, of Ben Franklin and Aristotle, of summer holidays and winter blues, of elections and exercises – all through the lens of happiness. Each article has a different lesson, and that’s how things should go: We focus on millions of different things over the course of a day, a week, a year, and a lifetime.
Neuroscientists, social psychologists, behavioral economists and philosophers can practice on any subject to demonstrate how our daily exercises can help us in the pursuit of happiness. However, this does not mean that happiness depends only on how well we manage to grasp the small details of our life. Each of us should also keep in mind some great truths stemming from the science of happiness, which can transcend time and circumstances and guide us in the events of our life, from the most mundane to the most important.
The three maxims of happiness
• Maxim number one: Mother Nature doesn’t care if you are happy. Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when it comes to happiness is assuming that it will come naturally if we follow our instincts: “If it makes you feel good, then do it.” It’s a simplistic logic: We humans desire many worldly rewards, such as money, power, pleasure, and admiration. And we also want to be happy. Consequently, if we get these worldly rewards, we will be happy. But this is the cruellest of the jokes that nature plays for us
to make sure that we will pass on our genes no matter how much we like to do it.
The reward system in our brain continues to stimulate the pursuit of worldly pleasures that will increase our reproductive fitness over others. These pleasures generally fall into the categories of money, power, pleasure and honor, which the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas called the “substitutes for god”. Regardless of how much credit you want to give to his teachings, there is no denying that these rewards promise far more happiness than they really do. They simply don’t give satisfaction.
It is you, not mother nature, who are responsible for your happiness. This means that you must scale your worldly appetites and pursue only what brings lasting happiness: a faith or a philosophy of life, family relationships, true friendship, a job that makes sense.
You don’t need tricks, but habits to achieve changes that can bring about lasting happiness
• Maxim number two: lasting happiness comes from habits and not from tips. We live in a culture of the “straight”, of shortcuts to achieve goals that would otherwise take a long time or to invade well-protected systems. The internet is full of “tips for happiness” that should increase your well-being with little effort. And in fact, you can rely on small and simple actions to quickly change your emotional state, for example by silencing notifications on your mobile, which I highly recommend. Except that you don’t need tricks, but habits to achieve changes that can bring about lasting happiness. And when I talk about habits, I don’t mean senseless routines, but conscious and daily practices that strengthen your relationships, deepen your knowledge and reveal the meaning in your life.
Techniques for achieving happiness tend to trivialize happiness by treating it as an emotion or little more, but that’s wrong. Happy feelings are proof of happiness, which is a combination of pleasure, satisfaction, and purpose. To improve in these areas requires commitment and effort, as it takes to achieve anything else that has value. But if you put in the effort, you will surely see results.
• Maxim number three: happiness is love. At the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine summarized all human ethics in the motto “love and do what you want”. The happiest people have lives focused on love: for family, for friends, for others through suitable work and, in some cases, even for the divine. Studies of people who are happy (and healthy) as they age show that the most important part of life to nurture is a series of stable, long-term love relationships. Not everyone enjoys a life full of love, that’s true. But here’s the good news: There is significant control over this, because love is a decision and a commitment.
For Thomas Aquinas to love means “to desire the good of the other”. You cannot choose how much love you will receive, but happiness depends more on how much you give. And just as important is what you direct your love to. Augustine taught that to be happy a person “does not love what is not to be loved, nor does he fail to love what is to be loved”. Here is a practical formula: Happy people love people and use things; unhappy people use people and love things.
Three maxims are not difficult to remember: the difficult thing is to live them. And the best way to do this is to share them with others. Just as teaching math helps you understand it better, there is little better than teaching it to others to increase your happiness. In fact, my happiness levels have risen by a whopping 60 percent since I started writing this column, as evidenced by the common and well-established assessments I ask my students to make.
Every day I think about how to share with the world what I have learned in the scientific literature and how to put these ideas into practice in my life. Obviously, students are needed to teach her. To write a hundred articles, it was necessary for you to read them and put the ideas into practice, and to update me from time to time on the results.
And here we are at one of the most important principles of happiness: gratitude, which
greatly improves well-being. In this spirit, therefore, thank you for reading How to build a life. With love, I dedicate these one hundred lessons – and the many more to come – to you, wishing you could increase the happiness on the journey of your life.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)
This article was published on the site of the US monthly The Atlantic.