What Is Happiness Made Of
While visiting Zürich in 2018, I stumbled upon an exhibit at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich by Stefan Sagmeister titled The Happy Show. Sagmeister, a world renown Austrian graphic designer and typographer, curated an interactive exhibition based on his personal research and exploration into the topic of happiness. The exhibit was filled with interactive pieces and colorful typographic displays of facts regarding happiness as a subject matter approached from sociologic, psychologic, and economic angles. I have often looked back fondly on The Happy Show, reflecting on the implications of what constitutes happiness and how it ebbs and flows in a person’s lived experiences.
About a week ago I wrapped up my reading of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and was pleased to find the author’s own literary pondering on the subject of happiness and his personal conclusion around it. He writes:
“Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”
- Harari, Sapiens
Harari is pointing out that happiness can be measured based on the distance between a person’s present reality and his/her expectation of a desired reality. The smaller the separation between current conditions and desired future conditions, the higher one’s happiness level.
I believe this is why disappointment is the antithesis of joy. Disappointment breeds a sense of loss and a lack of something that an individual never really possessed to begin with. It feels like deprivation. It feels like robbery. But how can one be deprived of something if there was no expectation of receiving that thing in the first place? How can one be robbed of something that he/she does never actually possessed? It’s all really a matter of perception.
In the 1960’s sociologist Robert K. Merton and his wife and fellow sociologist, Harriet Zuckerman coined what has come to be known as the Matthew Principle, aka the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage. The principle is a sociological understanding of the following passage from the Biblical gospel of Matthew:
“For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
- Matthew 13:12
This verse has often been related to the idea that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer (or remain in poverty). From the sociological lens, such an idea alludes to the widening of the gap between the lower, middle, and upper classes. This sort of thought is often deployed as part of a criticism of capitalism and socio-economic divides.
However, I posit that such an understanding of this statement made by none other than Jesus Christ himself, is a limited, surface level interpretation of a psycho-spiritual truth embedded within these very words. I would argue that there is a strong correlation between someone’s socioeconomic state with his/her psychological state and vice versa. An individual’s psychological state often dictates one’s emotions, expectations, and perception in regards to the self, others, and existence itself. When a person feels a certain type of way, expects certain things, or believes something to be true (regardless of if it’s actually true or not), he/she will think, act, and live in a manner that expresses such emotions, expectations, and beliefs. This in turn has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of one’s socioeconomic outcomes. Now, this does not dismiss the individual’s original socioeconomic station nor the systemic inequalities that may be present in his/her sociocultural context. It does however point to at least one factor that may enable the continuation and perpetuation of one’s present state.
When Jesus says that those who have will be given more, while the poor will have even what they have taken away from them, He isn’t necessarily speaking in a socioeconomic manner. Rather, I believe that Christ is pointing out each person’s psycho-spiritual state. The person who has not is not necessarily a person who doesn’t have anything. Poor is not an independent measure of wealth; rather, relative label given in comparison to something/someone else. Realistically speaking, no person has nothing; everyone possesses at the bear minimum the organ that keep him/her body functioning. What Christ is pointing out it not a material state, rather the internal state of a person.
So the scriptures might better read, to the one who believes he/she has much more will be given, but from the one who believes he/she has nothing even what he/she actually possesses (no matter how seemingly insignificant) will be taken away. The person who looks only at his/her lack often forgets or is completely oblivious to what he/she does have. Moreover, it is often the case that those who only perceive lack and blemish also tend to victimize themselves, while simultaneously failing to steward, develop, and utilize what they already have at hand.
Taking Harari’s observation about happiness being the distance between one’s reality versus one’s desire, and garnishing it with the wisdom of Jesus from the book of Matthew, we can derive that it is not the physical conditions that brings about happiness rather the perspective that one carries.
Harari further reflects that it is in fact “more important to be satisfied with what you already have than getting (more) of what you want.” The key being that the one who is not in want, psychologically speaking, is one who is satisfied with his/her current state; current reality, condition, and place in society as opposed to one who thinks he/she lacks something. The one who only sees and believes in his/her lack is one who is not satisfied due to the distance between their current position and their desired position.
The person who is satisfied possesses the main ingredient to what it means to be happy, and such a person will be able to maintain happiness in both loss and gain. In loss, the person doesn’t feel any less of a person nor does he/she feel robbed of anything because loss is treated as a temporary set back instead of a self-defining, permanent depreciation. In gain, the person doesn’t add a notch onto his/her proverbial belt for the sake of deriving a sense of fulfillment or pleasure, instead gain adds to an already satisfactory base condition. The hope is that such a perspective on loss and gain in life will incrementally increase the base condition of one’s life and state of being for the better; increasing, not necessarily happiness, but the quality of life, while maintaining contentment in loss, gain, and stagnation.
This very notion was expressed by the Apostle Paul who shares the following regarding contentment:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
- Philippians 4:11–13
So what is it to be happy and content? I would define this state of being, joy. No one and nothing can take away or add joy. Joy is not an emotion that rises and falls like the waves of pleasure and pain. Joy is the child of the marriage between an objective perception of current conditions and a willful attitude to progress forward - not an attitude fueled by dissatisfaction and want, but one that is spurred on by the expectation of gradual increase in combination with an appreciation of things already possessed. Joy is happiness established; a true state of being. So how can anyone take away a person’s state of being?