Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.
Happiness is a positive state and for many people a goal they try to reach in life. The feeling can reach from contentment to intense joy. Although the experience of happiness is influenced by genetic make-up and external factors, humans do have significant control over whether to experience this state or not.
Communication, internally and externally, plays a significant role in the frequency and intensity with which one experience happiness. Internal communication is the exchange of meaningful messages one has with oneself, while external communication are the communication patterns one uses when relating to others. Awareness, reflection and insight into these communication patterns can bring about a better sense of self internally and a greater sense of efficacy in the world externally. More awareness of one’s needs, values and aspirations internally and a better sense of realizing them externally can bring about greater happiness.
Keywords: happiness, psychotherapy, psychiatry
Table of Contents
Happiness is a state which is associated with positive feelings and emotions. When people feel unhappy there is internal pressure to bring about changes. These changes are brought about by communication, internally and externally. First, one needs to assess the necessary changes though internal communication. This is followed by communicating externally with the world to make these changes possible. Happiness comes first of all from becoming active and doing those things which brings one closer to realizing values, needs and aspirations in the long run. There should not be a distinction between evaluative and felt happiness if one is well connected with oneself and the world around.
Life is about communicating with others and within oneself. When people become disconnected from themselves and others, they lose their sense of feeling alive. The concept of the self is essentially our sense of how we communicate with the outside and inside worlds.
We feel alive when we feel the world and ourselves, when we sense the little details of life. This requires being open to them. And it is easier to be open to the world if you know about your values and interests. This may require looking below the debris accumulated on top of it. Basic values change little over time. They are an integral part of your personality and how you define themselves. Using them as a starting point makes your life more stable and less stressful. Many people merely react to the world around them, which leads to more instability. However, becoming aware of one’s values, basic interests and aspirations allows one to chart one’s own course and becoming truly happy. Following one’s own values and basic interests leads to happiness, because if you do the things you value, you automatically value what you do and yourself as the doer.
Finding one’s basic values and interests often starts with a reflection what the things are that make happy in the present or did so in the past. External circumstances can change over time, as do relationships with people. The things that are truly meaningful to one, however, are usually quite stable and mostly change little. The true basic parameters, needs, values and aspirations change little over time (Haverkampf, 2018b). The word ‘true’ here means that they are very stable. For example, if one wants to earn a lot of money to buy a house to have a family, the money itself is of little relevance, while providing a home for a family can hardly be replaced by anything else. For example, if the same person inherits a house or builds it themselves, there is little need for the money to buy a house, while the need for the family has not changed. Money is simply a means of exchanging one thing for another. Now, just imagine how much more fulfilling live becomes if one finds out the true values of money versus having a family, and the resources that no longer need to be wasted on the things that are not the true ends in themselves, but more or less intermediaries in a value chain, or even irrelevant dead ends.
Information that is useful to oneself can increase the levels of happiness as it facilitates adaptation and innovation. The more relevant information one has about the world the easier it is to make beneficial changes in oneself and the world which can increase satisfaction and happiness. What is relevant depends on the individual values, needs and aspirations, the basic parameters of an individual which change little over time.
Selecting the information sources, the people, and the information channels, such verbal and nonverbal communication, one listens to determines the information one will receive. It is thus important to look at the communication processes a client uses in the very beginning of therapy or in any reflective process, internally or externally, which ultimately can change the communication patterns and communication styles a client uses and engages in.
Meaningful connectedness with oneself and others and with oneself is over time a good predictor for happiness. The meaningfulness is an important criterion because it requires that information is being exchanged which can bring about adaptive change in the recipients, and the overall communication process can lead to innovation and improved well-being in everyone participating in the interaction.
Fear often prevents these levels of connectedness with others and with oneself, which leads to only partial connectedness which is unsatisfying because selective connectedness does not exit. Rather, in partial connectedness the information exchange becomes unpredictable.
Connectedness is thus related to our ability to exchange information with others and the world around us. Attachment is based on this potential to exchange meaningful information, any information that brings about a change in us. The easier it is to exchange meaningful information with others and the world, the greater the happiness will be.
Feeling connectedness has the advantage that one feels part of a larger whole, which can also increase feelings of security, safety and comfort. Feeling more of these, on the other hand, increases the experience of happiness.
Happiness is a state in which one experiences positive feelings that is sustainable in the long run. The potential endurance of such a state is an important criterion of happiness because happiness should not be self-limiting. Happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures. (Seeligmann, 2004) Studies suggest that happiness is rather stable over time. (Baumeister et al., 2013; Costa et al., 1987) The euphoria and the racing thoughts one may experience when suffering from a bipolar condition, for example, are not sustainable. This does not mean, of course, that one needs to be always happy, but that the happiness is genuine and true enough to be potentially sustainable.
Do we need unhappiness? We have already discussed above that a lack of happiness is not necessarily a condition that brings about positive and constructive change. Whether one looks as world politics or individual interpersonal dynamics, changes often seem more constructive if they are gradual and align with people’s true nature, which is more likely to happen in the usually better connected state of happiness. One may even say that happiness is a state of connectedness with oneself and others (Haverkampf, 2017c, 2017b). It may thus seem counterproductive when an individual tries hard to be happy by spending hours on end in a job which is not fulfilling to afford something material in the future, while progressively connecting more from the own self and others. However, if the same person would look at the true needs and wishes underneath, such as having a family and being able to provide for it, the true value, there would probably be a more effective and insightful way of achieving this without the disconnecting, and the unhappiness that comes with it. Any benefits from unhappiness are thus likely to be a myth and a mirage.
Insight into one’s true basic parameters may sometimes not be so easy to accomplish without trying different approaches and finding out which works best for oneself. The quest itself should already come with activities that increase happiness. Meditation, for example, has been found to lead to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness (Bates, 2012), which also illustrates that information flows can increase the levels of happiness depending on their localization and ability to bring about change at particular localizations within the neuronal networks.
To maintain a state of happiness requires exposure to signals that are not flat or stagnant. Even in a state of meditation one experiences rhythms of life which are not exact repetitions of the previous one, such as the breathing or thoughts or images. The rhythm of life may sometimes be microscopic, but it is necessary to maintain life. Electrical patterns in the ECG, for example, must vary over time as a sign of health. To achieve contentment requires integrating an openness to variety into one’s life.
As the basic parameters, such as the values, needs and aspirations change little over time (Haverkampf, 2018b), if one pursues them effectively, the level of happiness will not change much over time. Effective pursuit might mean for one person engaging in meditation or for another composing a piece of music or cooking a great meal. The stability is probably also due to the self-adjusting properties of effective communication processes an individual develops over time through information in the form of experiences and the improved skills in processing these meaningful messages over time. Communication skills and insights can be adjusted over time, but this requires openness and a conscious engagement in the process.
Happiness seems partly genetically based. (Okbay et al., 2016; Bartels, 2015) Based on twin studies, it has been suggested that 50 percent of a given human’s happiness level is genetically determined, 10 percent is affected by life circumstances and situation, and a remaining 40 percent of happiness is subject to self-control. (Lyubomirski, 2008) The problem with ‘self-control’ is that it is a circular observation. It is like saying that something is being controlled without saying what. Aside from that, most actions and behaviors have a control element, which is why we do them. It is more helpful to interpret control in terms of having an impact on the environment and oneself through the exchange of meaningful information, which happens with the help of communication patterns that may be more or less adapted to their task and purpose.
While genes represent encoded information, they influence and provide a basic backdrop for the processing and communicating of information but do not determine them. The more information is added over a life-time, the more other factors determine how an individual deals with information. Through making choices and selecting information over time, one also determines to a large extent how information is selected and processed. What may sound circular, is really not. One simple reason is that we will always be exposed to new information and our brains connected information in not entirely predictable way. Since the information transfer between nerve cells happens chemically as molecules (neurotransmitters) dock on receptors and are released through chemical interactions, probability rather than certainty applies to whether an information is transferred. Since in the realm of very small scale, quantum physics with its probability functions applies, general physical laws also ensure that the information processing in biological organisms will never be entirely deterministic (Haverkampf, 2018a), which is a good thing for our study into happiness.
Being engaged in something that is meaningful, that contains the promise of something novel that can change one, often leads to positive feelings. Whether solving a science problem, observing another person, having sex or talking to someone else, one is engaged in processes that produce new relevant meaning. Often this may only be interpreted as the quest for a dopamine rush. However, it is easy to overlook that in these interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions, new information, which is not just repetitive but also meaningful, is usually generated.
There is the old saying that people with anxiety always live in the future, those with depression always in the past. And it is true that the now is the only time that really exists as far as our behavior, actions, and interactions with others go. However, the future, in a positive and non-anxiety sense, does exist not only in the form of a thought but also as something that can be shared and developed together with others. The futures, as is the past, is thus a product of communication. The more we learn to communicate in a better and more effective ways in term of achieving greater satisfaction, contentment and happiness, the more promising and fulfilling the future will appear, and thus be more motivating and fundamentally more worthwhile to strive for.
Happiness is not an emotion that makes one complacent or holds one off from achieving goals. It is rather the opposite. Greater happiness can lead to more motivation and even more ambitious goals. Thoughts or activities that conform with the own values, needs and aspirations are usually more intrinsically motivating than those which are not. Over time, these basic parameters, particularly the value fulfilment, are also those which lead to greater happiness.
Motivation can be related to many other factors, such as whether someone is feeling depressed and experiences less motivation, initiative and energy, or how much one engages with the different facets of life. Dealing with various psychological impediments to happiness increases the engagement with life, the communication with oneself and the world in general, which increases the motivation to do things that in turn leads to greater happiness if it is in alignment with one’s basic parameters, the own needs, values and aspirations.
Happiness has a lot to do with the perspective one assumes, while perspective is at the same time something which can be influenced. A more favorable perspective of the future, for example, is not only more motivating but can also increase the level of positive feelings one experiences.
The way one looks at things and from which position makes them appear differently. It usually requires a good level of awareness, however, to notice that one is always looking from a similar perspective, which impedes any dynamics for change. Awareness of how one is looking at the world and the experiences one makes in it is thus a necessary first step for any changes in perspective. But this in turn is determined by how we process meaningful information and how we communicate it within ourselves and with the world. The author has described elsewhere how communication patterns can be changed, modified and formed in new ways (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017d). The first step is an awareness for them (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2019)
When we do the things that are of value to ourselves, pursues our true interests and aspirations, we will be happier than if we do not. And the first step to find meaning in anything is to be aware of meaningful information, that is, information which has the potential to lead to change, even if only very small. This change may just mean that an emotional quality changes slightly, one combines
Meaning is when information resonates with information stored in the individual which defines important attributes of the personality and determines individual preferences. (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2010a, 2017a) If the new information communicated from the environment resonates with information that is close to the basic parameters that define a person, then it may not only be deeply meaningful, but it can also lead to a heightened feeling of happiness, as well as more motivation and satisfaction.
If one does things that are meaningful, it will in the long-run increase one’s self-awareness and sense of self. The reason is that what one finds meaningful reflects on one’s own basic parameters and sense of self. This is the reverse phenomenon of resonance which we encountered above.
Choosing to spend time with the right people, engaging in meaningful topics and pursuing meaningful objectives leads almost automatically to greater sense of self-efficacy and agency. What is meaningful can be judged by connecting with oneself and being receptive to the feedback, emotional and cognitive, about the activities one engages in. Unfortunately, many people have become so disconnected from themselves that just the thought of doing this induces anxiety. In the long run, connecting with oneself emotionally reduces anxiety, raises self-confidence and self-esteem.
One’s values and basic interests determine what is valuable to oneself. Happiness requires that one engages in an activity that is meaningful and of value to oneself. Engaging in these activities and situations brings more positive emotions, happiness, and a greater sense of fulfilment in life. Wants and Needs that create greater happiness need to be in sync with one’s values. “Spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves”. (Dunn et al., 2008)
Money can increase happiness up to a certain annual income which is roughly equivalent to an upper average income, beyond which it does not increase happiness significantly. “Beyond the point at which people have enough to comfortably feed, clothe, and house themselves, having more money – even a lot more money – makes them only a little bit happier.” (Bennett, 2009)
Almost everyone strives for happiness in life, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the US constitution and many other important documents, but many people feel it is beyond their reach. Some may suffer from a mental health condition like depression, which reduces the amplitude of one’s felt emotions overall, including happiness, and may require treatment. A larger problem is possibly missing direction in life and decision-making, which often is a result of being disconnected from oneself. If one feels what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, this leads to actions and thoughts that generate greater happiness.
Happiness begins with finding out what makes one happy. This does not have to be anything external. It can be things to think about or something interesting to read. It can also be meditation in silence. Many people feel the pressure from what they think the world expects of them. Simply internalizing external expectations will not bring happiness. One’s thoughts and actions need to make sense in relation to one’s own values, needs aspirations.
One’s self-image can be distorted by unhelpful external or internal communication or by a variety of mental health conditions. Depression, for example, often comes with ruminations and negative thoughts about oneself and the world. These thoughts not just reduce happiness but also make it more difficult to connect to increase satisfaction, contentment and happiness in life.
Our values are mostly stable over time but meaning depends on the information we exchange with our environment, which again depends on how we communicate with ourselves and others. One can be happy in solitude, but this happiness depends on how I communicate with myself and the non-human world around me and on my interactions with the world when I am with others. Most people do need companionship at least occasionally.
Happiness is when we are connected to the inside and outside world, when we can communicate freely with both. Fears prohibit us from getting in touch with ourselves and others to the extent that can bring about happiness. Happiness is when an organization strives to be optimally adapted to itself and the environment, when it is changed by it and can change it in beneficial ways. This does not require great activity for humans. Even sitting in one’s chair at home can bring about happiness, when we feel ourselves and the world around us. Everything contains information, a tree and even a stone. Humans on the other hand are great information processing systems and we send and receive information all the time. Happiness as an emotion is also a consequence of how we process information, of how we think, which is one reason why we need to take stock of how we process information on the inside (think) and how we process information on the outside (interact with others). Happiness thus depends on how we arrange our surroundings and ourselves in these surroundings.
Focusing on one’s values and finding meaning in things leads to greater happiness. This does not have to be time consuming. It just requires doing what feels important, which can be a radically new way of doing things.
Since our communication activities with ourselves and the world determine whether our needs, values and aspirations are met in the world, becoming more aware of the communication processes one engages in, reflecting on them and experimenting with them can increase the sense of self-efficacy and the level of self-confidence and self-esteem in the world. They do not make happy in themselves, but they help living a life which is associated with greater happiness.
Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. (Vienna) MLA (Harvard) LL.M. (ULaw) BA (Dartmouth) trained in medicine, psychiatry, psychotherapy, law and managament and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. The author can be reached by email at email@example.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie.
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