THE BIG PICTURE
So far we’ve learned about human happiness in a general manner. We’ve explored the happy mood, we’ve learned about the objective and personality characteristics which seem to go with it, and we’ve seen how fundamental happy emotion is to our survival and prospering as a species.
But now, in the final Chapter of this Volume, we will turn our attention to a few of the larger questions regarding happiness…
THE CAUSE OF EMOTION: INSIDE OR OUTSIDE?
As time goes by our moods often change. The ups and downs of emotion constantly color our existence. But what is the ultimate cause of our emotions? Are our emotions simply a reaction to the outside situations and experiences we undergo? Or are they merely the result of inside physiological changes, which have little or nothing to do with the outside world?
The first answer that comes to mind is that outside circumstances are the causes of our emotions. It should be abundantly clear after reading the previous chapter of this book that happiness is caused by things that happen in the outside world. Income, social activity, meaningful work, the achievement of goals, and so on, appear time after time as the causes of happiness. Thus it seems obvious that happiness is a product of the situation we’re living in.
However there is an alternative view. Some psychologists think that happiness is caused primarily by changing internal conditions of the body. Happiness, according to this view, is something that is triggered by certain optimal physiological and metabolic conditions that occur inside. This view suggests that when people feel happy, because of these internal conditions, the natural tendency is to “blame” the happiness on whatever outside circumstances are occurring. Thus we pin our happiness on outside events, but is really caused by independent physiological factors. (The adrenaline experiments we mentioned earlier support this idea: when aroused physiologically, people tend to respond by feeling the emotion that seems most appropriate to the situation.)
For the most part, however, very few psychologists buy the idea that happiness is caused solely by internal metabolic cycles. Of the hundred, or so studies on happiness, only a few of the earliest ones took the internal point of view (16, 17, 67, 68). The remainder of the studies take a decidedly environmental point of view — and, as we have seen in earlier chapters, this view has enormous substantiation.
The two views are not, however, mutually exclusive. Certainly both processes, internal and external, can have an effect on happiness. For one thing, it is obvious that the physical state of an individual is going to effect how happy he might feel. An individual’s ill health or physical discomfort cannot help but effect his feelings about the situation he’s in. But on the other hand, there is ample evidence that outside circumstances and events have direct effects on the physiological state of the person. Our bodies continuously react to the information our senses receive from the outside — indeed our whole physiology is designed to do just that: react.
Thus, outside circumstances affect our bodies physiology and our body’s physiological condition, in turn, affects our view of outside circumstances. Furthermore, both these processes appear to operate somewhat independently of each other. Classic work on moods by Cattell hints that there may be two types of happiness: one caused by outside, environmental factors and another one caused by changing physiological conditions inside the body (31). Thus, at times we feel happy because of a pleasant event in the outside world, and at times our happiness flows from optimal physiological conditions. Psychologists find, when we relate this research to the three-dimensional theory discussed earlier, that it is the active/passive dimension (the dimension of bodily arousal) that relates more to changing inner conditions of the body than to outside events; the happiness/ unhappiness dimension, on the other hand, is controlled more by the events and situations in the outside world (31, 98).
My own view is that physiological influences account for less than 10 to 15% of one’s happiness. The rest is due to non-physiological causes.
Of course these figures are for the vast majority of normal and healthy individuals. Outside these normal limits, these figures do not hold.
There is continually growing evidence that many instances of clinical depression and other major psychoses (particularly schizophrenia) have a strong genetic link. Brain damage, organic brain disease, tumors, chronic pain, or other abnormalities certainly make happiness difficult or impossible to achieve. And as we discussed in a previous Chapter, poor health greatly depletes happiness. In other words, there are many individuals who, because of genetic or physical detriments, find their happiness largely dominated by physiological factors. Likewise, though there is no confirmed evidence of this, one might assume that there are a small percentage of individuals who are genetically “born to be unhappy” — people who’s inborn physiology might doom them to an unhappy, lifelong mood.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. For most of us, happiness is determined far more by outside circumstances than inside biochemistry.