How You Can Be Happier - What The Ancients Knew That We Have Forgotten

How You Can Be Happier - What The Ancients Knew That We Have Forgotten

Would you like to be happy?

I think most of us would. We all talk about wanting to be happy often enough.

We say, "I just want you to be happy," to our friends and family. We claim we "would like to live a happy life."

But what, exactly, is this happiness we seek? And who has it? It certainly seems that there isn't enough happiness in the world. Let's take a look at why and how you can change that.

What Is Happiness?

I think this is the place to start. Maybe even the place to end. What are you calling happiness? I think you will say you know it when you see it. I would say that what most of us think of as happiness is actually joy.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. -Mahatma Gandhi

Joy is that elated state where you just feel great. Joy is the opposite of sadness. Joy and sadness are extreme states. They are the temporary feelings you cannot sustain forever.

A beautiful young woman in a state of joy.Take another look at my friend Ana. Just looking at her, she makes you feel wonderful, doesn't she?

Can you imagine if she went around all day laughing and smiling like that?

Joy, as wonderful as it is, must come to an end. Ana couldn't stay there and you can't either. Here's why:

It's In Your Head

Literally, it is in your head. Joy is caused by a surge of feel-good chemicals in your brain, neurotransmitters, in particular, dopamine. When you experience elevated levels of dopamine, you experience joy. It's your brain on drugs - the kind of safe and good drugs you're body naturally produces - but also the same drugs that are provided by less safe drugs such as cocaine.

Most people know about how cocaine affects the brain and how the body gets used to the drug in the system. That's the source of the addiction. Each time you use it, you need a little more to get that 'high' feeling, to receive your joy. Your dopamine levels are raised and your brain gets used to the new level.

When you don't get your cocaine fix you feel bad, even sad. Your dopamine levels fall below normal and you are feeling the effects.

You may say, "Yes, but I'm not a coke addict. So what does this mean to me?" Here's the rub, you probably are a joy addict.

Common Joy Addictions

Do you ever buy something because you know it will make you happy? Unless you're the Dalai Lama or something, I'm sure you do. We all do and it's the job of marketing pushers experts to encourage you to feel that dopamine kick of joy from shopping. Again, and again. It doesn't matter what you buy, whether it's food, clothing, a new car, a fancy watch. Whatever it is, short of true needs (and no, Twinkies and Ferrari's aren't true needs), you're just doing it for the pure joyful pleasure of the experience.

And where is that joy a week, a month, or a year later? Gone. Shop 'til you drop? That sounds like an overdose to me.

It's not shopping, per se, that is the problem, that's just shifting the blame. The problem is that your brain doesn't know the difference between cocaine and shopping. Yes, cocaine is a very powerful source of elevated dopamine and the effects are far stronger than run-of-the-mill joy addiction but the difference is in the degree, not in the kind of addiction.

When you stop to think about those things in your life that you consider as making you happy, stop, look a moment and see if they aren't really about joy. It might be sex, food, movies, video games, toys (cars, boats, power tools, you name it), collectibles, stimulant drugs, affection, respect, power, or even excess exercise, just to name some common sources.

All of those things that produce joy and who doesn't like that? The problem is not the joyful things, it is the chase for more, getting your next fix that is the problem.

See if you are chasing joy. Do you constantly seek a higher level, more of a good thing? That's a clear sign of addiction.

Probably you have more than a few addictions by this point in your life. The marketing pushers do their jobs well, but don't blame them, the responsibility for you lies within you.

Finding Happiness

A ladder ascends over a set of stairs to a 'cloud' with a doorway in it.

If joy is an elated state and sadness is a depressed state, then what is left in the middle? This is where happiness belongs.

Confusing happiness and joy, the middle and the high-end of the scale can only lead to a process of addiction. Your brain, stimulated to new heights by joy, will gladly assume that this is the normal state given enough regular joyful experiences. Since you still want to feel joy, to feel the way you used to feel, you seek a more joyful experience, a new stimulation, something fun. Each step up the joy ladder leaves you seeking more and more.

Sounds just like an addict, doesn't it?

And it is. Your brain is adapted to accept a wide range of experiences as normal. You adjust to your circumstances, good or bad.

When you measure people's happiness you find that it doesn't vary much regardless of their personal situation. You find people who are poor and struggling about as happy as those who are rich and getting by just fine. Even people with permanent disabilities, say blindness, are just about as happy as the seeing. The range isn't as wide as you might expect.

Black to white gradient


What this points to is the adaptability of your brain. After a while, whatever experience is typical for you, becomes normal for you. All joy all the time leads to all normal all the time. Joy disappears.

The Middle Path Or Moderation In All Things

Moderation is the wisdom of the ages that can lead you to happiness. What the sages of old learned long before we could explain about neurotransmitters and brain flexibility is that finding a balanced, middle way is the path to happiness. They knew that happiness was not joy. Happiness is that normal state between the top and the bottom.

What they also knew is that joy is only relative. Joyful compared to what? Compared to your normal state. When your normal is joy then there is no more joy, only normal. You can't feel the difference. What you can and do feel is the sadness, the depressive side.

Digital 3D image of a 'man' turning up a volume control.

Think of happiness as a dial numbered from 1, sadness, to 10, joyful. Let's consider 1 to 10 the range of your dopamine emotions. Happiness is a 5. Yes, just a 5. There are two special things about this dial. First, it is spring-loaded and will naturally return to 5 if you let it. Second, it is connected to an automatic volume control circuit that kicks in after a while. It's there in case the springs get out of alignment. You can turn it up to 8 any time you want but if you hold the dial there too long, the automatic circuit will assume the dial is stuck at 8 and adjust the volume on its own.

Over-stimulated With No Where To Go

Many of us live our lives seeking joy and often finding it. We over-stimulate our joy circuits, setting our dials a 6, 7, 8, or even higher and effectively holding the dial in place. Cocaine addicts crank it up to 11, dude. What this means is that when the automatic volume control of the brain adjusts us back to 5, the normalization of the dopamine level at it's elevated state, the experiences we need to have to raise our level of joy are more intense.

What would have been joyful, say biting into the first ripe apple off the tree, (wasn't there some problem with this?...I seem to recall some guy named Adam having issues...) becomes normal. Do you savor an apple in this way? Is the lusciousness of an apple diminished from joy to normal?

All of our life becomes less joyful when we turn what was once a joyful experience into an everyday experience. It is the contrast between normal happiness and the better than happy that is joy.

Happiness At Last

The path to happiness is through breaking addictions, small and large, and re-balancing yourself in such a way that there is room in common experiences to have joy. And to recognize that the dial set at 5 is, in fact, happiness. You needn't want more than to simply feel good every day and sometime feel glad or bad.

Sadness, the opposite of joy, is likewise relative to your middle state. You may not seek out sadness but neither should you run from it like the plague. Moderate amounts of sadness are fine but, like joy, you don't want the dial held down too long or too close to 1. That gets you into a state of depression, which, if bad enough, can be hard to get out of, something of a mirror to the challenges a crack addict has coming down from their addiction to high joy levels. If the dial's at 1, it's far too tempting to turn it to 0. We don't want any of that now, do we?

Stopping To Smell The Roses

A beautiful woman is lost in the moment of smelling a pink rose.

All of us are joy addicts. What you need to do to be happy is what any addict must first do, you must admit you have a problem. When you can say, "I am addicted to joy." Then you can start to find your way back to the natural 5 within you.

Once you have a clear idea of where you are going you can start to wean yourself off of your joy addictions.

I don't propose using sadness as a counterpoint to joy. I don't think that's the way.

Start by just learning how to enjoy an apple. Just stop and smell the roses of your life a little. Rediscover joy in all those things that you take for granted. Usually just taking the time to appreciate those small things that make your life good, friends, family, your dog, fulfilling work, or a nice sunset, will lead you to the foundations of happiness.

Simple gratitude, expressed daily, for all that you have can help bring you back to happiness. Whatever you are grateful for, consciously appreciate it, then let the feeling go. Don't hold the dial down. Let it return naturally back to 5.

True Happiness

Once your addictions are broken and your happiness is settled enough to enjoy most of life, you may come to the question of balance. What about those things that make you sad? Should you simply accept them an move on? Well, that depends:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. - Serenity prayer

Visualize your happiness. What would you life look like if "what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony?" This is the true meaning of bliss, heaven, nirvana, and enlightenment.

Once you find the wisdom and courage to change those things you need to balance your life, to place you on the path to harmony and to following your bliss, then you will have found true happiness.

When you have arrived you will find yourself at peace, neither craving nor avoiding those things that bring joy and sadness. You know you can just roll with the changes on the dial and enjoy the ride.

Additional reading:

For a fascinating look at happiness, see this graphic on and click on Happiness on the left. You'll notice that from the poorest to the wealthiest places, the happiness doesn't vary much. People in Hawaii seem extra happy (is it the pineapple consumption or are they just getting lei'd all the time?) and those in the Everglades aren't as much (too much stuff that bites and stings). That's just our natural '5' settling in. Okay, maybe it's a '6' living in Hawaii.

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How do you describe happiness?

Jim Callahan
Jim Callahan

IMO, this is a really good article for a Wisdom website. It uses the mind as the topic and combines people's experience and scientific discoveries to make an important point that is very useful to everyone. This is a fine aspect of your site, drawing on the scientific knowledge that we have now.

I would like to ask, if seeking happiness instead of joy is a core challenge for all people, wouldn't this be part of the meaning of life, as discussed in your last article? Wouldn't that then mean that the meaning of life is basically the same for all people?

As far as describing happiness, I think you have to go beyond what Ghandi said, namely that happiness is a life without conflict. It has to avoid cravings or addictions too.

I got this whole article in my e-mail, for the first time, and real convenient for reading. Very nice.

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