Happiness is actually an unattainable goal
March 26, 2018 2:54 PM   Subscribe

It is impossible to be constantly happy It seems the brain, the way it analyzes the data of what was, what is and what’s to come affects the proteins and in effect, the travel of sodium ions into a neuron will shut down a pathway (which may be towards happiness.)
posted by Yellow (39 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Damn, my brain must really be clearing house for some moments of intense happiness. Few more years of feeling like this and I'm sure my sodium, potassium, and electricity will all finally be ready to dole out some happy.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:59 PM on March 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


This makes me happy.
posted by FJT at 3:00 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


It is impossible to be constantly happy

Not with that attitude!
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:01 PM on March 26, 2018 [34 favorites]


Speaking from recent (and unusual) experience, being too happy can be utterly exhausting. It can also be really irritating or offputting to the people around you when they're nowhere near your level at the time and it's kind of unrelenting.

I'm actually relieved that I'm kind of settling back into my usually cynical self because I was turning into some kind of weird Care Bear mutant for a week or two, there, and it was scaring poor old goth-ish me.

It's nice to have a little of everything and some balance.
posted by loquacious at 3:11 PM on March 26, 2018 [8 favorites]


Interesting idea, that sensory habituation and emotional habituation might work by similar mechanisms.
Continuing to notice sensations like the light touch of our clothes on our arms or the mild fragrance of the laundry detergent we used to wash them would be distracting, to say the least, and might even interfere with our ability to detect and respond to a signal that mattered, like a tap on the shoulder or our toast burning.
If we were happy all the time, it would interfere with our ability to notice what new things make us happy.

It's a nice alternative to the evolutionary Just So stories used by everybody who's trying to convince us that we'd be happier if only we lived the way that imagine our prehistoric ancestors did.

The bit about how images disappear completely if they're held fixed on the retina is pretty fascinating, too.
posted by clawsoon at 3:29 PM on March 26, 2018 [10 favorites]


(A question, though: Wouldn't being sad all the time interfere with our ability to notice what new things are making us sad?)
posted by clawsoon at 3:30 PM on March 26, 2018 [13 favorites]


I like the *idea* of being happy all the time, and in practice I keep re-watching TV shows that I know lead to just large amounts of extremely messy crying on my part because I know I always wind up feeling better afterwards when I do it, in particular when I've already been anxious a lot lately.
posted by Sequence at 3:52 PM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


I don't know, it looks like this article makes some good points, but so does Pete Townshend.
posted by sfenders at 3:53 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I believe that the things the author is talking about are biological realities, but they obviously aren't the whole picture. It is definitely possible to cultivate happiness, to consciously recognize when things are good, even when they're also familiar, and encourage oneself to feel the pleasure of them. Maybe there's a natural tendency to become habituated—though I'm wary of the idea that any particular state is "natural" for humans unless it's been studied and compared across many different cultures—but it's certainly not inevitable. Through mindfulness, what people often call cultivating gratitude, one can build a practice of recognizing pleasant moments and enjoying them, even when they're mundane. It's a really good thing to do.

Another mefite recently posted this Kurt Vonnegut quote, but I forget who and where (sorry). I think it's apropos:
My Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now, one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, "If this isn't nice, what is?"
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:05 PM on March 26, 2018 [24 favorites]


I am not religious. But I count my blessings daily. It seems like the right thing to do.
posted by Splunge at 4:12 PM on March 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


Continuing to notice sensations like the light touch of our clothes on our arms or the mild fragrance of the laundry detergent we used to wash them would be distracting, to say the least, and might even interfere with our ability to detect and respond to a signal that mattered, like a tap on the shoulder or our toast burning.

*snort* this is half the problem with being Autistic, I *do* constantly notice the touch of clothes and mild fragrances. And I *do* get distracted by other sensory stuff that sometimes I don’t notice someone saying my name or tapping my shoulder until I do and then I jump and get freaked out. It would be very nice to be happy all the time, but I’d settle for a normal non- SPD sensory experience.

Huh, maybe because of my wiring I*could* be happy all the time because I don’t get used to things. Be nice for there to be an upside to all that mess.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 4:22 PM on March 26, 2018 [13 favorites]


The evolutionary purpose of pleasure is to drive behaviors essential for survival and reproduction. The carrot would stop working if we could catch it. It’s a functional necessity that happiness remains fleeting.

It’s a bit tenuous to directly connect neuronal habituation to behavioral desensitization when it comes to more complicated critters than sea slugs. There are many layers involved in information processing in the brain, and the way they interact is very complex. It’s important to note that the opposite process also occurs; neurons sensitize to certain stimuli, which is essential for learning—and for that matter, for the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors.
posted by dephlogisticated at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


Wouldn't being sad all the time interfere with our ability to notice what new things are making us sad?

Hence letting everything going to shit when you're depressed.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:53 PM on March 26, 2018 [9 favorites]


Homo neanderthalensis: *snort* this is half the problem with being Autistic, I *do* constantly notice the touch of clothes and mild fragrances. And I *do* get distracted by other sensory stuff that sometimes I don’t notice someone saying my name or tapping my shoulder until I do and then I jump and get freaked out.

The author briefly mentions autism in the next sentence, but doesn't really explore that side of it. Fascinating that your experience is exactly on point.
posted by clawsoon at 5:02 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


In my case, depression short circuits the pleasure/pain thing. I love many things. But sometimes I can't get myself to care.
posted by Splunge at 5:10 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Check out the Nautilus Board of Advisors. It's like a who's who of Old Physicist Disease meets Leveraged Capital Tedtalk. I think half of them are from the Santa Fe institute, basically the technocrats' technocrats. So on that note...

It’s a bit tenuous to directly connect neuronal habituation to behavioral desensitization when it comes to more complicated critters than sea slugs.

QFT. This article is neuroreductionist faff.
posted by traveler_ at 6:29 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Clearly, to achieve constant happiness, one must live with a gradually improving series of circumstances. All it needs is planning and resources. So simple!
posted by amtho at 6:32 PM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


*snort* this is half the problem with being Autistic, I *do* constantly notice the touch of clothes and mild fragrances.

Buddhist monks also experience differences in habituation.
posted by Jpfed at 6:55 PM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


In this as in many other things, I take my lead from Ambrose Bierce.
posted by MrBadExample at 9:17 PM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think this thread is lending too much weight to the no-doubt editor assigned subtitle of the piece. It seems to me Dr. Raman is 1) making a relatively benign point that humans notice change 2) wrapping it in her research on ionic mechanisms. I enjoyed it and think it hits the Nautilus sweet spot of asking a somewhat existential question then relating it to some interesting science.

That said, I think Herman Melville made a similar point more vividly:
“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
posted by matrixclown at 9:22 PM on March 26, 2018 [9 favorites]


Buddhist monks also experience differences in habituation.

huh. That's... really interesting. They achieve this through constant meditation, but every time I've tried to meditate I just can't. I wonder if my Autism interferes with the ability to meditate.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:56 PM on March 26, 2018


Disclosure: came for the posted article, stayed for "It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids".
posted by Prince Lazy I at 1:30 AM on March 27, 2018


There is no “happiness,” there are only moments of happiness. —Oscar Levant
posted by kinnakeet at 2:37 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting on the science, but I'm not convinced that offering the truism 'we get used to things' is much of a contribution to the question of happiness.
posted by criticalbill at 3:40 AM on March 27, 2018


In fact only two pars in the piece – the first and the last – deal with the question that is posed in the headline.

Furthermore, the writer appears to conflate pleasure and happiness, which seems a rookie error
posted by criticalbill at 3:46 AM on March 27, 2018


every time I've tried to meditate I just can't. I wonder if my Autism interferes with the ability to meditate.

Five questions I'm genuinely interested in the answers to:

1. What meditation practices have you trialled?

2. When you've tried to meditate, how much time have you allocated to the session?

3. How much time in total have you spent trying to meditate?

4. Last time you tried, what happened that lead you to conclude that you'd failed?

5. What would need to happen to lead you to conclude that you'd succeeded?
posted by flabdablet at 5:20 AM on March 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm basically happy all the time. It's not like I'm never sad, or mad or bored, but those are more fleeting. I wonder if this means there is something mentally wrong with me? Oh well!
posted by The_Vegetables at 6:52 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


Disclosure: came for the posted article, stayed for "It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids".

Human/Bonobo by preference. I'm convinced our brains got too big at some point, and they seem to have a pretty good gig going.
posted by mikelieman at 6:58 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's not like I'm never sad, or mad or bored, but those are more fleeting.

I think this suggests, though, that this is basically the ideal. You can't just be constantly happy, but you can limit the negative feelings to spaces where they aren't a significant drag on your life. It's okay to be temporarily sad or temporarily bored or whatever and having negative feelings does not mean you aren't happy as a general state. Some people have a lot of trouble with the idea that negative feelings have a place in a generally happy life.
posted by Sequence at 9:28 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Even more people have a lot of trouble with the idea that a perfectly satisfactory life can be had without happiness being the default state.
posted by flabdablet at 9:39 AM on March 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


every time I've tried to meditate I just can't. I wonder if my Autism interferes with the ability to meditate.

I have had this experience too. I have a bunch of weird processing issues (though I'm not dxed on the spectrum) -- and I'm still trying to get my head around the idea of not noticing the scent of laundry detergent or the feeling of fabric against my skin. I've also had no luck with meditation.
posted by halation at 10:25 AM on March 27, 2018


Even more people have a lot of trouble with the idea that a perfectly satisfactory life can be had without happiness being the default state.

Which seems like something that needs to be studied/remedied because in my opinion that's the default state of the majority of people - even though I'm not really equipped to judge other people's happiness.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:39 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'd be fascinated to read answers to my five questions from anybody who has got nothing useful from meditiation, via memail if you don't feel like cluttering this thread with them.
posted by flabdablet at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't even understand the concept of being happy all the time. It just sounds like being drugged and not actually experiencing emotions at all.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:41 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Happiness is actually an unattainable goal

Oh this is bullshit. Happiness can be a decision, but it must be a habit - like any other physical exercise. It can take decades but you just need to constantly remind yourself of your own worth and tell yourself you are happy, genuinely and define why. This will inform future decisions and value statements you give to yourself. It eventually works.

This is the definition of mantras, meditation, religion, too. A constant focused message, as a habit, telling yourself about being happy can eventually yield happiness. (Many of my close friends that struggle with unhappiness, I know, tell themselves reinforcing statements about their unhappiness, too - I'm just arguing the opposite as a strategy)

In my own experience, this also means identifying unhappy experiences, interactions, and groups/people, and making tough decisions. Praise yourself for good work, and praise yourself for good people in your life. Try to identify something thankful for every day and write it down. Remind yourself the next day about what you were thankful for the day before. Rinse, repeat. Eventually you'll start automatically telling yourself you are happy, and feeling it. But it takes years of focused resistance to the depression around us. Care about everyone that matters to you, too, and tell them.

So I'll argue happiness can happen. It's just a lot tougher work than the opposite.
posted by Peter H at 12:13 PM on March 27, 2018


Putting flabdet’s query another way: if you are following basic instructions on meditation, then you are meditating. It may be a challenge, but meditation is the attempt to meditate...
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:27 PM on March 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


Having had similar issues and having similar conversations before, would it engender less nitpicking to say one has successfully meditated but found it a deeply unsatisfactory and possibly even unpleasant experience? Is there some magic set of words to not have to explain that one doesn't find it beneficial? I can fully appreciate how meditation helps many people, but I'm not sure how to get across that some of you do not understand what it's like to live in a world where the universe itches when you aren't distracted. Which may itself be totally different to the way that Homo neanderthalensis experiences it, but I'm comfortable assuming that they're accurately reporting that it doesn't help them because I get that it isn't going to be for everybody.
posted by Sequence at 3:15 PM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how to get across that some of you do not understand what it's like to live in a world where the universe itches when you aren't distracted

I'm autistic. The world basically always itches or scratches. That's partly why my Zen practice has been so useful for me.
posted by Lexica at 4:52 PM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I have no problem at all with your response, sequence: meditation is not for every one, or even anyone at all times. I don't think anyone here said it was, or was nitpicking.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:17 PM on March 28, 2018


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