What is the mind when it is happy and when it is unhappy? Most likely the answer is different for each person, but to understand it for myself I first need to discern when it is that I am happy. When I think about happiness the first concept that comes to mind is friendship. I have always heard people say that in college you make friends for life. The kind of friends that will be with you your whole life and will stick by you through everything. I never believed them. A lot of my friends are part-time, we sometimes keep in touch, mostly through the noncommittal medium of facebook.
More recently however, I managed to make some friends who I feel I could call lifelong. I have always been slightly afraid of people, and social situations are often uncomfortable for me, yet I have unfailingly been drawn to take project classes. This seemed uncharacteristic for me until I realized that the times I feel most comfortable with someone are when there is a common external goal that we share. C.S. Lewis thought that true friendship, which he categorized as the love called philia, could only exist between people who share a common vision or activity. He claimed that because this was the least biologically necessary love, when it truly existed, it was the most admirable. He lauds friendship and says, "To the Ancients, Friendship [notice the capitalization] seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life…"1 Through friends that I made over many shared hours in computer labs I now see more clearly what he meant. Lewis's various categories become blurry at this point yet the importance he places on shared interest remains.
When I look back on moments when I have been happy I find that they are often connected with actions. I would be happy going to the beach with people. I would be happy watching hulu by myself. I would be happy when people appreciate me or praise me at work. I would be happy hiking and I would be happy skiing. All of these moments of happiness involve action.
Skiing is one of those actions that makes me happy. The beauty of the winter landscape, the rush after a good run and the thrill of surviving a double black, these combine to force my frozen face muscles into a permanent grin. Having just come back from a weekend ski trip, both the physical happiness of skiing and the more emotional happiness of being with friends are still vivid in my mind.
The pleasure of skiing, according to my Intro to Psych class, is dopamine based: excess dopamine is generated by the opioid effect of the endorphins coursing through my body which are themselves released during strenuous activity. The neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for reward and pleasure. This effect is physically addictive and is the primary mechanism behind drug addictions. When my body clicks into a rhythm of motion, when that rhythm is true and enables my skis to smoothly cut through the snow, then I can fly down the mountain and pull up to the lift grinning and panting like a madman. The feeling, if I can describe it, is the feeling of success, invincibility and wholeness; not just the wholeness of body and mind, but also of body with skis and with the mountain. This may sound hyperbolic but what is necessary for this feeling to happen is for my mind to trust my body, for my body to trust my skis, and for my skis to feel the snow and find a line that flows with it not against it. Skiers always talk about the elusive great run of the day, when suddenly it all clicks into place. Like gambling it is that rush of the great run that keeps them going back up the chair in the freezing cold over and over.
This is the same feeling that I experience when I get into the flow of coding or drawing or even having a stimulating conversation. Many people have written about the pleasure of flow2 and I can attest that I crave this state above many other things in life. This feeling of warm excitement mingled with conviction opens the mind's gates. I become smarter, better, faster and stronger when I am in this state. This kind of happiness begets more happiness and thus it is no wonder that it is so sought after. With enough happiness I feel invincible.
This weekend however was not only about skiing but about spending time with close friends. What surprised me was that we did not even ski much. In the past I have sometimes been accused of having frantic skiing syndrome. I always had to be at the mountain when the lifts opened and would bring lunch in my pocket so I could eat it on the lift and not have to stop. However, this time I was happy to lounge about with my friends over a long breakfast and to not even ski at all on Sunday. The common goal we had was to be with each other; it had somehow surpassed the external goals we had shared when we became friends in the lab originally. I was happy to simply spend time with them, playing board games I was terrible at and not feeling self-conscious when I did not score a single point in a game. Perhaps the common aspect between that physical happiness of flow and of hanging out with my friends was that in both cases the feeling of trust was strong enough to not have any reservations or feelings of self-consciousness. In Intro to Psych I learned that oxytocin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of attachment and trust. It also reduces activity in the amygdala and by this action reduces feelings of fear. This feeling of comfort without any fear is my holy grail. As with the physical happiness this is empowering. For me it seems that happiness is directly related to not feeling self-conscious. When I find that zone doing something challenging yet rewarding or am with people who accept me, then it is that I also feel happiness.
By this definition when I am unhappy the exact reverse is true. When I am failing at something or when I feel self-conscious, then it is that I feel unhappiness. I am most unhappy when I am afraid. I have recently realized that much of my life I have made decisions based on fear. Those moments when I succumb to fear are the worst moments in my life. Not only do I loathe myself for succumbing to the fear, but I also loathe myself as I try to justify it and attempt to reason that the decision was for the best. The feeling of unhappiness that ensues is overwhelming. There are many components to this unhappiness: regret, hopelessness, shame, helplessness and depression. At these moments my mind is a constricted knot of anxious thoughts. I feel physically ill and my insides feel like they mimic the state of my mind.
When I was a teenager I remember a few families going on a picnic to a lake. There was a high jump tower there off of a bridge. I was so terrified that I would be pressured to jump with everybody else that I ran away. I spent the whole day by myself off in the woods by the lake trying to avoid anybody who might ask why I was not with the group. To this day I regret that cowardliness. I have since conquered my fear of jumping off of high places to some degree, but that memory is a constant reminder of pure unhappiness. These days I have learned to deal with situations better, but I still tend to have avoidant behavior that will periodically cause me personal shame.
I can not say how often I am happy or unhappy; no more or less than my perception of the norm for others. However after thinking about the state of mind I am in when I am happy or unhappy I realize that they are both closely tied to fear; happiness is the absence of fear and unhappiness is fear and its aftereffects. All my happinesses can be said to be variations on this basic theme.
1 Lewis, C. S. (1960). The Four Loves. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. pg. 57.
2 Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York, NY: Basic Books.