A Practical Framework On Happiness In Modern Life

What if evolution doesn’t want us to be happy? If our journey to a good and satisfied life is a fight against our own nature? Can this fight be won? When trying to answer this question, it sometimes seems like all useful fighting instructions have already been given in antiquity and that nowadays much of this wisdom has been forgotten and replaced by triviality. In the attempt of following the antique understanding of philosophy, this essay argues that we need to actively choose tools and strategies to guide our way of thinking across all four components of our happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning. Doing this deliberately and in a holistic manner is a Philosophy of Life – a set of fighting instructions that allow us to cope with the challenges of life to ultimately achieve lasting happiness.

So what is there to learn from antique philosophy? The antique idea of a happy life was about a life lived in harmony with oneself including suffering and discomfort. Plato described happiness as a moral life lived according to his four cardinal virtues, Temperance (moderation of one’s desires), Fortitude (inner strength in the face of adversity), Prudence (being reasonable and of good judgement), and Justice (the middle road between being selfless and selfish). For Aristoteles happiness was a skill that required practice just as anything else and was achieved by living virtuously. The school of Stoicism understood happiness as the cultivation of an excellent mental state that was achieved by living a life of reason and virtue. The great Stoic and emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” And even Epicureanism, a philosophy we nowadays often mistake for hedonism, believed that the pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve inner tranquility (ataraxia) by being content with simple things.

Our modern notion of happiness is different. As Capitalism grew, our understanding of a happy life shifted more and more towards some kind of Enlightened Hedonism. Enlightened Hedonism doesn’t neglect the potential benefits of sacrifices in the present to achieve greater pleasure in the future. Its ultimate goal however remains pleasure maximisation. Phrases such as “work hard, play hard” became part of our modern narratives, justifying our consumption while often not adding any value beyond these fleeting moments of excitement. The problem with this philosophy is that it is rather narrow in scope. It doesn’t give us more than the drive to maximise our own short-term pleasure. In a world that is ever more complex and fast-moving with a sheer overload of possible choices, it doesn’t give any more guidance on what is worth obtaining and what is not than asking “Where do I derive the most pleasure from?”.

What many of us lack in these times is a coherent Philosophy of Life, that is a philosophy that guides our choices on how to live a good and satisfied life in the long run. Take Stoicism for example. This philosophy clearly outlines what is worth striving for and what is not. It will tell us how to get there and equip us with strategies and tools that help along the way. It will help us to bear unavoidable suffering and to overcome intimidating obstacles to ultimately achieve a good and fulfilling life.

Since we are interested in long-term happiness, we shall not define a happy life as a sequence of fleeting moments of pleasure. Instead, happiness is understood as total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life. Before diving deeper into this, let’s first have a look at why living a happy life, in general, is so hard to accomplish and what human tendencies need to be overcome.

The Problem

First, we need to understand that we were not made to be happy. From an evolutionary perspective, there really has been no advantage to being happy. On the very contrary, if we were constantly happy with what we already had and not constantly striving for more, this would have decreased our chances of survival.

One could therefore say that the desire for more is a natural human tendency. This isn’t all bad and it’s certainly a tendency that – with the proper work put in – can and needs to be channeled in useful ways to achieve our full potential. It is however also true, that in our modern world, this is often simply not happening very well and therefore causing a lot of suffering. As the American entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant states: “Desire is a contract with yourself, to be unhappy until you get what you want.” So if one desire follows another, there really is not much time left for happiness. Or to put it differently: If we focus only on what we don’t have and still want, how can we ever have enough?

Beyond our insatiable desires, we are victims of constant comparisons. Being the social animals that we are, we can’t stop wondering about what other people might think about us. We also can’t help but compare us to others, constantly being afraid of being worse off than our neighbour. The problem with this is equally obvious as it is with our desire, yet it is equally hard to overcome. How can we become our true selves and live a happy life if we can’t stop looking left and right trying to live up to other people’s expectations?

The list of human tendencies that, often at the very first glance, oppose our understanding of a happy life is a long one. We therefore need tools and strategies to cope with these tendencies. Each holistic Philosophy of Life will find answers to what these tools and strategies are. Certainly, some will be better and some worse. But all of them will find some.

The Limitation

At this point, let’s be clear. I do want to make the case that much about our own happiness is up to us. Our perception of the world, the way we think, and the choices we make influence our state of happiness. A lot. But our happiness is not entirely up to us. We simply know that there are people for whom from a purely biological standpoint it is easier to be satisfied and happy than for others.

There are many recent studies trying to uncover the neural underpinning of happiness. In order to do so, one of the most interesting things happiness researchers can do is look at twins. This allows them to compare the influence of genetics as opposed to other internal and external factors. Twin studies and other adoption studies found that approximately 50% of life satisfaction is due to genetics. Even if we aren’t entirely sure if that number is correct, we can be fairly sure that biology plays a significant role in our own happiness. And despite the fact that 50% might sound high, it does leave another 50% up to us.

This graphic below is an attempt to visualise our scope of influence.

We certainly are restricted by our biological limitations. Within these limits, there are two things we can differentiate between. One is what I call situational volatility. These are fleeting moments of pleasure. Fleeting because they are nothing more than a biochemical rush of neurotransmitters. I would argue that this kind of “happiness” is pretty much a zero-sum game as there are only so many neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin available. As mentioned above, this part of our happiness is nothing that we should be as concerned about as we are.

The other component in this graphic is our baseline. This is our sustained level of life satisfaction and can indeed be influenced. Depending on our perspective of the world, our thoughts, and actions, this baseline moves and with it our long-term happiness. So what are the individual components that influence our baseline?

The Components

So let me propose a rather simple structure to understand our scope of influence on happiness a little better and to determine its individual components. The structure itself is “Philosophy of Life – neutral”. This means it works across different world views yet it filters those out that shouldn’t be understood as a Philosophy of Life in the first place since they are either not holistic (i.e. not covering all components) or simply contradictory to our basic needs (e.g. suggesting that we shouldn’t engage in any relationship whatsoever because we are better off alone). 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships are crucial to our happiness. Neither should anybody be surprised that it’s not the quantity but the quality of our relationships that truly matter. There are so many studies pointing out the importance of relationships that I won’t even bother starting to name them all.

There is however one that I believe deserves to be highlighted. The Harvard Study of Adult Development published by Roland Waldinger in 2015 may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For more than 75 years the researchers tracked 724 men, year after year, asking them about their work, their home lives, and their health. The one major takeaway from this 75 years of research is the following: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. Waldinger states that “people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer.”

Just as relationships, Health should be another hardly controversial component of our happiness. This includes mental and physical health to equal parts. Health is what you eat, how much you sleep, how active you are, and most certainly how you think.

Take for example the importance of being active. Our brains work most efficiently when BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is created during exercise. This allows for the easier transmission of neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotions. Further, physical activity releases endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which play an important role in mood regulation.

When it comes to the way we think, studies on the impact of gratitude practices found lasting effects on the brain causing the participants to be happier and less depressive. This shows once again the importance of our way of thinking and confirms what Marcus Aurelius said 2,000 years ago: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

But one of the most important points to be made about the importance of health is that it is relative. This characteristic, in scientific terms referred to as hedonic adaptation, describes the process of humans constantly adapting to the status quo and not judging our current state in absolute terms but instead only perceiving relative changes.

One of the most cited pieces of research in this domain is a study from 1978 where researchers interviewed two very different groups about their happiness – recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. The participants were asked how much pleasure they derived from everyday activities such as chatting with a friend or laughing at a joke.

When the researchers analysed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. And even though the lottery winners reported more present happiness than the accident victims (4 out of 5 as compared to 2.96) the authors concluded that “the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected.”

Financial Security
Beyond high-quality relationships and health, we need sufficient resources to cover our basic needs and move up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While money per se doesn’t make us happy, it can be regarded as the enabler for many things that do and often grants the necessary freedom and security to strive towards self-actualisation and deep fulfillment.

The question then becomes how much money is sufficient. Certainly, the amount of money we need depends on our situation in life, the city we live in, and our desired lifestyle. However, the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income and wealth applies to everybody alike. It suggests that individuals gain correspondingly smaller increases in satisfaction and happiness as their income increases.

If you live in Germany on a below-average income of 15,000 €, you benefit from a large increase in happiness if your income doubles. If it doubles again to 60,000 € the happiness increase is significantly smaller than before. At some point, the correlation is completely lost and there is no measurable increase in happiness any longer as our income increases.

This is the result of the above-mentioned hedonic adaptation. Once we cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our way of living. What used to be exciting and new becomes ordinary and less enjoyable.

Meaning is an extensive topic and it’s difficult to find a great philosopher who didn’t have something to say about it. Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” It seems almost intuitive to us that meaning is an inherent part of our happiness. But how do we get there?

The American psychologist and author Jordan Peterson has a rather simple but well-thought-through answer on how to obtain it. He argues that meaning comes to the degree to which one takes on responsibility.

The beauty of this way of looking at meaning is that it doesn’t limit it to just the work you do. It argues that meaning can be derived from your family, from volunteering, and from parenting. Obviously, for those of us fortunate enough to pursue meaning in our work this will and should be a crucial part. But it’s not the only way.

There is an interesting interdependency in Peterson’s definition of meaning. The more responsibility we take, the more meaning we obtain. As part of this equation, it’s also true to say that the more responsibility we take, the more difficulties we face. The more difficulties we face, the more we suffer. And the more suffering we overcome, the more we grow. Growth then gives us further meaning.

If we accept that suffering is unavoidable for everybody alike (while its degree partly depends on the responsibility we take), it becomes clear why meaning is so important. Even if we are healthy, enjoy many high-quality relationships, and are fortunate enough to be sufficiently wealthy, bad things will happen to us. And if there is no answer to why it is worth bearing the suffering how can it be overcome?

As argued in the beginning, I believe that a Philosophy of Life helps by offering guidance on what is worth pursuing and what is not in regard to a good, meaningful life. That is not to say that one cannot find meaning without actively reflecting on your own Philosophy of Life. It simply means it is significantly harder.

There is one thing that all four components – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – have in common. They are all steered by our expectations.

Take for example our relationships. In her TED Talk, Esther Perel argues that the reason so many romantic relationships break is not because they are genuinely worse than a few decades ago. It’s because our expectations for our partner are at an all-time high. We expect our partner to give us what an entire village used to provide us with. We want the person to be our soulmate living in accordance with our values, our passionate lover, and our best friend while also being the person to provide economic security and a sense of belonging in this uncertain world.

What about health? We discussed that health is fundamentally based on relative comparisons. We don’t wake up every day grateful for not having a headache. Because we get used to the status quo of not having one and expect the world to continue this way. Only if we feel significantly better or worse than our usual status quo do we realise the change and react to it.

The same applies to financial security. The reason that income and wealth show a diminishing marginal utility is because once we have enough to cover our basic needs we very quickly get used to our new lifestyle. The pleasure we derive from a new car quickly diminishes until it is no longer different from our old one. The new and exciting becomes ordinary.

And finally, meaning. Even though meaning should be something fundamentally intrinsic, it often is influenced by outside expectations. If we don’t get the promotion we hoped for, the source of our disappointment is often not the sheer fact that we didn’t get it. The disappointment stems from our expectation to deserve the promotion. Because we feel like we did a good job and we saw other people being promoted in similar situations. As a consequence of not getting the promotion, the meaning we used to derive from our old job decreases since we now expect something different.

Looking at our expectations like this, it seems that their impact on our happiness is hard to overestimate. The good news is that we can actively influence our expectations by choosing and integrating certain tools and strategies in our lives. Doing this deliberately and holistically across all components of happiness is a Philosophy of Life.

Stoics for example practice the art of negative visualisation asking “What’s the worst that can happen?”. Reflecting on the impermanence of life increases their appreciation and gratitude for all things. They also believe in internalising our goals. Instead of aiming at winning a tennis match, we would be better off aiming at playing the best we can. While winning the game depends on many other external factors, playing the best we can is entirely up to us. Stoics engage in self-denial and periodically practice poverty. As the stoic philosophers Seneca writes, by doing so they learn to content themselves “with the scantiest and cheapest fare” thereby resetting their expectations. They also have a lot to say about the people we should surround ourselves with and how to deal with annoying people by managing our own expectations. Besides these few examples, there are many more Stoic tools and strategies. They all can be assigned to one of the components of happiness we discussed and they all actively influence our expectations.

Choosing Your Philosophy of Life

In the beginning, I pointed out that the journey to happiness is in part the fight against our own nature. In the attempt of defining a framework to craft our own set of fighting instructions that allow us to overrule our nature, we covered the definition of happiness as the total and lasting satisfaction with one’s own life, an understanding much closer to the ancient one. We looked closely at the evolutionary challenges that need to be overcome and biological limitations that even though playing a large role, still leave a lot of our happiness up to us.

The discussed components of happiness – our relationships, health, financial security, and meaning – are universally applicable with our expectations being the greatest leverage we have to influence them. While some parts of our happiness are outside of our control, it is up to us to actively steer our expectations instead of being steered by them.

Choosing tools and strategies to do so deliberately and in a holistic manner is forming one’s Philosophy of Life. As argued above, I believe the impact of doing this is hard to overestimate. 

So what is your Philosophy of Life?