The psychology of happiness - or do we mean joy?

One video that’s gone viral recently back is a speech by actor Matthew McConaughey made back in 2016 to a group of graduates at the University of Houston.

Although he’s not a psychologist, we can learn a lot from a man who has had to face obstacles like constant failure, criticism and public attention. In the motivating talk, he compares happiness to joy. “Happiness”, he says, is “an emotional response to an outcome” and is “result reliant”. We tell ourselves everyday: “If I win, I will be happy. If I don’t, I won’t”. But because of this, we can never truly be happy. We create for ourselves “a standard that we cannot sustain, because we immediately raise it every time we attain it”.

“Joy” is a different thing, he says. “It’s not a response to some result. It’s a constant. Joy is the feeling that we have from doing what we are fashioned to do, no matter the outcome.”

The Houston students were entering a different world to the one we live in now. If life was “not easy” then, as McConaughey said, it’s absolutely even more challenging now. So no wonder his wise words have rung so true at this very moment when people are generally feeling less happy and certain about the future.

If anything, Covid-19 has made us stop and think: what really makes us happy? Is it the pursuit of money and power, or is it, as McConaughey puts it, feeling “alive and well in the doing of what we’re fashioned to do”?

Lockdown might have opened our eyes to many daily activities which make us feel joy, like cooking banana bread or painting, exercising or gardening- as this Times article suggested.

Just as McConaughey splits up happiness and joy, many psychologists make a key distinction between ‘pleasure’ from ‘happiness’ (or joy). ‘Pleasure’ isn’t always positive: you can get short-term pleasure from negative actions such as – for example - saying nasty things to make yourself feel better. Instead, what McConaughey refers to is ancient wisdom: Aristotle split the feeling of hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well lived) before the word ‘psychology’ even existed.

So how do we attain eudainmonia? We are engineered to believe that happiness is dependent on success and money. But in recent years, a large number of psychologists (as well as actors-turned-preachers like McConaughey) have begun to see happiness in a more Buddhist light.

By ‘Buddhist’, I’m talking about seeing the joy in small, everyday activities; staying in the present moment and blocking out negative thoughts of the future and past (such as the desire to succeed in the future or focusing on failures in the past).

Buddhism teaches that suffering is the source of all joy and development in life (towards eudaimonia). This is at the centre of acclaimed psychologist Scott Peck’s theory of attaining happiness or joy, that suffering develops the soul and procrastinating in dealing with issues can cause unhappiness.

So perhaps instead of dwelling on the inevitable unfairness of life (especially as now life can seem a bit miserable), we should focus on how suffering can be constructive and living every moment as it comes. No matter how small, this is much more rewarding than mulling over the past or projecting into the future. Who knows what the future holds anyway?

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