It's almost universally accepted that the core motivation behind every human choice is a desire for happiness. From proposing to your beloved to choosing which tie to wear when you really don't care, everything is about maximizing perceived happiness. You drink a branded soda. Why? Because the brand brings back feelings of your family. Why is that important? Because you love your family. Why is that important? Because they make you happy. Follow every action backwards, and you find happiness at the core. The tie example - you feel like it's not worth taking time to make a decision because you can spend your time doing something else that will make you happy.
But what does that even mean?
What is happiness?
You'd think that in the eons of existence, mankind would be able to accurately determine what happiness is in someone's life, and also have a reliable, repeatable way of measuring that happiness. I mean, if every single human endeavor is designed to maximize happiness, wouldn't it make sense to have a way to measure the efficacy of those actions? Then, you could ostensibly create a roadmap that can help the rest of the human race find this all-important gift.
The modern world is an epic fail when it comes to determining happiness. Good scientific tests use external, instead of internal, reference points. An example is hair color - the most useful, accurate determination of hair color isn't whether it's lighter or darker than your skin. It's a comparison with other hair colors in the world. Hence, the classification of blond, black, brown, red - which are shared by others - instead of the classification of one, two, or three shades darker than skin.
Happiness is measured, in most environments and in most research studies that I've read, using a method that's really similar to pain. No external reference point, and simple Likert testing. The most common test is the smiley face test. On the far left is a frowning face. On the right is a smiling one. Point at the one that describes you.
There are some major assumptions in Likert testing for happiness or pain. It assumes that the person using the test is 1: able to determine what level of happiness/pain accurately matches the points on the scale, and 2: able to accurately determine his own level of happiness or pain.
With pain, some of the issues are mediated by the fact that we "know," culturally, what types of things are supposedly the most painful. Like getting appendicitis. Or breaking your femur. Or bleeding from every pore. But while getting appendicitis was painful... was it really the most painful thing in the world? Really? I probably believe, if I'm a rational person, that I'm not experiencing the most painful thing ever to imagine in the world, and probably haven't ever experienced it. So I choose a number that's high enough to communicate the urgency of the situation and forget about the problem of determining what pain really is.
With happiness, there are even bigger problems. People can't isolate happiness or really explain it well. And when you're happy, sometimes you honestly think that you're the happiest person in the world. But what does that mean? And is someone who wins the lottery or a girl that gets a new toy really on the same plane of happiness as someone who is watching her daughter's wedding? And how about the people who are convinced that they're happy... but who really aren't? What about them? Are we all just engaged in a set of mind games trying to convince ourselves of happiness?
The issue with Likert testing is that it doesn't have an external scale... and so I'm forced to put the girl with a new toy and the delusional person on the same level. In reality, I think the main issue at stake is the definition of happiness - a
realization that happiness comes in different forms and different
levels. And even if I've hit the happiest I've been in life, there's probably something better.
Christ said in the scriptures, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you." Along the same line, God is often mentioned as having what the scriptures call "a fulness of joy." The scriptures use the words peace and joy similarly to how we use happiness today - as the end-all goal for life's existence - but also in far different contexts. This quote is striking, because it speaks of multiple kinds of peace - at least one that the world can give, and one that Christ can offer. I'll submit that, unless I really understand all the levels and types of happiness/peace/joy available to me in life, I will probably shortchange myself by seeking after happiness... but a happiness that really won't bring me the level/type of happiness that I want.
So what is happiness/peace/joy?
I'll submit that the best sources of happiness/peace/joy will be the ones that give me the ability to feel the greatest amount of happiness, for the longest period of time, and that are inexhaustible and consistently marginally positive (which means that there is not an easily defined upper limit to the happiness it can provide, and that, instead of shrinking over time - like the happiness that comes from eating one more piece of chocolate cake - there is no limit to how much joy it can provide in my life).
To begin, part of happiness is definitely what happens in my mind. We all know people who go through the exact same experience and, because of their outlook on life, have dramatically different experiences. In an extreme case, one is happy, and learns from the experience, and the other is bitter and feels like he's been robbed. And since the difference between those two people can stem from multiple facets, it makes sense that happiness does as well.
Sometimes happiness is a chemical issue - I know that I struggle to feel happiness when I feel deep depression... and so happiness is somewhat chemical. But the happiness that comes from a drug high is chemical as well. And that happiness is artificial, addicting, and has ruined countless lives. In retrospect, it doesn't look like happiness. So the answer isn't just chemistry.
It's not just physical, either. The height of physical happiness is usually put in sexual or culinary terms. But while sexual activity may bring intense pleasure, there are plenty of examples of sexual encounters that have caused intense unhappiness - abuse being the foremost among them. And eating twelve chocolate cakes (or twelve anythings) may taste good, but then makes me (especially me) feel awful. And the thirteenth doesn't really sound all that appealing.
It's not just emotional... but I think that we're getting closer here. People who have a depth of emotional maturity, the ability to see far into the future, and find good things in their lives seem to definitely be happier than others... but the other facets may or may not be in place for that to happen.
It's not just financial. There are people I met in the poorest areas of Italy who were happier than some of the richest people I've met in America.
It's not just academic. I've met professors who spent their entire lives trying to understand the mysteries of the universe and, at least from my perspective, appeared miserable.
It's not just popularity. Celebrities are a good place to look here - and while the media is always trying to find stories of pain and woe, the reality is that there are happy and unhappy people on the silver screen just like there are people off of it.
It's not just geographic or weather-related. There are happy and unhappy people in Chicago, just like there are happy and unhappy people in California.
It's not just based on finding the job that I want, or marrying the person that I want, or completing my bucket list... because that happiness doesn't always last. There are millions who will attest to the fact that happily ever after isn't always (or even often) true.
And, sometimes, it looks like happiness isn't even based on what my actions are. I can try to be a truly good and upright person and undergo intense trials and suffering in life... or someone who lives life as it comes, how I want, and seem to be happy. Spouses having affairs find pleasure in their sexual experiences. Other people find respite in eating junk food. Kids enjoy burning ants, even with the smell of burning flesh that rises from the sidewalk. Doing drugs would make me high. Stealing money would make me rich. Making fun of would make me popular.
So if what I do isn't connected to happiness, does what I do even matter?
Inside of me, I believe that what I do can lead me to happiness. That my choices and actions will lead me one way or the other. That's the core belief that motivates me to action - and the belief that motivates all human endeavor. So the question, instead, needs to be this: what is the happiness I'm looking for... and what do I need to do to get there?
The reality is that when I talk about true happiness, unless I want to get into heated arguments and go nowhere, I have to talk about something different from what I can find on the street in my everyday. Something different from the Hershey's variety of happiness, or even the gold-foil-wrapped kind that they sell at Macy's. Because if I rely on human interpretations of happiness, even those of good-intentioned people like my parents or experts, I'll always rely on something deeply flawed. Something that may not work for everyone, may run out, and might only serve to distract me along the road. I'll run after visions and dreams only to potentially find that they led me nowhere... and eventually trade in my romantic hopes for something more somber, and far less motivating, in life. No. When I talk about happiness, and begin my own search for it, I need to sort out everything that is physical, experiential, carnal, sensual, external, or has any potential downside. Everything that has an excess, or that maxes out in mortal terms.
When I talk about real happiness, I need to stop talking about pleasure or satisfaction, and start talking about something divine - something that people can sometimes taste in this life, but never really understand or experience until they've spent a lifetime learning how.
That happiness comes from three places.
The first is from what I do. There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all blessings are predicated. And happiness is one of those blessings. True happiness comes from being good - hence why God would create His Plan of Salvation and outline commandments... to help me see the pathway that will build my happiness with each step. The Plan is universal - in that there are commandments that apply universally to all mankind - and also personal - and if I turn to God He will give additional light to help me guide my path. The better I am as a person, the greater my true happiness. Choosing to do the right thing will always lead to greater happiness than any other alternative.
The second is from what I believe and understand. In what I've seen in people, this is often far more difficult to understand than actions. God gives commandments over actions that are easy to follow. But His commandments that apply to beliefs and thoughts are far more difficult. Not stealing from my neighbor? Easy to measure. But truly loving everyone in the world? Or being willing to give up all things for God? Or having faith that, even if I can't see the ram in the thicket, God will intervene and bring me happiness when the future looks bleak? What about when I really, really, really want to fall in love, have a spouse, and raise children in the gospel, and I'm single, attracted to guys instead of girls, and turning 27 this Thursday? This is usually where I break down and, with a flawed set of beliefs, I mistakenly believe that I've done my best with just my actions... haven't found the happiness I deserve, and hence something is wrong with the cosmos. In most cases, I just need to change my beliefs. Give up my fears and failings and demands, and be willing to let God guide me and give me the peace I so desperately want... but that He couldn't give until I made room by giving up what filled up my heart.
The third comes from God when the first two are aligned - as He changes me, inspires me, forgives me, and enables me to feel greater and greater levels of happiness by revealing steps along the pathway that will lead me there. The reality is that true happiness isn't something I'll attain in this life. It's a pathway. Anything that I could reach in life isn't good enough, because I want something that will grow into the eternities. And because it's a pathway, happiness will grow as I learn and apply light and truth along the path. As my actions and my beliefs align with God's.
There are thousands of sources for pleasure, satisfaction, and any other fleeting feeling. But in the quest for true and lasting happiness - the stuff that makes life worthwhile, meaningful, and awesome even if you never feel anything else - the questions are simple: Do I really understand my place in God's plan? Am I moving down the path that will change me into who I need to be? What's the next step?