The Ephemeral Nature of External Happiness
I understand why you think happiness comes from external sources, but I also believe your view has flaws.
In my life, two mindset changes related to happiness stand out.
The first was thinking I could become happy if I got to a specific financial level. Then I got there and found out I was wrong.
The second, which caught me by surprise a few days ago, was realizing that, while I'm open to studying whether "crazy" ideas by science standards are true, I reject the view that external sources are the most capable of providing long-lasting happiness.
My girlfriend thinks the opposite. She says happiness comes from external sources. People she meets, jobs she gets, and places she travels to. I'm somewhere in there, I hope.
Is it possible that external sources of happiness play a smaller role than internal ones in her bliss levels than she thinks?
People who were cheated on can claim they aren't angry at their ex. But they start cursing them if someone says their name. In this case, there are emotions the person hasn't dealt with or controlled. But these do not consciously manifest at all times. So the person saying they aren't angry at their ex accurately describes how they feel. Likewise, if my girlfriend says external sources of happiness bring her the most contentment, she's accurately describing her conscious belief.
While I don't need research to prove how she feels, it's helpful to see testimonies from others to see her belief is common.
In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume argues salvation comes from inattention and carelessness. Not intellectual work. It is when we are at the pub talking about trivialities and succumbing to mob thinking that we are living life.
Economist Richard Layard found happiness often comes from the outside. Factors include income, relationships, and status. He is aware that some people find happiness within themselves but claims most of us will discover it through others.
The cherry on top. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger directed a 75-year-old study on adult development. It revealed that, as Hume, Layard, and other humans have hinted for thousands of years, the most accurate predictor of happiness are stable relationships.
For those who disagree with this thesis, it's helpful to think of a person's emotional state as a byproduct of their feelings. We'll call this the emotional cup. When full, you experience the most intense form of positive emotions. When empty, you experience the most potent form of negative ones. All emotions fall within that spectrum:
At 100%, we might feel empowered, grateful, and like we belong
At 66%, we might feel passionate, calm, and safe
At 33%, we might feel lost, unmotivated, and tired
At 0%, we might feel purposeless, burnt out, and depressed
Positive external events fill the cup; negative external ones drain it.
Since your emotional state affects your feelings, your cup's chances of going up or down depend on how you feel.
Let's play two scenarios. In both cases, you lose your job. Person A's cup is 90% full, while Person B's is 30%. It's not speculative to assume, keeping all variables equal, that B is more likely to fall into depression than A. B is experiencing more negative emotions than A, so it's challenging for them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. While A won't celebrate their job loss, their cup might go down to 70%. They will be more capable of keeping themselves motivated to job hunt.
According to this idea, we can't always internally see negative events as positive ones. If you lost your job, but your cup is at 90% because you finished your Ph.D. last week, you might be able to reframe it. "It's just a setback." But if your cup is at 30%, you might instead look at the situation as proof of some innate inadequacy within you.
The first friction point in the cup theory is that it assumes the cup's size won't change. But it does. Whenever you experience more of an event or any new events similar to those you have experienced previously, your cup will need more of the event to change its level at the same rate it used to.
A personal example:
I was ecstatic when I closed my first $100 client and frustrated when I lost it.
I felt proud of myself for signing up four clients per month two years ago, and a bit worried when one of them left.
In 2022, at one point, I made the same amount of income with one client that I used to do with four. I felt happy about it. But I didn't feel upset when I stopped working with them.
All the events implicated a win or loss of an amount of income that was significant at the time. But their impact on my cup's levels was different.
The way I see it, the cup's variable level exposes the most significant dent in the externally-based happiness argument. When will you feel OK with what you have if you always need more of an event or a different one? When will you stop seeking?
Based on what I learned studying palliative care, the time might never come.
I had four professors with clinical experience: two doctors, a nurse, and a psychologist. All shared how most people regretted having lived their lives chasing objects. First, the trip to Disneyland, then the one to Italy, then the one to Iceland. Or first, the Chevrolet, then the Mercedes, then the Rolls-Royce. The stories varied. But their common thread was that each person believed happiness came from external sources.
It's worth noting that your cup also drains slower as you live more negative experiences. You become more resilient. Losing my first client could have reduced mine by 20%. It was all I had. These days, I'll sometimes become happy after not working more with a client because I have more time to read and write.
On their deathbed, most people regret having lived their lives chasing objects.
The issue with this slower draining speed is that it's more difficult to make yourself happy if you are unhappy. This is because the events you use to feel better are less capable of doing so the more you use them.
The first vacation you took with your significant other might have kept you in a high mood for weeks. The tenth one? Maybe for a day or two. So, if you are on a negative emotion streak, it will take more positive events to fill your cup above 50%.
An argument in favor of external sources of happiness is that looking for it via internal sources can feel like conforming. Something like, "I'm happy with what I have, so I shouldn't seek more."
But to believe this argument, you must already convince yourself that external events are the only source of happiness. If not, why would you feel guilty about deciding to be happy in the present in which you can't afford $10,000 bags?
You can become a millionaire and be happy along the way. Many people work less but make more money when they become rich because their income compounds. A 10% annual return rate on a $1M asset gets you $100,000 yearly, but only 100% if you invest $1,000. The more money you have, the more you can make working less. Progress is still happening—you can just get to it in a more leisurely and fulfilling way.
I believe external sources of happiness do bring a temporary type of happiness. Adrian, a guy I met in a group intermediate salsa lesson, exemplifies this thesis.
We went to talk and dance at a Latin music bar in Cartagena with a friend, Charlene. Most people were talking at their tables, including us. The DJ plays an iconic salsa song, "En Barranquilla Me Quedo." Everyone gets up to dance. I take out Charlene, and he takes out a random lady.
A girl beside me, dancing with a partner who doesn't know how to lead, tries to chip my tooth with her elbow by mistake. I don't mind. I'm also excited.
The song ends, and everyone sits down, which Charlene notes.
"Don't we live for those single moments?" said Adrian. "I do."
My head nods as I agree that he is accurately describing his feelings, but, at the same time, I think there may be a more reliable way to achieve long-term happiness.
I'll share it in a future essay.
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