I am a technological whore, as are those of you reading this on your laptop, tablet, desktop, cell phone, Google glasses, game system, television, or have voice read to you by one of the increasingly available artificially intelligent algorithms that you can chit chat with, ask questions of, tell to read your blog posts for you, and then flippantly ask to unsubscribe from my RSS feed. Many of you steer yourselves to work in machines forged from chunks of dead stars that we’ve torn from the earth, fused together, and imbued with propulsion fueled by dead dinosaur carcasses liquefied in the crust of our planet.
Because we can.
It is the utmost universal cruelty that the one piece of analysis that evades the computer sitting on our shoulders is… the very computer itself. Psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, philosophy… We’ve developed science upon science, method upon method, and angle upon angle to deal with the meat calculator shoved in our skull and we still can’t really answer the simplest questions about ourselves, our brains.
Our inability to truly solve one specific question with science is most frustrating: What makes us happy?
In the age of computers and data, we hope to analyze the world statistically and try to find the answers by the numbers. Quantify the happiness level of each person and determine through the raw power of mathematics which aspects of life truly create joy and happiness. Gallup (the people who love the shit out of polls) has been using their power of surveys to try and solve this problem. They’ve even found the happiest person on earth. And you know who it is? This guy:
Meet Alvin Wong. Gallup’s poll, which asked 1,000 random people daily about their emotional status, work satisfaction, eating habits, illnesses, stress levels, and other various indicators of “The Good Life”, found that the happiest possible person (in America, anyway) is Alvin Wong. Or rather, someone who is: tall, male, Asian-American, an observant Jew, lives in Hawaii, married with children, owns and operates his own business, makes more than $120,000 a year, and older than 64.
The rest of you better have some pills from the doctor; because, the Alvinati are happier than you.
But how much are these statistics really worth? Well, it’s a tough question. Statisticians often caution against inferring too much from these types of studies. Take the General Social Survey for example. The GSS is a set of questions about attitudes which has been carried out in the United States since 1972 and has by 2013 grown into an immense database of emotional statistics for researchers to delve into when trying to gauge the emotional pulse of mankind.
And the results? As far as correlation goes, the single biggest factor in determining happiness is health. Healthy people are 20 percent happier than the group average. Likewise unhealthy people are 8.25 percent less happy than that same baseline. The second heaviest hitter for happiness? MARRIAGE!
And despite what everyone says, money does buy happiness. But only a little bit. Those of us who are the most fat walleted tend to be 3.5 percent happier than those of us with an average amount of income. I couldn’t find the statistics on how much happier they are than nearly homeless bloggers, but I imagine it’s not insignificant.
But wait! Before you start going to the gym, get hitched, and then start dedicating your life to the almighty dollar, you should realize that these statistics aren’t about causality, they’re just correlations. To put it another way, we can’t, for example, really tell from the numbers whether happy people tend to care more about staying healthy or if the health-minded get a side-dish of joy automatically. The numbers suggest they go hand in hand, but more push-ups and veggies won’t necessarily cure your blues.
So what do you do if you wish to be happier?! Science is apparently useless!!!
Calm down there Mopey McRagepants. The correlations probably do say something about the nature of happiness. Trying to fit the portrait a little better can’t hurt. While duct-taping your eyes, converting to Judaism, and marrying someone might be excessive, going to the gym probably couldn’t hurt (plus exercise gives you a nice boost of endorphins, which create happiness chemically… so it’s a start). And making sure you have enough money for the essentials helps too. If every month you’ve started calculating how many morbidly obese truckers you’ll have to fellatiate in order to make rent because you’ve spent your meager salary on Bud Light again… maybe work on that. Stress is a killer. And not having money causes stress. Fix it.
On the bright side, every day you manage to not die you’re statistically inching towards bliss. Old people are generally more likely to be content with their lives than us young bastards (I’m still allowed to call myself young, right?… I don’t require commentary on the bastard descriptor).
You’ll find no end to online advice, seminars, gurus, books, and self-important bloggers (*cough*) who will tell you how to be happy. But an important thing to note is that some researchers, such as David Lykken who did a study of happiness in identical and fraternal twins, conclude that about 50% of our satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. That’s right team, if mommy and daddy thought life was the equivalent of the Scary Movie franchise (read: awful, not scary) then you’ve got a coin flip’s chance of also thinking everything is crap too.
Lykken also was quoted some years ago giving the HIGHLY optimistic opinion of, “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.” He has since expressed regret for that quote, saying that research since then has made it “clear that we can change our happiness levels widely – up or down.” Researchers like former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman say that the controls a person has over their own life consist in three prongs: getting more pleasure out of life (the sensory side of happiness like sex and chocolate), becoming more engaged in what you do (not being blasé about work, relationships, etc), and finding ways to make your life more meaningful (purpose, it’s that little flame that lights a fire under your ass).
And this brings us to a notion that can sometimes be a pain in the ass: Your brain hates you. And happiness doesn’t come without work. But what about the joy of life? I’m sure you could name people off the top of your heads that you can swear are NEVER unhappy.
But even Alvin up there probably mopes now and again, maybe in private. The infinitely bubbly person you’re envisioning in your head is probably not as happy as you hate them for being. You do hate them a little bit right? A few of you will admit this right off, but the rest of you… Come on. Go ahead. Picture that person in your life who never has a bad day. You hate them don’t you. Why are they so happy. GIVE IN TO YOUR ANGER!
They probably aren’t. Not always. But it’s possible they’re just better at being happy. It’s a skill. And it’s work. Do you want to be happier? Go out and do things that make you happy! Active things that make you happy. That last part is perhaps the most important. I know very well that after a long day of work what I am confident will make me happiest is to open a bottle of wine, cut up a wheel of cheese, and see how far I can stretch my sweat pants using only my fat while never leaving the couch. But at the end of the day I’m just a tubby wino who didn’t do anything interesting.
And while I’m always an extreme example, are you sure you don’t have a little tubby wino in you too? How many of you zone out night after night watching reruns of The Office? Or mindlessly staring at Facebook? Playing bejeweled? Whacking it to that dirty tentacle porn you like so much? Yeah you. Yes I know about it.
Stop it. Don’t get me wrong, I like tentacle porn themed bejeweled as much as the next god fearing American, but sometimes happiness is doing stuff. Picture a depressed person break dancing. You can’t, because they’re too busy break dancing. Sure, they might get depressed and delve into some tentacle porn, but while they’re break dancing they’re too busy doing stuff. So go! Go break dance! Go hang out with friends! Go be social! Take a class! Work out! Have fun! I know work is hard and the last thing you want to do is have to work to be happy. But you do. The good news is: It’ll make you happier! And getting up off the couch and turning off the tentacle porn isn’t as soul crushing as you think it’s going to be. It just feels that way because you’re depressed.
Small Side Note: Break dancing doesn’t fix all depression. Remember that stat I quoted above? Some people think as much as 50% of your happiness is genetic. That doesn’t mean you can’t get happy, but your base line may be a lot lower than other people. Really low. Maybe you were blessed with a brain that just HATES those happy chemicals.
If you’re break dancing your little heart out and you still want to cry? Go see a doctor. There’s no shame in it. Taking a little pill won’t make you a mindless drug zombie with fake happiness. Happiness is a spectrum. Getting a little boost might get you to a true neutral instead of wallowing in your tentacle porn malaise all day. Consider it.
But the rest of you? Turn off the tentacle porn and break dance.
p.s. Don’t do a google image search for tentacle porn… nothing good will happen.