Happiness comes in many different flavours and with many synonyms that mean different things to different people. Contentment, joy, bliss, delight, pleasure – in the grand scheme of things these all amount to the same thing. Indeed, research at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow suggests there may be only four fundamental emotions; anger, fear, sadness and happiness.
It’s perhaps the varying degrees of emotion that give us the colours we see in an English language thesaurus. So with happiness I see that we have two quite different types of happiness. The first is an instance. A moment of happiness. Whenever something good happens to us – or when we do something good for someone else – this gives us a boost of good feelings.
There is then our underlying mood. Like the landscape of our life this will undulate, move up or down as our moods shift.
I do love a good metaphor. Being able to visualise situations from an alternative perspective is such a good way to aid understanding. I came up with the following metaphor a few weeks ago – if you’ve been on my Facebook page you’ll have already seen I allude to it in my pinned post.
So rather than a solid piece of land I see that underlying mood as like a delicate silk scarf. And I see those boosts of happiness like helium filled balloons. And we have lots of balloons at our disposal. Every time we express kindness, make a social connection, when we savour our experiences. When we exercise or meditate or get a good night’s sleep. All of these things are like helium balloons that attach themselves to the silk scarf of our underlying mood. And they just give us a little lift.
I bet if someone asked you what things made you happy you’d perhaps not say these things. Like most people in the Western world you might say money or a better job. Maybe you’re looking for a true love. Perhaps you’re really hankering for a new handbag or the latest mobile phone. Or maybe a new car. Here’s where your balloons turn into balls.
All helium balloons lose their buoyancy eventually. Helping a little old lady across the street today probably won’t still be affecting your mood next week. But this stuff – money, cars, possessions doesn’t just lose it’s ability to lift. These things actively start to drag us down. If you feel a need to always have the latest mobile phone what do you do when another one comes out six months later? That shiny new car soon just becomes the carthorse (and as my dad said, you never have money when you have a car). And we get greedy. One bowl of ice-cream is never enough but the second bowl will never provide double the satisfaction (and will often give us stomach ache!)
Possession is an endless cycle. The quest for money is a hedonic treadmill. And it’s a treadmill which often strips us of the simple joys – while we’re working all the hours we can to buy a new TV we cannot spend time with the people we love. We cannot spend time meditating or sleeping. And as we focus more and more on our own personal pursuits we lose our compassion for others which can give us deeper joy.
See how simple the things that can give us true joy are? And often free. So next time you are needing a boot of happiness, try to go for one of the balloons.