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Happiness is like hunger

Happiness needs a rebrand. Think happiness, think hunger…

As well as writing about happiness, I talk to people about it. A lot. When describing the Happiness Problem, the first thing I normally say is that it’s not about how to be happy. Forget about what makes you happy. Instead, it’s about what happiness makes you do, and how you can respond to its demands better.

I like to think this is a clear way to start talking about happiness. And yet, it so often does not work. After talking about the Happiness Problem for a bit longer, most people tend to come back to the idea of being happy. “Oh I see, happiness motivates us to predictably meet our needs. Which is a problem because life is so uncertain and insecure… That’s why it’s so hard to be happy.”

This is true, but it’s not the point I want to make. More important than being happy is how happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, moves us. Our emotions and moods make us see the world in a certain way – full of problems we need to solve, threats we must prevent, and opportunities we have to take – all so that we meet our needs with ever more certainty and security.

And yet people often still come back to the idea of being happy; even more so, the idea of not being unhappy. Which is fair enough. Being happy feels good, and being unhappy feels bad, often intolerably so. I get that. In an ideal world, I’d like to be happy too; and I struggle with being unhappy.

I also understand that, beyond how happiness and unhappiness feels, it can also have a marked impact on our lives. According to this kind of research, happiness is often beneficial: happy people tend to be more social, healthy, creative, and flexible. In contrast, unhappiness can cripple us: stress can damage our immune systems; anxiety can destroy our relationships; and much more. I do not mean to downplay any of these things. I just don’t think it’s the most important thing about happiness and unhappiness.

An analogy might help. Happiness is like hunger. We are motivated by hunger to seek food. Hunger feels bad. It can also make us irritable and unable to concentrate on anything else. After eating, we feel satiated. We can start to look around us again, be more relaxed, revisit difficult problems, conversations, etc.

Actually, according to the way I define happiness – as the totality of our positive and negative emotions and moods – hunger is a part of happiness. Feelings of hunger and satiation are one of the many forms of happiness and unhappiness. And they perform the same function: to help us predictably meet our needs.

Nonetheless, we often think about hunger as something in itself, apart from its role in our overall happiness. Hunger is an obvious and important thing in our lives. We know a lot about it. We know the times when we get hungry, we know how it feels, how it makes us behave. We know how we tend to alleviate our hunger. And we probably know various ways in which we could deal with our feelings of hunger better – eat less sugary and fatty foods, eat more fruit and vegetables, and so on.

Not only do we tend to think about hunger on an individual level, it is also a societal issue. With the prevalence of sugary and fatty foods – and often the lack of healthy alternatives – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other diet related illnesses have become a major problem in modern societies. Hunger is not just personal – it has a big impact on our health systems. In the UK, diabetes apparently accounts for up to 10% the NHS budget.

We could easily call this the Hunger Problem. It has a similar structure to the Happiness Problem, albeit only in relation to food. Hunger and satiation motivate us to predictably meet our nutritional needs. One of the ways in which we try to do this with certainty and security is by eating as much sugar and fats as we can while they’re available to us. The problem is we can never have enough – we will always be motivated by hunger to eat more.

One of the things that make the Hunger Problem more obvious and straightforward than the Happiness Problem is that we, as individuals, often internalise its effects. If we eat too much unhealthy food, we get sick, often visibly so. The worse we eat, the sicker we get.

In contrast, the consequences of happiness and unhappiness in general often impact others and the wider environment. Trying to control those we are in an attachment relationship with often impacts them more than it does us. Trying to attain material security via the consumption of certain goods and services can have far-reaching negative impacts on distant others and the environment. The worse we act, the sicker others and the planet get, but not necessarily us.

Another reason why the Hunger Problem is perhaps simpler than the Happiness Problem is there’s a clear rationale for how hunger can motivate us to predictably meet our needs for nutrition in harmful ways. Simply put, we have a sweet tooth and a fatty tooth. We are motivated to seek out sugary and fatty foods because these kinds of foods were typically in short supply throughout our evolutionary history. Our taste buds have been designed to want more and more and more of them.

We could imagine a similar story for happiness and unhappiness in general. Perhaps we have a “stuff tooth”, or a “status tooth”, or a variety of other “good-for-us-only-in-moderation” teeth! Or perhaps the opposite is true: we might lack the motivation to pursue things that, throughout our evolutionary history, tended to be in abundance. This might include things we often know are good for us, but are less motivated to pursue, such as social contact and natural environments, or even certain stresses, such as physical activity and discomfort.

This may all be true, but unfortunately, with happiness, things are more complicated. Regardless of how many evolutionary stories we want to tell, culture clearly has a role in providing us with strategies for predictably meeting our needs. We seek certainty and security in a variety of ways, many of which cannot be simply explained by appealing to our evolutionary instincts. Instead, many of the harmful ways in which we try to predictably meet our needs are down to nurture, not nature. But this is a big topic, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Of course, the Hunger Problem is complicated too. Rich nations currently feed themselves via an industrial farming system that may not be sustainable. But we have to eat. Hunger, like happiness, exists for a reason. It helps us predictably meet our needs. Our needs are non-negotiable. Without food, we die. We need hunger to survive, but that doesn’t mean we can, and should, respond to its demands in whatever way feels right.

How we respond to the Hunger Problem is way beyond my field of expertise. Indeed, there may be no way of doing so that does not cause significant harm in one way or another. Feeding 7 billion people without negatively impacting others or the environment is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. Yet, there may be some ways of doing it that are better than others. Eating more healthy food, and less unhealthy food, seems like a good place to start.

I think we can say the same thing about the Happiness Problem. First of all, we need to recognise that it’s a problem. Yes, we need to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection – they are non-negotiable. But many of the ways in which we are trying to meet our needs with certainty and security are harming ourselves, others and the environment in the process.

Once we recognise the Happiness Problem – as a problem analogous to the Hunger Problem – we will hopefully be less concerned with being happy, and more interested in how to act in healthy, and non-harmful, ways. Of course, acting on this knowledge is another thing entirely. More on that to come…

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Scott Carney: What Doesn’t Kill Us

  • Avner Offer: The Challenge of Affluence

  • Jesse Prinz: Beyond Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives

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