Are you happy? Really enjoying the capabilities of your life to the fullest? A lot of people will say no to this, as their happiness doesn’t seem to really be what it was: either when they were first married to their spouse, or in high school, or as an innocent child. Is the reality that life is garish and more difficult know, because you know more, or handle more, as an adult?
Not entirely – The theory of relative happiness states that happiness is subjective, and arbitrary. It’s based entirely off of comparison. Before we can understand what that means and how to distance ourselves from it, we first need to understand what makes us happy – and where happiness comes from.
Happiness is a chemical reaction caused by dopamine and serotonin being processed in your brain. These chemicals are manufactured in nerve cell bodies, and taken through an intake and reuptake system, distributed through your brain and into your blood stream. The feeling and reaction our bodies receive is the emotional response known as happiness. A great many things can cause our nerve cells to begin to produce this chemical – which is where the theory of subjectivity comes into play. The idea is that anything can make you happy – even unhealthy and dangerous activities. A good example of this, is the process of addiction, in which circumstance or false dopamine production through the process of adrenaline can create what feels like a positive response.
Our body accepts that – usually larger than usual – intake, and processes it. From that point, the system of reuptake is damaged, causing the brain not to produce as much dopamine or to understand that the amounts that it’s taking in to be adequate. This makes the brain angry, essentially, wanting more and more of whatever caused the original mass dopamine production. This response can seem depressive, and lacking if the brain doesn’t receive the reaction it’s wanting. This can be something as simple as an extra cup of coffee in the morning.
With this better understanding of reuptake and processing of happiness on a chemical level, we can now turn to better understanding what things make us happy. Regardless of why. For a moment, think of a few of the things that make you happy. For some, that’s a new outfit. A cup of coffee. A hug or long talk from a dear friend. Now, think of a second thing that makes you happy. Does one of these experiences give you a better feeling of contentment or satisfaction? Is a night spent laughing with friends, somehow a ‘better’ or happier memory than the one of you reading a book alone? Now turn your mind to a negative experience. Something that made you slightly agitated, or frustrated, but where no one got hurt. Perhaps this wasn’t even a negative experience, it was just an occasion where your mood was dampened by a small detail, and it ruined the night. What makes this experience worse or less ‘happy’ than the previous?
The theory of relative happiness suggests that this reaction and ‘level’ing of happiness is not at all based off the amount of dopamine we receive through the doing of that actual experience, but rather the excitement we get out of the comparison of that time to others. For example, if you were walking along the roadside with a friend, and your friend was splashed by a car driving through a puddle. Perhaps they’d say something like “This isn’t the worst thing that could have happened.” As they brush off the encounter. Now, their reaction was fine, but the meaning behind it, was that this experience is not worth their mental energy, as they’ve exhausted energy similarly on a much more unpleasant experience. That isn’t to say that being splashed by a puddle was enjoyable, but rather that their mental comparison of it wasn’t poor enough to cause a fuss over. The idea of relative happiness is that by happiness only exists in understanding which situations are ‘worse’ or ‘better’ in your experience. You feel thrilled that your current situation isn’t as poorly as the situation you were previously in.
Knowing that comparison is your body’s way of finding happiness, can be an easy way to boost your mental and cognitive health. Understanding how to compare experiences, and when not to, can be crucial in this journey. With the next three steps, you can find yourself controlling your enjoyable thought process, learning to enjoy new experiences, and how to find healthier habits, rather than your typical ‘guilty pleasure’ habits – ones that your body has no negative comparison for.
The first step: Identify your negative experiences. Using your past negative experiences, create a foundation of ‘this was bad’ moments. Moments that make you feel uncomfortable, or unhappy. There’s not much in your memory that can completely alter or replace past memories, so for the sake of health, we’ll focus on using it to better our future selves.
Step two: When you find yourself in a negative environment or occasion, reference back to your relative stockpile of emotion. Acknowledge your human flaw of judging circumstance, and use it to your advantage. Have a cognizant understanding that your future self will vaguely remember this circumstance, and that the current situation is better than the previous situations you have endured. This self-recognition exercise can do a few things. First, it can bring to attention your capabilities and confidence – this awareness can become a strength to fight against anxieties, and focus on a brighter future. By choosing to turn your current circumstance into a pleasant experience, you can alter the way your brain to first refer not to the negative memories, but to the positive ones.
Step three: Apply this practice in reverse to your unhealthy behaviors and traits. By finding a deeper sense of self awareness, you’ll be able to target the unhealthy habits in your life and form a deeper coronation with the negative aspects of your life – Using your negative memories to repel your brain, stop the chemical dopamine reaction, and form a healthier, happier lifestyle.
Recommended Book on Happiness: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World https://amzn.to/3ck1kbr