16 May 2018

Happiness is harder than it looks

Why do so many struggle to be happy in today's fast paced world? Psychologist Bartłomiej Dobroczyński suggests that maybe it's just a matter of learning to live in the moment.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Happiness is harder than it looks - NewsMavens
Eggs, PixaBay

--The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychologist Bartłomiej Dobroczyński. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Some people struggle to smile or laugh while others seem to live on cloud nine. Why?

Bartłomiej Dobrzyński: According to general psychology our tendency to be either an optimist or a pessimist is an acquired skill. Children learn to see the glass as either half-full or half-empty from no one else but their parents.

It usually happens unconsciously, so reminding your child to “enjoy your life” every morning  is not going to work.  It’s our actions that matter.

A psychiatrist on the other hand would probably argue that people come into this world with a certain set of characteristics and that their tendency to be depressed or to looking at life through rose-coloured spectacles is inborn. What’s more, teaching a person the opposite behaviours, such as positive thinking, can be counterproductive.

In my opinion, people’s propensity to be happy is a complex combination of their genetic inheritance, life experiences and surrounding culture.

Our road to happiness is often blocked by the fact that we don’t know ourselves very well and live our lives on autopilot. "Gnothi seauton” -- “Know Thyself” -- is the primary task of our civilisation, and it is proving to be more difficult with every passing decade.

Why is that?

Our minds are constantly preoccupied. We’re working and thinking round the clock, but thinking is not enough. We won’t get to know ourselves solely through self-contemplation, action is required as well. You want to know if you enjoy writing? Start writing! You wonder whether you can love? Love! There’s no way around it. And once you’ve discovered what brings you joy, make sure you turn it into a habit.

Do people really need happiness?

Yes, definitely! Happiness is a strong, culturally determined feeling that our life matters and has a purpose. It’s like a symbolic, metaphysical agreement to be a part of all creation, to be alive.

Happiness tells us: “Keep going, you’re doing great!” It loosens up the tight leash of reality, allowing us to take a deep breath and look at things from a broader perspective.

And motivates us to action?

Certainly! People often say: “I got a positivity boost”. Happiness is our natural fuel, a source of energy and satisfaction. We enjoy it most if it’s a result of our own efforts -- when it feels deserved, and well-earned.

But there are moments of happiness without any cause -- neither deserved or undeserved. You’re walking down the street, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and you think to yourself: “Life is great.”

And these rare moments are the best. If you’re lucky enough to experience them, nothing else matters.

Why are these precious moments so rare?

The world has changed. We live under a capitalist system controlled by banks and corporations. It’s based on consumption, and powered by one mantric rule: “Reach the consumer and sell the product.” Such emotions as happiness and joy have been gobbled up by the system and spat out as ready-to-buy artificial items, which have nothing in common with genuine human feelings.

But there are those who truly enjoy it.

The consumption? Fair enough. The point is to keep the balance and not let yourself believe in one universal model of happiness -- a generally accepted formula that you either obediently follow or face social exile.

Society tries to control us and decide what makes us happy all the time.


The reason is simple. As highly social beings we treat other people’s approval like a pat on the back. Seeing our own reflection in others’ behaviour is  confirmation that we’re doing the right thing. It makes us feel comfortable and safe. Social appreciation iself is a happiness booster.

Is it?

Absolutely. Imagine that you’ve just received a prestigious award for your new book. Apart from the self-satisfaction and joy drawn from your hard work, which I mentioned before, you’re also experiencing another kind of happiness, triggered by the admiration and recognition of other people. Sure, the lion’s share of the "joy credit” goes to months of persistent writing, but what makes it complete is the positive feedback. You can’t create this particular sort of happiness yourself, it needs to come from the outside.

Seeking others’ approval and appreciation is in our nature. It makes us feel competent, useful and valuable.

So it’s wrong to follow the socially accepted model of happiness but seeking approval from other people is perfectly fine? I’m confused.

We need to find the golden mean between the two extremes. Although we’re entitled to be accepted for who we are, we should also keep in mind that our source of happiness may not appeal to everyone, it can even repulse them. And vice versa. For instance, I could never draw any sort of joy from hunting animals. It’s far beyond my comprehension. But unfortunately I have to accept that other people can.

Sounds like an unpleasant compromise.

As Freud said: Society is a source of human suffering. It demands certain compromises. If you refuse to adjust and submit to the majority, find a way to establish a tolerable coexistence.

As complex, intelligent creatures we’re practically incapable of accessing total happiness. Although there were a few times in my life when I felt like I was getting close.

How did it feel?

Like pure, unblemished joy. Hindu Upanishads -- the ancient texts of wisdom, refer to a higher state of mind where the three aspects of our existence: truth, consciousness, and bliss become one. The feeling of ultimate inner peace and happiness. That’s more or less what it felt like.

Any advice on how we can reach this divine state in everyday life?

Our key to Eastern spirituality could be “mindfulness”-- the ability to focus one's awareness on the present moment. Basically, when I’m eating an egg, instead of puzzling out last night’s episode of my favourite TV series or deciding what to cook for tomorrow’s dinner, I try to devote my entire attention to the eating process.

Our multifunctional minds evaluate every action automatically: “Is what I’m experiencing at the moment good for me? Does it make sense? Is it beneficial?” Unfortunately, It spoils a great deal of our activities.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve conquered the world and evolved culturally and technologically mainly because we can isolate our minds and focus on compound intellectual tasks despite all the distraction around us.


You can sit here and look like you’re doing absolutely nothing, but inside your head you might as well be exploring the Bahamas, finding solutions to five hundred equations or drafting a three-volume novel. This very same ability enables Wes Anderson to create cinematographic masterpieces or allowed Mahler to compose brilliant symphonies, not to mention mankind’s progress in medical science and the fact that most women and children now survive labour, unlike 200 years ago. The only side effect is that we are never fully present -- by performing at our cognitive best, we forget to enjoy what’s here and now. We’re missing out.


Bartłomiej Dobroczyński is the Head of the Department of General Psychology at the Institute of Psychology of  the Jagiellonian University. He studies, among other things, the history of psychology, psychopathology and alternative cultural movements. He has authored several books in Polish, including "The Trouble with Spirituality" and the recently published "Whose Life is Ours?" (2017, with Olga Drenda)

--translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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