Suraj drove his new Ford Fiesta through the oppressive morning traffic. It was a Monday. He reflected that he was very happy with life. That was what he had recorded in his diary yesterday evening. His friend James, the Psychologist had asked him to. Record his level of happiness every day. Was he miserable, a little sad, happy, very happy or extremely happy? He was doing it for the past one year. It was to help with a research project of James. Most of the days, his entry read ‘very happy’. Around eight months back, it had fallen to just ‘happy’ for a few weeks when he was diagnosed with mild diabetes. He was on treatment now and it was under control. Four months back, for two consecutive weeks, he had wrote that he was a little sad, and on occasion, miserable. That was during his son’s accident at school, and he had broken a leg. It was at the same time that there was a spate of lay-offs in his company and there was a strong rumour that he might lose his job. But the storm had passed.
At the moment, he was not feeling so good. Commuting to the office was the one routine thing that he hated most. And that too, on a Monday. As he settled into his chair in the office, he felt relieved. He enjoyed the early part of the day and meeting with his team members. Many of them were his friends. But then the Boss called. “Suraj, there is a crisis. The Crysil agreement is not coming through. You are given two days to sort it out. Otherwise we will have to find someone else to do the job.”
That really ruined the day. He forgot his lunch as he poured through the necessary files. He reached home late, and in time for dinner. He was just happy, he decided. Not very. Or maybe a little sad?
“Happy Birthday, Daddy” His son announced. His wife was smiling in front of the Cake. It was a surprise! He had forgotten that.
Just before going to bed, he thought for a moment. Then he wrote “very happy” in the Diary.
Happiness is a complex state of the mind. It has a higher processing centre in the left prefrontal cortex that shows more activation with increasing happiness. A corresponding centre in the right prefrontal cortex responds to sadness. It lights up in MRI and pet scans when subjects are shown sad or disturbing images. Pleasurable stimuli, happy memories etc increase the activation of the area in the left prefrontal cortex.
Stimulation of this area with powerful external magnets is possible. This increases one’s happiness and this technique has been used to treat depression.
The human brain can be considered to have three evolutionarily hierarchical parts. The most primitive are the centres involved in breathing, heart rate, basic aggression, sex, chewing and swallowing and certain primitive reflexes.
Mammals and birds and many animals have cerebral cortex, but it is most well-developed in humans. It is the highest in the hierarchy. It integrates all the inputs from the lower centres and presents a balanced image to our conscious awareness. Each emotion and sensory experience contributes its bit.
Happiness is a state of the mind that is present as a baseline throughout our waking lives. It is a little bit like the temperature of water kept in an oven cum refrigerator that can be switched to ‘heat at 100 degree for five minutes’, ‘cool at 2 degree for half an hour’ etc.
‘Heat’ episodes are pleasurable experiences, hopeful events and similar ‘hap hits’ that provide upward spikes in the baseline. Pain, frustration, bereavement etc are the cooling sessions that generate down spikes. The baseline is relatively stable. But many ‘sad hits’ in succession drags the baseline down. And vice versa, of course.
The baseline happiness is also influenced by our past memories and anticipation of future ones. They are an important aspect of our mental life, as you can imagine.
So generally speaking, happiness is a single dimension running from extreme misery to great happiness. But there is another quality of feeling running perpendicular to this line, and that is ‘arousal’. So misery can be depressive or agitated. Extreme happiness can be enthusiastic joy or a tranquil contentment.
Happiness is least in the morning and slowly climbs up through upward and downward spikes depending on the various travails of the day and peaks before bedtime. This is a general trend.
Can we be happy and sad at the same time? No. Because sad feelings damps our happiness levels..
Our baseline happiness levels depend presumably upon external happy events, and our internal attitudes and predispositions. If we can control them, we have the coveted formula. But when we try to do that, we run into difficulties.
Read more in my book- Health and Happiness without Bullshit.