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Is happiness an illusion?

 

 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination”.  If we play amateur philosopher for a moment there are several ways that we could interpret what he meant by this. Was he implying that happiness was just an illusion? Or was he suggesting that happiness is something we create for ourselves in spite of our circumstances? Or maybe he was suggesting that the goal of happiness is itself unrealistic. Without trudging through many of Kant’s hefty books we may never know (believe me I’ve tried but I had to stop reading because it was making me miserable)! Either way one thing is clear; everyone wants to be happy.

 

 

Despite the fact that everyone has pretty much the same goal in life – to be happy – we all find that ideal of happiness incredibly elusive. Does happiness mean different things to different people, or is there such a thing as a common set of elements that produces or facilitates happiness in everyone? A strictly utilitarian definition of happiness is 'pleasure without pain'. Often though we attempt to acquire pleasure through artificial means and such means invariably come endowed with the caveat of deferred pain.

 

 

It’s well known amongst both psychologists and marketing experts that people are motivated to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Sadly we frequently sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term pleasures, all of which seem to push the possibility of genuine happiness further and further away. So, you may be wondering, is therapy the solution to the problem of human happiness? You’d expect me to say yes, but in the interests of being unpredictable I’ll see what the godfather of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, has to say on the matter. Oh wait, that’s sooo predictable!

 

 

In Studies of Hysteria Freud wrote, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against unhappiness.” When I first read this it troubled me. Was Freud suggesting, somewhat pessimistically, that life is inherently miserable? It wasn’t until I started learning about the neuroscience of emotion that I finally understood what Freud was actually saying.

 

 

Emotions of pleasure and pain are produced within the brain and body in the form of chemical compounds. In other words our experience of emotion is produced through an agency of both hormones and neurochemicals. The 4 main neurochemicals of pleasure are dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. In contrast norepinephrine, and more specifically cortisol, form the basis of our pain and stress hormones.

 

 

In the body these chemicals fluctuate back and forth according to our needs. They do this for one reason – to motivate us to do things that benefit our survival and keep us alive. Hunger, for instance, needs to feel uncomfortable in order to propel us to go in search of pleasure inducing food. As a result of this biological dichotomy we experience a perpetual pendulum swing between feelings of pleasure and feelings of pain. What Freud recognised is that unhappiness is not only inevitable, but is also very much a necessary part of life; the point is to intelligently manage the pendulum swing of emotion.

 

 

Retaining a sense of emotional stability by resolving our hang-ups and listening closely to our needs is the best way to manifest happiness in our lives, and that is something that therapy can help with. Unlike pleasure, which has a degree of intensity, happiness is soothing. It comes from feeling that your life and emotions are comfortably in balance and under your control.

 

 

There is unfortunately too much to write about on the topic of happiness to put into a short blog, and many other writers, researchers, and thinkers have studied the subject in greater depth than I. It seems fitting however seeing as we started out with Kant to end with him also. What did he believe were the rules of happiness? According to Kant they were, “Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for”.

 

 

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Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

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© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Home          Symptoms         Treatments         Reviews          About Seb          Fees          Location          Contact 

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Is happiness an illusion?

 

 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination”.  If we play amateur philosopher for a moment there are several ways that we could interpret what he meant by this. Was he implying that happiness was just an illusion? Or was he suggesting that happiness is something we create for ourselves in spite of our circumstances? Or maybe he was suggesting that the goal of happiness is itself unrealistic. Without trudging through many of Kant’s hefty books we may never know (believe me I’ve tried but I had to stop reading because it was making me miserable)! Either way one thing is clear; everyone wants to be happy.

 

 

Despite the fact that everyone has pretty much the same goal in life – to be happy – we all find that ideal of happiness incredibly elusive. Does happiness mean different things to different people, or is there such a thing as a common set of elements that produces or facilitates happiness in everyone? A strictly utilitarian definition of happiness is 'pleasure without pain'. Often though we attempt to acquire pleasure through artificial means and such means invariably come endowed with the caveat of deferred pain.

 

 

It’s well known amongst both psychologists and marketing experts that people are motivated to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Sadly we frequently sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term pleasures, all of which seem to push the possibility of genuine happiness further and further away. So, you may be wondering, is therapy the solution to the problem of human happiness? You’d expect me to say yes, but in the interests of being unpredictable I’ll see what the godfather of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, has to say on the matter. Oh wait, that’s sooo predictable!

 

 

In Studies of Hysteria Freud wrote, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against unhappiness.” When I first read this it troubled me. Was Freud suggesting, somewhat pessimistically, that life is inherently miserable? It wasn’t until I started learning about the neuroscience of emotion that I finally understood what Freud was actually saying.

 

 

Emotions of pleasure and pain are produced within the brain and body in the form of chemical compounds. In other words our experience of emotion is produced through an agency of both hormones and neurochemicals. The 4 main neurochemicals of pleasure are dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. In contrast norepinephrine, and more specifically cortisol, form the basis of our pain and stress hormones.

 

 

In the body these chemicals fluctuate back and forth according to our needs. They do this for one reason – to motivate us to do things that benefit our survival and keep us alive. Hunger, for instance, needs to feel uncomfortable in order to propel us to go in search of pleasure inducing food. As a result of this biological dichotomy we experience a perpetual pendulum swing between feelings of pleasure and feelings of pain. What Freud recognised is that unhappiness is not only inevitable, but is also very much a necessary part of life; the point is to intelligently manage the pendulum swing of emotion.

 

 

Retaining a sense of emotional stability by resolving our hang-ups and listening closely to our needs is the best way to manifest happiness in our lives, and that is something that therapy can help with. Unlike pleasure, which has a degree of intensity, happiness is soothing. It comes from feeling that your life and emotions are comfortably in balance and under your control.

 

 

There is unfortunately too much to write about on the topic of happiness to put into a short blog, and many other writers, researchers, and thinkers have studied the subject in greater depth than I. It seems fitting however seeing as we started out with Kant to end with him also. What did he believe were the rules of happiness? According to Kant they were, “Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for”.

 

 

Back to Blog Contents