Beliefs and Happiness

Beliefs and Happiness

Happiness depends on belief. Something “makes” me happy because I believe it’s good or a means to something I believe is good. For instance, if money makes me happy, it is because I believe it is good, or believe it allows me to buy things that are good or that allow me to … Chain or not, it’s the belief that makes me happy and not the thing; the thing is a proxy to which I attach the belief.

Yet sometimes, the thing is not necessary. For example, let’s say I am at home, content and receive a call informing me that I won a million dollars, to be paid in a week.  I will be very happy, even though I don’t have the money. All I have is the belief that I will get it. Conversely, unhappiness is the flip side of this.  For instance, let’s say I get another call a short while later telling me that I won’t win anything.  I’m likely to be miserable, even though my situation has not changed. I still have nothing and am in the same physical state as when I started out. All that changed was belief.

Belief can even lead to disappointment. For instance, if I pursue that perfect someone, I believe (perhaps implicitly) that everything will be roses with her. Yet when I finally win her heart, we will settle down to the realities of life. We will fight sometimes, and get on each other’s nerves on occasion. Yet because of my belief that everything would be fine, I could end up dissatisfied in this relationship.

Sometimes I have conflicting beliefs and can find myself in a no-win situation. Can I balance these beliefs? Can I clearly define cases where these conflicting beliefs apply so they don’t come into conflict? Or is this a case where I can’t serve two masters? For instance, what if I believe doing the right thing is good, but I also believe it is good to be popular? What would happen if I have the chance to help an unpopular person in need and would get demonized as a result? If my beliefs come into conflict often, misery could be the result as I would fail no matter what I do.


What’s at the Bottom?

There is often a chain of beliefs, but what lies at the bottom? Is it a fundamental belief (namely that something is happiness-producing) or is it something intrinsically valuable? If it’s something intrinsically valuable, it would have to be a raw feeling, as these are the only things I know of that are considered intrinsically valuable. But are these raw feelings intrinsically valuable? For example, take the following situations:

I am feeling anxious. Is this anxiety good or bad if I am….
    Waiting in line to get on a roller coaster?
    Waiting for the doctor to tell me what that lump under my arm is?

I feel great physical pain. How does it feel if it’s the result of me…
    Breaking a world record by pushing my body to the limit?
    Trying to get up off my chair?

I am laying in an easy chair when someone massages my back. How do I feel if…
    I know it’s the love of my life doing it?
    I live alone and no one should be in the house?

In each of these cases, the raw sensation is the same, yet whether it “feels” good or bad depends on my beliefs. The good cases have beliefs that support a favorable interpretation of the sensation, and vice versa for the bad cases. Again, the feeling is identical, yet beliefs are so fundamental they seem to transform my perception of the feeling. It seems qualitative sensations are based on beliefs too.


Belief Strength

Believing the above doesn’t automatically make me stop wanting the things I want, but it can lessen my attachment to them. Maybe beliefs aren’t all or nothing, but have a strength to them? It may take a lot of work to significantly change the strength of a belief and experience seems to be a key. For instance, if I read about the dangers of fire in a book, I may believe it to be a bad thing. However, if I burn myself, my belief is an order of magnitude stronger, to the point that its “instinctual”.

Then there are more confusing cases. If I’m on a diet, then I think being on the diet is a good thing. However, I still get tempted and can backslide. What happened? Did I suddenly think eating badly was a good thing? What if this diet has grim consequences if broken — diabetics for instance can face life threatening consequences if they do not adhere to their diets? Is it a strength of the belief of pleasure now versus long term results, which seem unreal at the time? Could it be like the heat example, where the immediacy of a result (the pleasure of eating food now) is stronger than a longer term, more abstract result (the image of myself with 10 fewer pounds in several weeks)?

Could it be that the function of a belief’s strength is how tied to experience it is?


The Bottom Line

All this has ramifications for how I live my life. Knowing everything is dependent on beliefs means I can work with beliefs to try to increase my happiness, while leaving my external circumstances unchanged. Or if things are working out for me, I can leave well enough alone.

Now a natural question arises. Given the ubiquity of belief in determining happiness, how do I know if I’m following a path that brings happiness, or if it’s just my belief in the effectiveness of the path that is bringing me happiness? For instance, maybe I’m following a philosophy or spiritual path that promises greater contentment. Is it really effective?

It doesn’t matter.

Let’s face it, all life is one big placebo effect, so if I complain that a path is not “really” working, I might as well complain that all of life is not “really” working, for it’s all based on belief. The point is to take advantage of beliefs to maximize happiness and to only look deeper if things aren’t working out. What’s more, I can look deeper in ways that fit my web of beliefs. For example, if I believe in God then choosing a path that works with this belief could be a good idea. If I’m given to deconstructing things, then a path built on life’s illusory nature may be best for me. Some paths are like theories; they work better because they better fit certain worldviews, temperaments and/or can explain experience in ways that reinforce themselves. In any case, it’s easier to take advantage of where I am than trying to change things wholesale.

If I feel happiness, that happiness is real, even if the cause may not be what I think it is. The tendency to worry about what “really” works is in itself a misery producing attitude. It means I’m not just looking for happiness, but am insisting that it come in a very specific way, and that’s asking for failure. Sometimes, the worst thing I can do is ask questions.

2 thoughts on “Beliefs and Happiness

  1. I left a comment yesterday and then did something stupid with my keyboard so it didn’t get posted, which turns out to be a happy accident. Yesterday I had a job interview and it went well. When I went to sleep I was feeling extremely happy, but then I thought about the possibility that I had read things the wrong way and I started feeling less happy. Then I remembered your article and thought “damn it! He does have a point.”
    Doesn’t happen often that I’m still thinking about an article several hours after reading it. I really hope you don’t run out of things to say anytime soon.

  2. Wow, talk about timing! Thanks for your kind words and I hope you get the job. I just commented on your recursion article. Recursion is one of those tantalizing concepts that may have some deeper philosophical ramifications, so your blog has gotten me inspired to think more deeply on this.

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