Somewhere Out There
August 30, 2010
30 August 2010
Throughout the ages, man has been fascinated with the subject of happiness. For some, it is something to be “pursued,” while others try to “find” contentment, as if it is somewhere on a map. Foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner wrote The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, a project which took him around the world, in search of its happiest people and their cultures. His trip may have yielded him plenty of frequent flyer miles, but he reports only a marginal improvement in his overall happiness level upon his return. I suspect that the popular myth that happiness can be found some place is nothing more than an advertising ploy perpetuated by the travel industry and tourist bureaus of the world to entice us to come to exotic places, and spend a lot of money. Although he starts the book with the statement that “happiness is not inside of us, but out there,” by the end of his yearlong journey, he concludes that most of the things that are really important to happiness are not to be found in any particular geographic location, but in the relationship one has with family and friends, and in the practice of virtues such as trust, and gratitude. I agree with his conclusion that happiness involves more of a change in attitude than a change in location.
In a fascinating series of videos, The Biology of Perception, cellular biologist, Bruce Lipton explains that for years, the science of biology taught that genes, or DNA, controlled not only our physical characteristics, but our inclinations toward anxiety, aggression or happiness. Since we inherit our genetic makeup from our parents, there would seem to be little that we could do about our predisposition towards certain behaviors and diseases. In fact, in The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that up to 50% of our happiness level is hereditary (53). Now, however, recent research has revealed the error in that assumption. Without getting too technical here, basically, the story is that cells simply react to environmental stressors and stimuli in one of two modes – either growth or protection. In other words, it is not a pre-determined pattern of heredity that determines cellular characteristics, but reaction to the environment. In all of nature, living things have a fractal design – a repeating pattern in which every cell is a microcosm of the larger whole organism. So, if what is true for the cell is also true for the whole organism, we could conclude that we too are the product of our environment. This would lead one to believe that by changing one’s environment, one could change the person. There is one factor that complicates this picture, however, and that is perception. We react not to our environment, but to what we perceive our environment to be, and what we perceive it to be is not necessarily what our environment actually is.
Cells have a very simple mechanism of receptors and effectors, which by changing the shapes of proteins within the cell, react to various stimuli. We humans have a similar, but far more complicated system of receptors – eyes, ears, nose, and skin – that sends information to our brain, which reacts and adapts to its environment as well. As the information is passing through our brains, however, it picks up additional information stored in the brain about the subject. For example if we put our hand close to a hot element of a stove, we get the sensation of the heat from our fingers, but we also get beliefs about the dangers of hot objects and stored patterns for survival behavior from past experience that cause us to pull back our hand and not burn ourselves. It is a combination of direct reaction and also our fear that causes our body to move. Cells react in the same way if there is an actual danger or if there is only a fear of danger. So, it comes down to our perception of the environment that causes the change, and not just the environment itself. What I’m saying here is that changing one’s environment may not change the person, but changing his attitude about his environment will. Therefore, a sad person will be a sad person in either an awful place or a paradise. If you think that life sucks, it will suck for you wherever you go. Conversely, if you believe life is good, you can be happy in most any livable environment.
So, unless you enjoy the glamour of travel, dragging luggage around airports, buses, hotels, eating restaurant food, and taking a lot of pictures of scenery, you could save yourself the trip, if it is happiness you’re after. It’s not somewhere “out there,” but somewhere “in here.” If life is a journey, we agree with author Henry Miller, that “one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin 2007. Print.
Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. New York: Twelve 2008. Print.