Does happiness come from within or from external factors?

“Happiness comes from within.”

This is an idea that has been around for quite some time, bubbling up from ancient Stoic and Buddhist philosophers but being reinforced today by modern new age gurus and the modern science of positive psychology. We have the power to change our mental and emotional responses to the world around us and can, in essence, create our own happiness.

This is a comforting and nowadays, popular notion. Although retraining our emotional responses can be extremely challenging, it is often easier than changing the world around us, and ultimately gives us greater control and responsibility over our own well-being.

But in a recent paper in the International Journal of Wellbeing, Ahuvia and colleagues identify some problems with this approach. This idea encourages us to blame misery on the individual, rather than identifying the situations that may be at the root of it. We could become too accepting of our external lot in life, rather than striving to correct the injustices in the world. Finally, there is a billion dollar self-help industry that seems to over-promise and under-deliver on the power of the mind to accomplish just about anything.

Happiness comes from without.

An alternative approach would be to focus on the outer conditions. We can look at ways that our businesses, schools, organizations, governments, communities and society are established, and how they facilitate or impede human well-being. One could argue that these societal factors are the greatest determinants of our well-being, by providing the infrastructure for more human needs to be met.

But the researchers point out that external pathways to happiness have their own set of problems. They underestimate the capacity of the human mind to transcend its situation. For a variety of reasons such as hedonic adaptation, paradox of choice, and social comparison, improvements in societal conditions rarely seem to yield the kinds of subjective lift that we expect.

An Interactionist Approach

The researchers suggest that the true key to understanding happiness is through an interactionist approach, which “focuses on the way happiness emerges from the interaction of mind and world.” Happiness lies at the intersection of the internal and the external. This requires us to put aside simplistic ideas of happiness, in favor of an acknowledgement of the complexity and interdependence of human well-being on a variety of factors.

The researchers give several examples of interactionist themes across many domains of daily life. One example is religion, which seems to enhance well-being through the interactions between internal factors such as focusing on values and expressing positive emotions and external factors, such as social engagement and community involvement.

The most powerful idea from this paper is how this interactionist approach can influence the way we think about human well-being. It looks not just at the environment nor just at the mind, but instead at the ways the mind interacts with the body, the mind interacts with the environment, and the mind interacts with the community. It is in these dynamic relationships that the subjective experience of life really happens.

These researchers ask, “Whose responsibility is happiness?” It does not rest solely on the individual, and it does not emerge solely from the conditions of society. The researchers suggest co-responsibility as the answer: “The idea that happiness emerges as a collective and cooperative endeavor that requires both favorable life conditions and individual effort.”

Happiness comes from within and without.


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