Happiness – that state of being that we are all encouraged to pursue from a young age. But, how does one measure it? How does one know when one has achieved it? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is certain that the assessment is anything but absolute. I would even take it one step further.
Unlike measurable quantities like mass or length or temperature, happiness is not a function of a bunch of parameters – at least, it does not need to be. The total mass of a space ship, for example, is dependent upon its initial mass and how much fuel it has exhausted since take-off. My happiness, on the other hand, is not, or rather, should not be dependent upon the fact that my friend said something rude or that I am late for work. Happiness is not a consequence of the good or bad things that happen to us. Happiness is a state of mind that we assert for ourselves. After that, good and bad things happen.
The ideology that happiness is a choice is one that resonated with me the first time that I heard it some years ago. In fact, I remember exactly where I was: sitting in a lecture hall for a special presentation by the famous medical doctor, Hunter Doherty Adams, who commonly goes by the name “Patch” Adams (there was a film made of his life in which Robin Williams played the role of Patch). His talk that day can be summarized as follows:
Being happy is a choice we make when we wake up in the morning. There are, however, some blockades that can eliminate happiness as an option, such as loneliness or boredom. If both of these ailments are remedied, then happiness is a state of mind we can choose, even in our darkest hour, when our health is failing. Ultimately, if I choose to be happy, then I am happy…
The sad reality is that many people who have happiness as an option fail to choose it. They see happiness, or lack thereof, as a consequence of the many variables in their lives, material or otherwise. Like some mysterious recipe, happiness becomes the net result of one’s health, ‘x‘, family life, ‘y‘, and career, ‘z‘. The alternative is to treat happiness as an independent variable, like time; we simply assign it a value ourselves.
It may seem strange for an engineer such as myself to claim that one’s level of happiness is not simply a linear combination of all of the pieces of one’s life, including memories of the past, current situation, and hopes for the future. But I refuse to place what defines me in the hands of my environment. My mind is the only thing that I truly own, and therefore, I wish to dictate its state.
In addition, I recognize both the relativity and uncertainty inherent in describing happiness as a multi-variable function. Here, the scientist is his or her own experiment. The scientist purposely or inadvertently influences the results, and, what’s more, does not possess a device to accurately record measurements in the first place.
So, in the end, we have a choice. We can ascribe our happiness to our surroundings, or, make a conscious decision to choose what our state of mind should be. We can deem ourselves observers in the universe, or, elevate ourselves to actual sources within the universe. I choose the latter. As a result, my happiness becomes an independent variable and a very powerful one indeed. I quickly realize that it is my health, family life, and career that are, and always have been, the dependent variables, albeit very complex ones. In fact, all three of these dependent variables are highly sensitive to the independent variable of happiness.
By inverting the way we view happiness, we ultimately empower ourselves. It is one of the few things in life that is actually within our control if we so choose. Patch Adams refers to it as replacing “because” statements with “so that” statements. Rather than say, “I feel sad because I lost my job,” we can say “I will go make new contacts so that I can find a new one.” When happiness is a choice, your identity resembles a cause rather than an effect.
When I first learned of functions in the tenth grade, I did not see the profound distinction between the x and y axes. After careful reflection, I now see that in science, and in one’s life, the only way to experience true freedom is to be an independent variable.
Stephen Cohen is a mechanical engineer with industry experience in the design and testing of space satellites. In 2010, he began working as a Physics Professor at Vanier College. In the same year, he founded The Engineer’s Pulse (www.theengineerspulse.blogspot.com), a blog where he writes about science and engineering in a down to Earth way.