In pursuit of real happiness

In pursuit of real happiness

In today’s digitised world, how does one differentiate between real and virtual happiness?

The concept of virtual happiness translates into an escape from reality.

In today’s digital world, happiness seems to have lost its meaning and sources as well. As defined in Positive Psychology, the vision of happiness combines pleasure (basic needs), engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments. A balanced combination of these five factors is what gives us happiness in the truest sense. Aristotle defined a happy life as a good life, that is, a life in which a person fulfils human nature in an excellent way. 

Happiness, in general, is a non-measurable entity. In fact, happiness, per se, is experiential. In our everyday lives, we always seek happiness and shy away from our unpleasant feelings, but in the pursuit of happiness, we tend to forget the art of creating it. The basic understanding of creating happiness should be that it is the ‘consequence’ to a certain instance, which could be an idea, an act, a gesture, etc.

For example, a child outperforming his peers at sports brings pride and happiness not just to the child but also to his parents, siblings and teachers. This facilitates the child to experience a sense of achievement, while at the same time, the smile on parents’ faces, the pride in their eyes, and the warm hug reinforce the child to recreate similar accomplishments. The reciprocation of parents and other caregivers in real time results in firmly set memories built by multimodal sensory inputs in the reward system of the child’s brain. Most importantly, the child deciphers that the art of creating happiness is by creating happiness for others.

The concept of virtual happiness translates into an escape from reality. Talking about social networking sites, they may instill a sense of pseudo-happiness among those who are already struggling with issues like poor self-esteem, social anxiety, body image issues, depression and relationship difficulties, as their vulnerabilities make them turn to virtual relationships; they look at virtual relationships as a substitute for the missing social connection in their lives. This provides them a medium for a false sense of connection or interaction, which makes them socially isolated. This social isolation further causes them to be more engrossed in the Internet-based activities, possibly leading to a vicious cycle of social withdrawal. They look at the Internet as a safe place to absorb themselves mentally to reduce their tension, sadness or stress. The Internet becomes a new way of escaping without really dealing with the underlying problems.

It becomes a quick fix to wash away the troubling feelings and is identified as a ‘reward’ by the brain’s reward system, which may not last long. Such sites encourage self-expression through a lot of filters and editing. This totally ruins the concept of self-expression as the self that is being expressed is no more their ‘real self’ and then getting compliments for the same reinforces their need to prove themselves and need to be validated by others. The pursuit of happiness in virtual reality is usually externally validated, self-centred, socially limiting and non-progressive in nature. It gives us a feeling of ‘unreal possessiveness’. This extensive self-involvement tends to curtail the ability to develop empathy and meaningful relationships.

Digitalisation cannot be blamed completely for undesired outcomes because it in itself is neutral. We give it meaning by the way we use it. If one decides to use digital tools more effectively, it can also allow one to indulge in more of digital altruism, which, in return, can lead to happiness. This ‘me time’, when spent in the real world with people, nature and just oneself, tends to be really happy moments.

To conclude, real happiness demands us to accept our shortcomings, life challenges and overcoming them, as that adds to our self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-confidence. It helps us emerge as a stronger and more empathetic human being. Eventually, this encourages us to understand and achieve happiness in a more mature, long-lasting and realistic manner.

(The author is a clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospitals)