A Very Happy Birthday, Guaranteed by Nigel Roth


Let me take you back just a few years to 2014.

It wasn’t a particularly happy year, unless you became a proud new citizen of the Donetsk People’s Republic maybe, one of the most recent nations to emerge (half-recognised) from the fallout of the end of the Soviet union.

While the Donetskians were discussing passport colors, and whether they had enough steroids for an Olympic challenge, Victor Argonov a few miles up the road, was ensuring a very happy future for all of us, using the principle of hedodynamics.

Hedodynamics, if you’re not familiar, is a scientific discipline that uses neuroscience to discover ‘postulates of pleasure’, or neural changes, that correlate to that euphoric feeling, the one you probably had before you started reading this piece.

The essence of Argonov’s work is to enable future humans to use hedodynamics to program themselves to do the things that make them happy, and avoid, if possible, the things that have the opposite effect.

We can then add postulates as needed to get us to Nirvana.

Of course, this still doesn't actually answer the question of exactly how happy we are. The problem has always been how to measure that, and it has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries.

In the late eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham, whose slowly decaying corpse sits happily upright in the foyer of University College London, proposed an almost balanced scale of 'pains and pleasures', by which means he hoped to test the “happiness factor”.

In his day, happiness for most people probably involved such exotic joys as eating now and again, dying of old age, not being press-ganged into the Navy, and avoiding dyssentry from watered-down ale.

Since Bentham, other scales have been created to try to measure our euphoria.

There is the Subjective Happiness Scale, with which you can determine how happy you are, as long as you're happiness corresponds nicely to one of four options on the scale.

You can try the Positive & Negative Affect Schedule, whose very name makes me unhappy, even if answering twenty questions on a five-point scale doesn't.

Why stop at five-points; there's the seven-point scale of the Satisfaction With Life survey, or, if you're feeling particularly nuanced in your happiness today, use the Cantril Ladder Method, which makes you choose how damn happy you are using an astonishing ten options per question.

The challenge with all these, of course, is that we are self-reporting something we're rarely able to describe even to someone in our social circle, like my friend Gus, who inspired this article with ouzo, let alone an automated survey. And, we're never really completely happy (or completely sad), so we have to make a judgment call that can change instantly.

In open defiance of the Buddhist concept of equanimity, where you accept there will be ups and downs and stay fairly level throughout, we’re like emotional yoyos on the end of a very social media-driven bungee rope.

While our emotions fluctuates with the number of likes our chicken cacciatore recieves on Facebook, our happiness levels also reflect very personal situations, differing environments, and wonderfully varied cultures, and measurement on standardized scales doesn't seem a good fit.

Since 2012, a World Happiness Report has been published, listing countries with higher and lower levels of this ethereal emotion. How you answer the question “How happy are you with your life as a whole?” may rely far more on the last time you checked your Twitter account than on the overall feeling that you’re in a good place.

Hedodynamics certainly seems a better way to get closer to what makes us happy, and may even help us to develop futures when we can indeed have more input to our own eternal happiness.

Unless of course the hedodynamic answer is more likes on Instagram.

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