Try defining “happiness.” “A state of well-being and contentment,” says Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, unhelpfully. It’s like saying happiness is happiness.

Indefinable it may be, but we all know it when we feel it. Whatever it is, there’s nothing better, and everything we do we do for its sake, in its name. We pursue it, work for it, sacrifice for it, do almost everything except enjoy it.

The truth is, writes novelist Akira Tachibana in the summer supplement of Bungei Shunju magazine, humanity is not well suited to happiness. Four hundred million years of evolution have conditioned us more for apprehensive anxiety than for happiness. This is as it should be and as it must be. Relaxed and happy, our primitive forest and savanna forebears would have fared badly against predators stronger, swifter, hungrier and more numerous than they.

Some people are happier than others. Some ethnic groups are happier than others. Partly, says Tachibana, it’s a question of genetics. To the extent that happiness can be reduced to physiology, the substance in question, neuroscientists hypothesize, is the neurotransmitter serotonin. Those whose bodies secrete it in abundance tend to be happier, broadly speaking, than less well-endowed individuals and ethnicities.

The Japanese, and East Asians in general, are at a disadvantage. Their serotonin levels are low. Happiness to them is elusive and fleeting. The United Nations 2017 World Happiness Report offers supporting evidence. It ranks Japan 51st, South Korea 56th and China 79th.

Human beings may be easier to define than the happiness they seek: They are beings who can transcend their body chemistry. Serotonin therefore is not the whole story. Other factors suggest themselves, among them, the ability to know ourselves — which, ironically, in Tachibana’s view, amounts to an ability to know that we cannot know ourselves. It’s knowledge worth having — for its own sake, and as a clue to a more rational approach to happiness. Pursuing happiness is futile if we know not what we pursue. The key is “manipulating the unconscious.” The meaning seems to be: You’re as happy as you can make yourself think you are.

The unconscious has dominated psychology for more than a century, which raises doubts about Tachibana’s claim to be describing a psychological “Copernican revolution.” The nub of it is a new theoretical expansion of the unconscious realm to include not just repressed wishes and lost childhood memories, but almost everything we’re going through at present, at this very moment. “Consciousness is a hallucination,” he goes so far as to say. “The real ‘I’ is the unconscious.” Psychoanalysis taught us long ago we’re not who we think we are. More recently, neurologists are discovering how little of our environment and our situations we’re aware of. The brain receives 10,000 signals per second from the optic nerve — of which we’re conscious of 40.

I laugh because I feel happy, cry because I feel sad? Nonsense. If anything, the opposite — which “sounds stupid,” Tachibana concedes, but the fact is, he says, laughter and tears arise in response to feelings we’re not aware of until after we’ve started laughing and crying. Laughter wells up and tells us how happy we are — just as the glass of water in your hand tells you you’re thirsty. You’ve reached for it, on average, 0.35 seconds before you were aware of your thirst.

What, then, makes us happy? It’s difficult to say — maybe impossible, given the vast scope of the unconscious in proportion to a consciousness so narrow it can almost be left out of the reckoning. Humans by and large are unhappy. We should be thankful for unhappiness; we owe our survival to it. Too much happiness in our primitive state would have doomed us to extinction in the struggle against less happy, more alert competitors.

Even today, happiness in excess would blunt our resilience. Happiness we can live without. Resilience is essential. By its aid, we rise above the large and small tragedies that beset us. We get ill, have accidents, lose limbs. People we love die and leave us bereft. Earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, drought, war, economic downturns destroy our homes and societies and livelihoods.

We are more vulnerable to more horrors than the narcotizing routines of daily life spur us to remember, which is fortunate, though the media keep us more than amply informed as to the possibilities. Too much happiness would weaken our ability to spring back from disaster.

Nature, therefore, has limited our capacity to be happy. Think of the first beer on a hot summer day. It’s wonderful. The second beer? Less so. The third? Flat.

As with beer, so with money. Enough to feed, clothe and educate ourselves and our loved ones, with enough left over for a certain level of comfort and amusement, gives us all the happiness we can handle. An income of ¥8 million a year buys more happiness than ¥6 million a year, but ¥8 million is about the limit — ¥10 million, ¥12 million, ¥100 million will make us no happier. Current notions of limitless economic growth beg the question of what we’re working for. We’d ask it more seriously if we had any idea what to do instead.

Happiness remains a mystery. Tachibana’s tentative solution: It’s the esteem of others that makes us happiest. It explains much, from the pursuit of glory in earlier times to the pursuit of “likes” on Facebook today.

Evolution made social beings of us, and social relations are at the heart of happiness; they’re also, unfortunately, at the heart of misery. The people we have to deal with! The swelling currency of the word “monster” in everyday Japanese — “monster” bosses, “monster” clients, the “monster” parents who are the bane of school teachers and “monster” patients who plague doctors — is suggestive, as is the title of a best-selling book mapping the path to success: “Kirawareru Yuki” (“The Courage to be Hated”). Wouldn’t we be happier on a desert island?

Tachibana acknowledges the possibility. Those who work on their own — freelancers of various descriptions, specialists of various descriptions, IT entrepreneurs and so on — can keep the “monsters” out of their lives; they can keep, in fact, anyone at all out of their lives, if their personalities are such that they define “monster” very broadly. They can live almost 100 percent in the virtual sphere, if they choose. Tachibana likens it to the Buddhist satori, a release from worldly attachment that may, when all’s said and done, be the happiest state of all.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.