Happiness: A Conversation With the Emotion Machine

Clinical Psychologists have recently received criticism, not unfairly, for their hyperfocus on pathology. In other words, we are trained to direct our energy mainly (sometimes almost solely) on what is ‘wrong.’ Hence the push for the movement of Positive Psychology. Therapists and practitioners need to help patients identify not just what is wrong with their lives, but also what is right. What is working for them? What are their strengths and potential? This mind set can help clients to see their lives in a broader, more balanced perspective.

A large number of people who read this site are college-aged people. I get my share of emails asking about happiness. How do I become happier? What’s the key to having a better life? You were so amazing on television, Rob, when can I see you again? And the like.

Many of my posts are about happiness in a broad sense, but today I thought I’d bring on another voice, one not of a colleague (honestly, do you really want to hear Dr. Pete’s thoughts on happiness?), but of a younger, well-informed and, most importantly, self-reflective man. His name is Steven Handel, author of the TheEmotionMachine.Com. I’m very impressed with this young man’s approach to life. He reminds me of my writing colleague Ryan Holiday in that they both appear to be well ahead of the curve in terms of insight and wisdom.

Dr. Rob: You’ve written multiple articles on happiness and how to obtain it. Part of the problem I’ve seen with research on happiness is that not only is it difficult to measure, it’s even difficult to define. Therefore we tend to see boatloads of theories and hypotheses about what makes people happy and how they can achieve happiness. What do you see as the best explanations out there regarding the phenomenon of happiness.

Steven H: Well, modern psychology follows a bio-psycho-social model for determining the origins of mental activity. I tend to agree…our genes and environment can play a big role in our happiness. But, the most inspiring view of happiness that I have come across is the one proposed by Buddha and many similar philosophers of the East. And that goes like this: the origins of your suffering are completely psychological, and if anyone can learn how to change the way they feel, think, and view the world – they will find happiness. To me happiness is a lens to look out at the world from, not an outcome.

Dr. Rob: I agree. I think certain people have purely organic/biological
difficulties that prevent such shifts in cognition, but most are capable of generating that lens you speak of. That’s the premise of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and its track record suggests it’s a viable model.

Some research has suggested that happiness as a function of age looks like an upside-down “U” shape; that is, people tend to be very happy at younger ages with a decrease around age 40, then a positive climb into old age. This would suggest that you are a pretty happy guy and I’m about to step in front of a train carrying dynamite and cyanide. However, minus a few bouts of moodiness (nothing that the light box can’t handle), I see myself as a reasonably happy person. I’ve written before that older people tend to be happier because they are wiser. Do you see these phenomena (happiness and wisdom) as causal or could it be argued they are essentially the same thing?

Steven H: Yes, I definitely believe that wisdom contributes to happiness. It goes back to what I said about how you view your world, and older people have a much more mature and developed perspective. But there are also those old people who are always stuck, arrogant and pissed off. I’m reminded of the typical old guy sitting on his lawn all day, yelling his brains out at any kid who comes within 6 feet of his precious green grass. So years of unhappiness can also condition you towards more and more unhappiness.

Dr. Rob: This is exactly why I live in the concrete jungle.

Steven H: In some ways kids have the very best shot at being happy. You don’t need to learn anything to be happy, and that is part of the wisdom of it. If anything you need to unlearn all your stresses, anxieties, worries, fears, and feelings of hate before you can make room for happiness. You have to empty your mind to the moment. Kids are great at doing that. But then we send them to schools and insist they cram all this information in their heads. Nothing wrong with education, but we put some very unproductive ideas in those little skulls. There are a lot of things to reprimand our current educational system for….

Dr. Rob: I’ve always been a huge advocate of bringing the Cognitive-Behavioral philosophy into the school system. Not as a treatment model per se, but as a way of life. When people really come to understand that it’s not what happens to them, but rather how they view what happens to them that dictates their emotions, the results can be profound and positive.

On your site, you’ve shared your experiences with mood difficulties. Many of the readers of this site are college-aged people like yourself. What advice would you give to them regarding their ability to achieve happiness?

Steven H: Even the feelings of happiness and pleasure are transient. Emotional maturity is recognizing the impermanence of all mental states. No matter how down, depressed, and lonely you may become…no matter how stuck you may feel…it won’t last. The same is true for all states. Acknowledge this and you can live in the moment better. I even recommend people dive into their depression – really observe it – and you will see that it is always changing. Sometimes the more aware you are the quicker it purges itself. So my advice boils down to one piece of advice when dealing with mood: practice watching impermanence. Things are always changing, always evolving and your depression, sadness, frustration, anger, fear, hate, is all part of that process. Don’t latch onto any of them – let them evolve with you. In many ways, when we are aware, these states change us for the better. So even chronic depression can be seen as a kind of blessing – a seed for new beginnings.

Dr. Rob: Many patients hate hearing this because they want the quick-fix, and I certainly appreciate that, but awareness and observation will always serve you better over the long haul. I had a supervisor in graduate school who said to me that being healthy isn’t about being symptom-free. It’s about stepping back and observing your own psychology. If we can’t do that then we are, essentially, acting solely on subconscious or even unconscious impulses. That’s not freedom, that’s being controlled by what we could observe and modify.

Steven, thanks for coming on. Do yourself a favor and check out his site. He has some great ideas about psychology, happiness, depression and self-awareness. And if you are interested in Steven’s thoughts about impermanence, I would recommend reading the very short but useful book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Tich Nat Hahn. It’s a great read.

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25 Responses to “Happiness: A Conversation With the Emotion Machine”

  1. Tracie says:

    Thanks for posting this interview. His writing makes for an interesting read. I’ve just skimmed a bit but it comes off as motivational without being preachy, which is nice. Definitely some food for thought there.
    I started thinking about he concept of unlearning anxieties and fears after reading this. Rather than “unlearning” them (I presume Steven means to no longer let them affect you, and to take an active approach in the process), I’d suggest another very Buddhist concept that he discusses later. Rather than trying to run from the pain, or eliminate it and excise it from your life, sit with it. Accept it for what it is. Don’t push to “get rid of it,” but just stop and observe. Pain makes us uncomfortable and it makes us worry (which causes us more pain, and more worry, and so on) and we want to move away from it, but when you stop fighting so much the monster doesn’t seem so big or bad sometimes.
    I am curious to hear more input on Steven’s comments on education and the ability to feel happiness, because I’m not sure that I agree with what he seems to be saying. The “unproductive ideas” that Steven mentions are prevalent in society outside of our educational systems as well, and intellectual knowledge is different from “street smarts.” I’ve yet to see many students whose spirits were broken by intellectual knowledge, but I’ve known quite a few who suffered from the “street smarts” they were told they had to know in order to make it through life. Seems like more of a parenting thing, less of a school thing.

  2. Hi Tracie, thanks for the comments!

    I’ll start with education. From my experience, education was about discipline. Not necessarily belt-whipping obedience (which you may still find at some schools), but learning how to follow orders and do what you are told. Schools may not INTEND to diminish critical-thinking and creativity, but that is something I felt was suppressed in me. Again, this is just my experience, I am sure it varies between schools and individuals.

    Critical-thinking and creativity are skills that break down walls, they require us to have a flexible worldview, question authority, and leap (or at least acknowledge) the unknown. The unknown (to me) is the source of our anxieties and fears.

    “Unlearn” may have been a bad word to use, because there is a difference between unlearning information and unlearning a fixed attitude or perspective, but we need to somehow de-condition ourselves towards fearing things we don’t understand or can’t explain.

    But I completely agree about diving into our feelings head first and experiencing them in totality.

    I definitely don’t think we should suppress or run away. “Sitting with and accepting what is” in many ways IS a leap into the unknown, because it increases our awareness towards components of our feelings that we have not allowed to surface (things we fail to acknowledge). I think accepting what is (without placing labels or making judgments) in many ways is a form of de-conditioning or unlearning, would you agree?

  3. Hope that cleared up some things – or even if it just sparks up more discussion that would be a positive thing.

  4. GregC says:

    Y’know, I liked the eastern model approach a lot initially. In college I delved a lot into aikido, yoga, and taoism, as well as a couple of other eastern philosophies.

    It helped a lot with my own mood problems, realizing the impermanence aspect, as well as the ability to deal with the expression, if not the generation of these states of mind.

    But the more I went into it, the more I found the same conclusion: Their version of peace is almost akin to death. Their ideal is the cessation of desire, the complete calm, the non-attachment to anything (including non-attachment).

    In many ways I feel like these principles defeat the fundamentally human experience of emotion and desire. I feel to remove these is to have functional robots. Not that it’s authoritative, but there are a host of fictional works which deal exactly with this, the removal of emotion as the basis for a theoretically perfect but practically empty way of living/basis of society.

    Obviously this isn’t a rejection of those principles, and a lot of good can be gained by internalizing the ideas and applying them to your life – it’s always easier to be happy when you’re not furiously determined to control things, whether it be what you’re having for dinner, or what color shirt you get for christmas.

    To find peace is to find death so many years before you need to – it seems like giving up on dealing with the here and now because it’s too tumultuous or difficult. I think that this is attractive, especially in periods of extreme pain or difficulty, but I think that in the long run the desire to be alive with re-emerge, and the fact of our humanity will rear it’s ugly, but loveable head.

  5. Hey Greg!

    I think our interpretations of impermanence and non-attachment differ. I don’t find them to be a suppressive energy, but rather an expressive one.

    Letting go of attachment to me means to live more consciously in the present. By allowing each moment to “express itself fully” you are simultaneously letting go of previous forms or possible forms that could manifest in the future. There is just the form of now – so be one with that – and once it passes…no longer cling to it.

    So whether the now is filled with happiness or depression, I say be one with that. Don’t try to fight it – let yourself go into it. And by accepting and embracing these moments you are letting them express their full potential. This expression in itself is the release of these energies/emotions/feelings/thoughts/etc. So the non-attaching is the very act of expression that makes us human. In fact, it could be argued that it is this kind of non-attachment that is the FULL expression of our humanity.

    Understand my view?

    There is something also to be said about death of the “ego/self” that does touch on deeper aspects of Buddhist wisdom, but by no means do Buddhists want you to suppress or mentally kill yourself. There are simply some moments of insight where the self isn’t present….and then there it is again…and then its gone…and then its back…(like moments when we are sleeping, and consciousness seems to be turned off…in a way that is a kind of ego death). Buddhists actually consider this mental state of “no self” to be an “unconscious state,” although they maintain complete awareness of mental activity as it is taking place (even with the ego non-present).

    I have seen people interpret Buddhist literature like you do – they think you are supposed to be still and stoic the whole time. But I think this is a misinterpretation.

    And just as an anecdotal tidbit, the Dalai Lama is one of the most overjoyed, compassionate, and expressive spiritual leaders I have ever seen.

    Ooph..that was a lot of deep thinking for me. Again, I hope I made myself clear.

  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by DrRobD: I interviewed a sharp 21 year old with the wisdom of someone 40 years older. “Happiness” was the topic. Click it…http://bit.ly/cu2M2c

  7. BL1Y says:

    “When people really come to understand that it’s not what happens to them, but rather how they view what happens to them that dictates their emotions, the results can be profound and positive.”

    I think there’s something to be said for trying to look on the brighter side of things, but sometimes it really is just about what happens to you. If your house burns down, killing your wife and kids, it’s not just how you view what the fire that dictates your emotions, it’s also the fact that the fire was really quite awful.

  8. […] a lot of e-mails lately discussing the origins of happiness and our talks resulted in this feature over at his site. It was really an enlightening exchange – I really believe we touched on […]

  9. Fern says:

    Great post! I will be mulling over the sentence “emotional maturity is recognizing the impermanence of all mental states” for a while..

  10. Shay says:


    I heard a quote along the lines of

    “Nihilism is Buddhism misinterpreted.” or something like that.

    @Dr. Rob

    As always pimped out on FB. I’m glad you interviewed this guy, as my research interest is actually along the lines of spirituality, mindful meditation and the like.

    I think I stumbled upon your website a while ago, but forgot to bookmark it. Glad to see you linked up with one of my favorite bloggers.

  11. Dr J says:


    Sometimes I read this stuff and it makes me think deeply about my own battles with depression. Everyone goes through low times for a variety of reasons, like divorce, an accident, a finiancial struggle. Yet I often struggle to figure out how I can relate it to my situation and no doubt there are thousands of other people going through a similar struggle.

    I suffer from a rare disability that requires 4 hours of medical treatment every day and I am very rarely free from pain. It is a chronic condition and though it ebbs and flows over the years, it has only got worse in the last 4 years. This experience is far from unique.

    I’m saying this because the idea of impermanence, living in the moment, really experiencing emotions and looking ahead to the solution of a temporary problem are all alien notions.

    Thirty minutes with no pain feels warm and pleasant; it is rare. It doesn’t feel like happiness. Rather than just feeling low, my experience of depression has been not knowing how low it can go; not believing things can get any worse; and then they do.

    It is not enough to look at things differently and redefine middles as highs or just coping as happiness because there are reminders everywhere about what a normal life is and how most people define happiness.

    This might be nonsensical rambling and it’s not meant as a counter-point to anything above; they’re just thoughts. Anyone else have similar experiences?


  12. Hi Dr. J,

    First let me say thanks for the comment, and secondly let me say that I am sorry to hear about your medical disability.

    I can only relate to your experience so much, so the advice I am able to offer is limited, but I will be forthcoming regardless…

    You share the same path of happiness as everyone here, you just have a bigger hurdle to jump over.

    What a “normal life is and how most people define happiness,” is irrelevant. Happiness is not a thing that can be defined, the moment you try to define it is the moment you make it elusive. I’m not advocating “re-defining” middles, highs, or anything of the sort. I said it at the very beginning of my exchange with Dr. Rob: happiness is an outlook.

    But I can’t see for you. You have to see the world for yourself. You have to see this pain as part of a bigger picture. What are you making of this life? Focus on your abilities for a change. Start there and grow outwards.

    This is not meant to belittle the efforts you have already made to get to this point. In fact – I should congratulate you for still being here and choosing to live and grow. But I encourage you to focus more on what you CAN do, rather than what you can’t. This is part of the new seeing I want you to cultivate. It won’t be easy; happiness is NEVER easy, everyone is a victim of suffering. But the path is there for anyone to walk, even you.

  13. Dr J says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that how other people define happiness is irrelevant to my own well-being, at least on a theoretical level, because everyone has their own struggles, experience and psychology; yet it is around us all the time. It would be nice to shut all that out and concentrate on my own path yet the social environment is a constant reminder of the limitations of a disability. It is easier said than done.

    You do say happiness is an outlook, but before that you say:

    “the origins of your suffering are completely psychological, and if anyone can learn how to change the way they feel, think, and view the world – they will find happiness.”

    and if at least *part* of that is not modifying one’s expectations and interpreting happiness differently then I don’t understand what you are saying.

    The origins of my suffering are physical too, intertwined with emotional and mental states. My body speaks to me often, like keeping me awake with pain or interrupting me with itching.

    I’m not trying to define happiness, that sounds like a futile intellectual exercise, I’m trying to understand it along with all the other emotions I experience and explore how I can cope and survive. I think that happiness could be simply *living*, rather than just surviving.

    I also think about how fortunate I am. I have a loving family, supportive friends and despite my disability I am able to work enough to support myself with a little help from my parents. I am proud of my achievements and abilities. My healthcare is excellent and I have always been fiercely independent and hold onto that as much as possible, even though a number of hard decisions forced me to make concessions.


  14. Rox says:

    Sometimes, we do what we think “hurts” but “hurts” is merely an ILLUSION…Simply, tis Perception, at its FINEST…

    The mind is MAGNIFICENT at playing Games, with Your SELF…

    So do not FaLL into the Defeating Trap, of believing EVERY LiL’ thing that comes into your FraiL LiL” Gray Noggin’ up in there, haha…

    Buddha said accurately, Perception is based on One’s Thoughts, controL Your Thoughts, and Sir, You have Master’d the AlchemicaL Secrets of Gold aka Happiness and BLISS *VersUS* Lead albeit “your” dark Thoughts…

    FOr no Human being can TRULY REVEL in Disease or ILL Thoughts FOREVER…Once you do so, you’LL Begin to “DECaY” from within…

  15. Rox says:

    One last thing:

    One Remarks Upon the ABSURDITY & STUPIDITY of these “things” that Occur “within” Our Lives…

    But does it EVER Occur to us, that it’s these WonderFULLY Awkwardly Stupid EVENTS that can aLLOW us to “Laugh” Out LOUD, LiTERaLLY?

    heh…Taoist monk that I am, would say: Bring it ON, UNIVERSE, Oh BenevoLENT COSMIK LoveR o’ MINE!!!!

  16. Dr J,

    “It would be nice to shut all that out and concentrate on my own path yet the social environment is a constant reminder of the limitations of a disability. It is easier said than done.”

    I’m not asking you to shut out anything. Instead, accept it and THEN concentrate on your own path. You are absolutely right that it is easier said than done – you’re not alone in this regard – all happiness takes practice. There is no magic pill. It takes work. Period.

    I write:

    “The origins of your suffering are completely psychological, and if anyone can learn how to change the way they feel, think, and view the world – they will find happiness.”

    You reply:

    “and if at least *part* of that is not modifying one’s expectations and interpreting happiness differently then I don’t understand what you are saying.”

    You’re right. But the direction I want you think differently in is actually a matter of quantity, not quality: I want people to expect and interpret LESS. So it’s not about selling yourself short, re-defining lows as highs, or re-evaluating whats important – its about NOT evaluating period: unconditional acceptance of what is (and especially when it comes to the things you can’t change).

    Again, focus on what you can do and not what you can’t.

  17. Dr J, I’d love to talk to you more about this live one-on-one. If you want to email me at some point we can schedule some time on Skype. My Skype name is “lightfiend” and my email is stevenh@theemotionmachine.com

  18. Rorschach says:

    Ryan Holiday is about as deep as a mud puddle. You’d get more insight from an hour with a book of Mad-Libs.

  19. Dr J says:

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for your contact details. I too would like to discuss these issues one-to-one at some point and I will be in touch in due course. But not just yet; I would like to read some more of your writing, and other material, before that. Also, it’s possible that the discussion here might be beneficial to other people. I am really trying to understand your perspective, but I’m not there yet.

    First of all, though you are not asking me to shut anything out, some things I *have* to shut out at least temporarily because they are overwhelming. For example, my treatment *has* to be done no matter what – I cannot survive without it – yet it is extremely difficult both physically and emotionally. If I don’t filter out some difficult emotions they can be paralysing and have an adverse effect on my health. This is a necessary coping mechanism yet it is not good to bury difficult emotions for a long time. Therefore I cannot accept everything as it comes: it would be too difficult.

    Your penultimate paragraph makes your meaning much clearer, but I have an analytical mind and I think about life, problems, news, issues, etc a lot both to resolve and understand them, but also because I enjoy it. I like solving problems. Should I try to think less about certain things? And to tie in with being more accepting and *letting* events take their course before choosing my own path, does this mean being more passive?

    Finally, searching for happiness and concentration on what one *can* do rather than what one *can’t* (think positively, be optimistic, look on the bright side?) sounds right, but it is so general, so abstract. No doubt the specifics are down to the individual and finding your own path, but perhaps you could be more explicit. I realise that knowing more about a person makes this easier to answer (perhaps it is impossible to explain without further information) but it may help other readers understand the ideas here.


  20. Anna Allen says:

    Happiness is a state of mind that really depends how we see the situations in our lives each day. you can have all the riches in the world but still see it as a lonely place.,’,

  21. Happiness is the goal of every human being in this planet , everyone wants to be happy.*,

  22. everyone aims to have happiness on their lives and live a life that is full of it`:;

  23. Calvert says:

    I would like to appreciation for the work you’ve made in writing this post. This has been an inspiration for me. I have passed this onto a friend of mine. thankyou

  24. kerri says:

    Hi, I am curious about why you think about the Dialectical behavioural therapy model, it includes a lot of mindfullness in it’s teachings as well.

  25. Seviah says:

    If I’m ever well-well, restoring ethics, mindfulness, care, and community to either a school or curriculum is my goal. I’d warn you not to get me started on that rant.

    When I was hospitalized, I was infuriated at the joy-sucking protocols, on the almost exclusive focus on renouncing unhealthy behaviors to the near exclusion of rejoicing in new-found sources of satisfaction, not to mention not regretting all the experiences, many pleasureful that constitute so much of who we’ve been and are. Im not a Christian, so bad paraphrase of 1 Corinthinians: When I was a child I spoke as a child, but I am putting away childish things. Now I see through a glass darkly. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am also known.