My life has been an exercise in happiness delayed.
In high school, I told myself I would be happy if I looked a certain way. Years later it was if I had the right sum of money. After that, it was about having the right kind of status—being a part of the right network. If I could just have those things, I could be truly happy.
I have built an artifice of the things I believe I need in order to be happy. I’m guessing you have some things you believe you require in order to be happy as well? But do we really need any of them, or is there a way we can manufacture our own happiness right here, right now?
Sometimes I think I’m just not genetically predisposed to being happy. Is that a thing? The answer? Maybe.
About 50% of our ability to be happy is predetermined thanks to our genes. But we also have to consider our personality traits and the fact that we adapt to emotional states VERY quickly. That’s called the hedonic treadmill which says that our gains in happiness are only temporary because we adapt so quickly to change.
None of this means that we should give up on finding and pursuing happiness. I mean, it’s never stopped us before, so why does finding happiness seem so hard?
It’s elusive as hell
We know what happiness is, kind of.
We know what it looks like, in theory.
Can we quantify it though, is it able to be measured and what does the study of happiness tell us about our hopes of ever really achieving it?
Though much of psychology tends to deal in the seemingly endless array of things that can go wrong in humans, the study of happiness does exist. You might believe that defining happiness is an exercise in futility, but there are at least some qualities of happiness that psychologists can agree on.
Psychologist Ed Diener defines happiness as a subjective well-being. Martin Seligman (a positive psychologist) echoes those sentiments and adds that in order for happiness to occur, we need to have these three conditions met:
- Pleasure: We’ve got to feel good.
- Engagement: We like and are engaged with our work, family, friends and hobbies.
- Meaning: We must feel like we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.
Not only is our happiness generally dependent upon those three factors, but we also have to consider the happiness that occurs from moment-to-moment, to that which is more long term.
The Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self
These terms were popularized by Nobel laureate and best selling author Daniel Kahneman.
The experiencing self is the more moment-to-moment self. It is the sleep depravation that puts us in a bad mood, but that bad mood does not effect our overall life satisfaction. It is temporary. “How do you feel right now?”
The remembering self is how those daily experiences add up. We tend to weigh moments by their intensity. Our remembering self tends to be stable and permanent and is prone to error. “How did you like your trip?”
“We do not choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future, we do not think of our future normally, as in the experiences. We think the future of our anticipated memories.”—Daniel Kahneman
Happiness can happen differently for our remembering self and our experiencing self. Think of it this way, you can be happy in a moment and generally dissatisfied with your life. Likewise, you can be unhappy in a moment but overall satisfied with your life.
“You can know how satisfied somebody is with their life, and that really doesn’t teach you much about how happily they’re living their life, and vice versa.”—Daniel Kahneman
I can see now that I have often conflated feeling happy in the moment with being happy in my life. These two things are not similar and believing they are can make it more difficult to achieve overall well-being.
What Kahneman writes of happiness is that one factor we can always control for is the allocation of time. My dad worked the 12:00am-8:00am shift at work so he could spend the day with the family. It was this allocation of time that allowed him to be happy. Perhaps this is my entire problem. I am not allocating my time in a way that makes me happy.
Happiness is an emotion, and like all other emotional states they are not meant to be permanent. That’s a good thing, because if we were always happy all the time, we’d all be long dead by now.
Our emotions serve an evolutionary purpose, they tell us when danger is present and when it is not. They are there to help our bodies response systems amp up or pair down. They are critical to our perception of the world and how we come by and settle on decisions.
“Happiness is a noun, so we think it’s something we can own. But happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.” Dan Gilbert
Dan Gilbert, psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness has a lot to say about this. You’ve probably heard of his TED talk or even read his book, as they are both wildly popular. That should tell us something. People are always looking for what the ‘key’ to happiness is (to the tune of some 38 million Google search results). There is no key, happiness isn’t something you lose or find, it is something you create and we all possess this ability.
The pre-frontal cortex gives us our remarkable ability to experience and predict outcomes before we actually ever test them out. Gilbert says this is a wonderful thing because it means we can manufacture our own happiness and contrary to what you might believe, this ‘synthetic’ happiness means as much to us as any ‘natural’ happiness we might otherwise come by.
What is natural happiness anyway?
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.—Dan Gilbert
Does that make either more or less desirable?
Say you are trying to decide between a blue and white car. You choose the blue car because it just so happens that the dealership was out of stock of the white one.
Psychology experiments show that people will naturally create a bunch of reasons for why they didn’t want that white car in the first place. Why the blue car was such a superior choice, and how happy they are now that they have the blue car. That happiness is real, even if the circumstances that lead to that happiness were not what we originally had in mind.
The entire point of Gilbert’s discussion is to make us realize that we each have within us the ability to be happy. Individuals with $314 million dollars are not infinitely happier than the person with $60,000 dollars. Why is that? Again, it comes back to time. What we choose to spend our time on matters, what we choose to experience in our life matters. These are the qualities that we should invest in if we want to be happy.
Our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.—Dan Gilbert
Go experience life (preferably outside)
Though they exist, I don’t need a study to tell me that watching TV will not make me happier. Surely the hour or two I spend watching TV each night would be better spent actually experiencing life? But are there certain kinds of experiences likely to bring about more happiness than others?
Nancy Etcoff is a Harvard psychologist who wrote the book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, in it she looks at what kind of evolutionary purpose ‘pretty’ has. Though it may not be the first thing you think of when the word “pretty” is said, nature, is most assuredly pretty. One of the more compelling statements Etcoff has made is “we ignore nature at our own peril.”
We prefer natural environments, don’t think so? Ask anyone who works in an office building.
We like hills, we like trees, and we like animals. But why? We are naturally drawn to these ‘pretty’ things because hills give us an advantage over other predators. Trees tell us that there is shade and protection, and animals tell us that life is capable of being sustained. So while nature and our desire to be in it can be said to serve a very primal evolutionary purpose we are able to receive very real emotional, physical, and psychological benefits as well.
Our stress is reduced, our mental wellness increases, and our body’s systems are able to recover and stabilize just by being outdoors. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of well-being, and spending time in nature helps to increase our overall well-being.
Spend more time creating
What is your creative outlet? Think about what it is and then imagine yourself doing that thing. What feelings does this invoke? Hopefully, they are pretty good ones. Being creative and being happy truly go hand-in-hand.
A very rudimentary definition of creativity is this: “Creativity is the ability to generate new ideas and new connections between ideas, and ways to solve problems in any field or realm of our lives.”
Creativity is openness, it is our ability to explore and to create and exist in new realms of possibility. Creativity allows us to find that sense of purpose, we are giving our lives meaning when we are creative. In fact, if you recall from above the three qualities necessary for happiness, creativity helps satiate some of these qualities. It gives us meaning, it improves our well-being, and it provides us with pleasure.
How can we foster more creativity in our lives?
- Make time for it damn it. Carve out time to be creative. For example, a lot ofwriters swear by writing first thing in the morning. That’s because self-editing and the internal critic is the foe of flow (yah I said that.)The point is to try and create while your brain is half-asleep so you don’t get in your own way.
- Pay attention to what matters. Do not multitask even if you think you are really good at it! You dilute your own happiness by not being fully present in the moment. Perform activities with intention and focus helps us to be mindful and reap the benefits of both creativity and happiness.
- Know your strengths. Find what you are good at, and pursue it with all the fortitude and might that you can muster. Explore different avenues for your creativity (this will help keep you consistently engaged).Learn, grow, fail, repeat.
Creativity is about pursuing meaning and meaning is one of the greatest contributors to happiness.
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” —Abraham Lincoln
Happiness is not the absence of all negativity. Happiness can be said to exist because we are able to experience the negative. The loss of a great love is painful, but it can make finding a new love that much more joyous. Our emotional states do not exist in a vacuum, they constantly inform one another. Our outlook on our experiences can influence our ability to find happiness. Which is why having an optimistic outlook is said to be better for us.
Individuals who are optimistic believe that defeats or challenges are temporary states that they can overcome. Pessimists are more likely to believe that defeat is permanent.
Why do we lack optimism? (If you don’t know whether or not you lack optimism, there’s a test for that).
According to Martin Selgiman, we don’t believe in our own strengths or how they can be used to better the world. We fear failure, and we tend to be too focused on ourselves. In his book, Learned Optimism, he discusses how our obsession with individual outcomes makes us more pessimistic and less happy.
Adversity: This is the event. My boss gave me negative feedback on a project.
Belief: What I believe about myself due to the event. I am shit and everything I do is also shit.
Consequences: The results of the beliefs I have about myself. I was unable to finish any other tasks for the rest of the day because I was worried that my boss would have negative words about those as well.
Dispute & Distract: How you override the negative beliefs. Okay, my boss doesn’t actually think I’m shit. If they had a real problem with me, they would talk to me. All I have to do is make some changes, and perhaps do a better job thinking these ideas through next time.
How we feel about the negative, our outlook on life, and what happens to us can help (or hinder) our ability to find a state of happiness.
My dad passed away when I was 16 after his battle with cancer. I think that’s part of why I find myself so endlessly frustrated with my unhappiness. At the end of it all, my dad was not surrounded by material possessions, he didn’t have his looks, or even control over his own body. All he had, all we had, was the love we had for one another and the time we spent together.
If I had everything I ever wanted, would I be more or less happy? Or would I seek out new things to want? We are constantly and fervently in search of happiness and that is a truly beautiful thing.
Choose what you spend your time on wisely, create and act with deep intention, and inject your life with optimism. We can’t hold onto happiness forever, but we can make the most out of the moments when we are.