The Pursuit of Happiness
As a psychotherapist, I will often hear comments such as: I’ll be happy when I get that job; I’ll be happy when I get that handbag; I’ll be happy once I’ve achieved more than my peers; I’ll be happy when I’ve manifested money and success! Do any of these phrases resonate? Most of us live in a constant pursuit of happiness. If your basic needs are met and your life is not in any real and imminent danger, then chances are, you are more than likely searching for happiness and fulfilment in one way or another. Maybe we can reflect back on those times when maybe we didn’t need so much “stuff” to feel like we had made something of ourselves, feeling less than sucks and it is not hard to see how imagining all the stuff that would make us happy seems to ease this particular pain. However, what hurts even more is working hard to get all that stuff only to realise that the happiness that we thought would be there in the achievement didn’t come along with it.
Not unlike some of my clients and my readers, I too have played the wanting/buying/achieving game to fulfil my own version of happy before moving back to the wanting more game. Each time I’d play, I’d convince myself that this time I’d be happy forever with whatever it was that I coveted. The trap was a particularly deep one when it came to achievements that I sought. Granted, the duration of the happiness that resulted from those achievements lasted longer than it did when I bought things, but my point is that it still didn’t last forever. The logic ran something along the lines of, “If I could just get my next qualification/professional recognition with a really high mark, or get those qualifications faster than everyone else then that would prove that I am smart. If others see I am smart, then I’ll be happy forever!” Yeah, right. That didn’t work either. No matter how much I climbed, I felt as though I had got nowhere. Were there moments of fleeting joy? Yes and some of those achievements felt truly amazing…for a little while. And then it was back to planning what was to come next when I felt low again and interpreted that as not being done and needing an entirely new set of stairs to climb to find that lasting happiness.
What became apparent to me after much training, therapy and life experience was that happiness, as an enduring state of mind, is available at any time. It doesn’t need to be pursued. It is not something that requires being hunted down from the outside and then somehow assimilated within. It is not something that you find in the latest project or set of boxes to tick because once you have embraced yourself and the world around you, it already exists safely inside you. Achieving a state of acceptance or being is really the ultimate “gift” to yourself.
Let’s be clear, I am not disparaging achieving goals or wanting to do better. Far from it. I am all for shiny new things and accomplishments and I wouldn’t be who I am today without them. However, if you are someone who tries to find happiness through an endless chase of those things then there’s something you might want to explore. It is in that Game of, ‘When this happens, then I’ll feel happy and fulfilled’ that the pursuit of happiness fails to deliver any happiness at all. It’s the expectation that meeting these objectives will bring you happiness forever that is the underlying problem. Why? Because when it doesn’t happen that way, you may end up more disappointed than you started. No matter what you fantasised about during those late nights of studying or long months of saving money or focusing on how to curate your ‘perfect’ life, it never feels quite like you dreamed it would. And that in itself is okay. It’s really okay if you let it be okay. It’s okay when you know that your journey is never over and chasing something that will give you an everlasting feeling is like trying to boil the ocean. If you know that happiness isn’t up for permanent, static keeps and that it doesn’t come from external rewards, then you won’t set yourself up for perpetual dissatisfaction.
Even if you were given everything you wanted, would it really make you constantly peaceful and happy? How many times have we heard from people who were perpetually chasing their next dream although they seemed to have it all already, and yet they still didn’t quite believe it was enough? The term for this is hedonic adaptation. This is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major events or life changes. Money can’t buy harmonious, fulfilling relationships with others. And it certainly doesn’t have the power to generate unconditional acceptance of self. As long as you measure your self worth in pounds and pence, then it will rise and fall in accordance with the success (or failure) of your latest enterprise.
If we can gain a clearer understanding of the underlying ways that we experience our lives, we’ll have a much better time living with all the uncertainty. We are constantly told that this or that will make us happy, but when you find yourself constantly crashing after a short lived high—as so many of us have—it may be time to wake up. Once you’re aware of the deception, you can be more aligned with your truth. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what brings more peace and fulfilment into your life. So much of what we do is designed to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Maybe if we can drop all of that, we can learn how to be happy before anything happens. This type of happiness is the happiness that you remember as a child or back when it wasn’t so important to keep chasing. It’s self-generated and not contingent on outside sources. It’s the opposite of the rat race.
The idea of hedonic adaptation holds that a person’s long-term happiness is not meaningfully affected by events. The concept suggests that we all have a personal happiness set point, and we generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout our lives, in spite of whatever external events and circumstances take place. Shifting our set point means that we must begin by changing our mindset and shifting our values, goals and attention. As I see it, happiness is the lens through which I view my world, the ideas that I hold and the values I keep. It helps me to acknowledge that that even though I have goals, my happiness and fulfilment does not solely depend on whether or not I meet them. I constantly remind myself that nothing is permanent. What helps me the most is knowing that how happy I’ll be is up to me if you devote yourself to becoming high on life–or rather, give up getting high for truly getting happy–a far more lasting state of well-being awaits.