Have you ever daydreamed about owning a bigger house, purchasing a shiny new car, or looking younger and more beautiful? Maybe you’ve found yourself wistfully yearning to have more money in your bank account, finding a new job, or moving to some far-off distant city. If you’ve dreamt about any of these sorts of things, chances are you’ve done so for a very simple and specific reason: you believed that achieving these dreams would make you happier.
All of us want to be happy. When most of us stop and think about what we really want in life, personal happiness is usually the answer we come up with. Indeed, surveys from around the world show that happiness ranks right at the top of what people want most in life. Here in the United States, our very own Declaration of Independence even asserts that along with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is one of our basic and unalienable rights. And most of our major decisions, from getting married, to where we choose to work, are made with this ultimate goal in mind.
Happiness has many additional benefits
Although happiness is a worthy goal in and of itself, some of the most exciting findings in recent years have related to the many benefits of happiness. As it turns out, happiness not only feels good, it’s good for us too! Indeed, research now shows that happier people tend to live longer, have stronger relationships, perform better at work and in school, and have superior health outcomes. Moreover, studies indicate that this relationship is causal; in other words, by becoming happier, we can reap all these benefits.
Personal happiness may be in decline
But there’s a catch. Although we live in an age of abundance, with more wealth and opportunity at our fingertips than at any time in history, many people are finding happiness harder and harder to come by. And despite the seemingly limitless amount of information out there on how to become happier (from books to blogs to magazines), research shows that the average person is no happier today than they were 75 years ago during the depths of the Great Depression. There’s even some evidence that rates of personal happiness are in decline.
How can this be? In short, we have a bad habit of looking for happiness in all the wrong places. We often think that happiness follows a very neat, predictable formula. We believe that if we reach certain ambitions, or if we get what we want, then we’ll be happy. This basic belief leads us to pursue a host of goals in our chase for happiness. Who we marry, what sort of car we buy, where we live, which job offer we accept, all of these sorts of decisions (and more) are made in the hopes of maximizing our happiness.
Yet research shows that these types of changes actually yield surprisingly little in terms of lasting well-being. It’s not that they don’t make us feel happy, because they certainly do. But they tend to make us feel a little happier (rather than a lot), and that boost in happiness tends to fade away rather than last. It turns out that many of the things we expect to make a big difference in terms of our happiness (our wealth, whether we’re married or not, having children, where we live, what we look like, and so on) have only a small bottom-line impact. Amazingly, the latest research shows that only about 10% of our personal happiness is determined by these sorts of external circumstances. Essentially, we feel an initial surge of joy, akin to an emotional sugar rush of sorts, only to invariably crash back down to where we were before.
The roadblocks to our happiness
Why is it that happiness can feel so elusive much of the time? There are a number of reasons, but two particular barriers stand out above the rest. The first major roadblock to happiness is a phenomenon known as “hedonic adaptation.” Although it sounds like a mouthful, it boils down to the idea that we adapt to changes in our environment, good or bad, more quickly and efficiently that we expect. From a physical standpoint, we’re all familiar with this experience. Think about how your eyes adjusted the last time you walked into a dark movie theater, or how an unpleasant odor ceases to bother you once you’ve had time to get used to it. This is known as physiological adaptation. Well as it turns out, a similar process actually occurs when it comes to our well-being and happiness. Essentially, positive things like marriage or getting a promotion at work may lead to short-term boosts in our happiness level. And negative events like divorce or losing our job will undoubtedly bring us down. But over time (typically within 6 months or so), studies show that we usually revert back to our usual baseline thanks to the powerful effects of hedonic adaptation. This helps explain, for example, why lottery winners tend to be no happier six months to a year later than they were before winning the prize.
Our second major roadblock to well-being pertains to our genes. Indeed, the nature versus nurture debate permeates many areas of inquiry, including the field of happiness research. As with most things, our happiness is derived from a combination of factors, including our genes. How big of an impact do our genes play? Research suggests that our genes determine a whopping 50% of our happiness level. Scientists arrived at this through a series of elegant studies looking at happiness levels among identical and fraternal twins, including those who had been separated at birth. The similarity in happiness levels among these individuals across a number of studies suggests that our genes determine around half of our happiness level.
The skills to finding true happiness
Do these roadblocks to happiness mean we’re doomed to a life of misery? Not at all! Even if our genes determine around half of our happiness level, and our circumstances account for another ten percent, we are still left with around forty percent under our control. The solution is to shift our focus away from the pursuits that don’t make much of a difference (like the ones outlined above), and devote our energies towards the ones that do. True happiness is a practiced state of mind, a skill no different from any other. It comes from practicing a set of specific skills and principles: gratitude, optimism, connection, kindness, self-compassion, forgiveness, and mindfulness. But before doing so, it’s crucial to understand the roadblocks and barriers that stand in our way.
Dr. Jonah Paquette
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