Note: This is a guest post from Jay Harrington of Life and Whim.
After a long, brutal winter, it feels great to be outside again in a t-shirt, even if the temperatures aren’t climbing much beyond fifty degrees here in northern Michigan. In our community, which was recently buried in snow, people are out in force, combing beaches for rocks, riding bikes, hiking trails, cruising on paddleboards, and celebrating spring’s arrival. In addition to short sleeves, lots of people are wearing beaming smiles on their faces.
Happiness is in the air. This is true despite the fact that the weather hasn’t even been that great—it just seems great relative to what we’re used to.
Come fall, however, after a long, hot summer, we will start longing for cool, crisp air, and even (for some of us) the first snowflakes flying which will signal the coming ski season. The cycle of expectations and adaptation will then repeat.
As humans, we are always chasing rainbows. We want something—be it different weather, a better job, or a bigger house—but shortly after getting it, we want something different. We adapt to our circumstances, they become the “new normal,” and we want more. We want a happier life.
This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation.” It’s a term coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in the 1970s to explain our tendency as human beings to chase a happier life, only to return back to our original emotional baseline after getting what we want. We run on a hedonic treadmill, and get nowhere, despite exerting massive effort along the way.
A belief that “bigger and better” leads to a happier life results, paradoxically, in less of it. We work really hard because we want more. We obtain more, and the shine soon wears off. So we work harder, in pursuit of even more, and become less happy as a result. The beat goes on.
It’s clear from the science that the acquisition of bigger and better things doesn’t result in a happy life. So what will?
A Happy Life is a Journey, Not a Destination
In his book Happier, Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar defines the “arrival fallacy,” which is a corollary to the concept of hedonic adaptation. He describes the arrival fallacy as: “The false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”
I’ve certainly fallen victim to the arrival fallacy, having felt at first elated, then almost immediately letdown, following job promotions, raises, and new car or home purchases. I wanted these things so badly, but the reality of obtaining them was far different than my expectations.
In an interesting study from the 1970s, researchers studied the happiness levels of two different groups of people: lottery winners and accident victims. The surprising result of the study was that, once the initial elation of winning the lottery and shock of the accident wore off, both groups returned to their original levels of happiness. Over the long-term, these drastically different external events—one seemingly positive and the other negative—had no appreciable impact on happiness.
If winning the lottery won’t make us happier, what will? Ben-Shahar suggests that it is not reaching a particular destination (metaphorically speaking) that makes us happy, but rather learning to appreciate the journey toward the destination:
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
In this sense, ambition, itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. If humans did not want for more then we’d still be living in caves, without access to basic, modern human necessities such as electricity and clean water, nor marvels of human ingenuity such as modern medicine, art, and technology.
Problems arise when we allow the unending pursuit of growth and acquisition to inhibit our pursuit of happiness. Both ambitions—happiness and growth—can coexist, but only in balance. Growth can crowd out a happy life if you’re not careful.
One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities. —Richard Eckersley
I would, of course, never presume to suggest that I know what makes you, or anyone else, happy. We all have distinct visions, preferences, and desires for our lives. But years of scientific research suggests that certain things make most of us happy. In particular, happiness is not derived from attaining outward signals of success (bigger and better in order to “keep up with the Joneses”), but rather seeking satisfaction from new and novel experiences in pursuit of a life well-lived.
How to Live a Happy Life
What types of experiences pay the biggest happiness dividends?
I recently attended a conference in New Orleans and the keynote speaker was the University of Amherst professor, Catherine A. Sanderson, author of Science of Happiness. She is known as “The Happiness Professor.” Sanderson explained that there are 10 ways to increase your everyday happiness, according to decades worth of scientific research:
1. Make little changes in your daily routine, such as getting more sleep, exercising, getting out into nature, and meditating.
2. Read more books. Read books to learn—research suggests that lifelong learners remain healthy and engaged, and live long lives. Read books as an escape from your everyday life, Read books—it will make you happy.
3. Find your right fit or match, both personally and professionally. If you love what you do and who you are with, you’ll position yourself for personal happiness and professional success.
4. Be grateful. Sanderson suggested two specific activities to help foster a greater sense of gratitude. First, keep a daily gratitude journal. Second, pay a “gratitude visit” to someone from your past who has had a significant impact on your life, and let them know how you feel.
5. Smile more—even if you don’t feel like it. Research shows that the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into a happier state.
6. Relish simple, everyday moments. Appreciating life’s small moments, such as a beautiful, sunny day, green shoots sprouting from the ground, and skipping rocks at the beach, teaches you to be more grateful for what you have, especially during moments of stress and angst.
7. Perform random acts of kindness. Do good deeds. Volunteer. Be charitable. Shop (for someone else!). Numerous studies have shown that you can help yourself by doing good for others.
8. Spend money on experiences versus things. Studies have shown that buying an object—a car, handbag, or kitchen gadget—can quickly lead to buyer’s remorse. On the other hand, investing in experiences—a concert, a camping trip, music lessons—leads to greater happiness. Experiences create “happiness residue,” and our perceptions of them often get better over time.
9. Avoid comparisons. Whatever you may think of someone else’s life, particularly as viewed through the phony, filtered lens of social media, it’s almost certainly messier than you imagine. It’s easier to embrace, and learn to love, your own imperfections, if you don’t conjure up myths about how perfect everyone else’s lives seem.
10. Build and maintain close relationships. According to Sanderson, having a small number of tight, meaningful relationships is one of the highest predictors of happiness.
Don’t feel bad if you lose sight of some of these happiness priorities—we all do. We have to battle relentless marketing and societal expectations that suggest that the path to happiness lies elsewhere.
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think. —Daniel Kahneman
Don’t over-complicate your pursuit of happiness. As the research suggests, it’s the simple things that matter most for a happy life. Make happiness a habit that is within your control, rather than seeking it from external sources. Life is nothing but a series of moments, both big and small, and the key to living a happy life lies is living each one with purpose and intention.
Jay Harrington is a “reformed lawyer” turned author and entrepreneur, and blogs at Life and Whim where he helps people find purpose and live big through small moments. You can also find him on Facebook.