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The Happiness trap

Happiness: it’s such a subjective and intangible goal, and yet one we pursue as a society almost relentlessly. A quick search on Amazons self-help book section comes up with thousands of titles on the subject, each promising the answers in an easy 300 pages. We like quick fixes these days, though don’t we? We want someone to tell us the answers, rather than doing the work to find them out for ourselves. Even having to read a whole book for enlightenment seems kind of a drag.

It appears that the pursuit of happiness is a little like chasing a rainbow: pretty to look at, but elusive at best and quick to dissolve into thin air when we get close to it, especially when we attach happiness to things which are arguably superficial, and often in the future : we will be happy whenwe get that new job or our buy our dream house for example, and there is no doubt that achieving our aspirations does give us a level of satisfaction, and often improves our quality of life. The problem is though, that after a while, we start to take these things for granted, and the feeling of happiness wears off. This is because it is widely thought that we have as humans, a happiness set point: unique to each if us, and that no matter what life throws our way, good or bad, we eventually fall back to our base line happiness. This is known as ‘Hedonic adaptation’ or the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. According to research, around 50% of our happiness ‘set point’ is genetic (which means we can’t change it), and 10-20% is due to life circumstances . While that may seem a little depressing, it does mean that we can use that remaining 30-40 % to raise that happiness set point to its highest level possible for us as individuals. We have a little bit of leeway. All is not lost.

So how we do we dial that set point to its highest mark? Ironically by not chasing happiness at all. Effectively, we are chasing the wrong objective, and the more we search for happiness the more elusive it becomes. This is reminiscent of ‘The Backwards law’ championed by philosophical writer Alan Watts. Author Mark Manson explains it like this :‘ “The Backwards Law” [is] the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place…. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you.’ To complicate things further, when we are searching for happiness, we often end up confusing that with pleasure- happiness’s fabulous but rather flighty second cousin. Pleasure is here for a good time not a long time, and while life would be super boring without it, it is a little like a drug in that it is a quick and fleeting high : especially when we take pleasure in the way it is often served up by society today – instant and easily accessible ( think alcohol, social media, shopping or casual sex). Healthy pleasure that doesn’t hurt ourselves or others, and isn’t used to fill some internal void in our souls, is a great thing. For lasting happiness though, it needs to be balanced by something more substantial: meaning and purpose, even if that causes the occasional bit of pain – something we need to become whole and emotionally robust humans. Enduring happiness should be viewed as a beautiful by-product and unintended consequence of living with a purposeful intention and an altruist mind set, interspersed with healthy pleasures that give us shots of joy and satisfaction . In practical terms , it looks like this: real human connection instead of social media, giving back to your community, working at a job that fills more than just your bank account, and fostering deep relationships. It means stepping out of your comfort zone and being willing to tolerate a bit of discomfort for personal growth.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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