I read a fascinating article yesterday in Huffington Post about how explicitly pursuing happiness can actually make you less happy. It enumerated four things we often do in our pursuit of happiness that backfire on us.
First, we try to figure out if we’re happy. This requires us to measure our happiness on a regular basis to assess whether we’re getting happier. In doing so, we begin evaluating our lives instead of experiencing them, which leads to greater levels of dissatisfaction. Second, we tend to overestimate the impact of certain events on our happiness. A promotion, a new relationship, etc. are perceived as things that will make us happier, but over time we readjust to the new norm of a bigger paycheck or the now mundane relationship and no longer derive the same level of happiness from it. Third, we perceive happiness as an individual pursuit, but focusing too much on yourself while neglecting the importance of relationships can have a negative effect. Finally, we seek out intense happiness, which is actually less fulfilling than constant moderate happiness because the peaks and valleys are too extreme.
So I guess the first step in our quest for happiness is to forget about the quest and just live our lives doing things we enjoy, and happiness will follow. But how do you know whether you’re deriving happiness from your life if you never stop to evaluate? Maybe it doesn’t matter if you know.
Happiness is one of those things that when you have it, you tend not to think about it. If you go weeks without questioning whether you’re happy, you probably are. If you’re fixated on your happiness, it’s probably because you’re not happy. So while the advice to not evaluate your happiness seems plausible, if you’re starting from a place of unhappiness, you’re going to have to change something about your day-to-day life to become happy. And you can’t make a change without evaluating your current situation and figuring out how to improve it. So if you ask me, some level of evaluation is necessary. If you’re unhappy, the problem may be that you don’t know what activities would make you happy, so clearly you’re going to have to try new things and evaluate whether they make you happy.
And that’s where the next three points come into play.
There Is No Quick Fix
In your search for things that will make you happy, don’t set your sights on one particular thing. All the anticipation leading up to that achievement will make it seem like the most important thing in the world, and when that doesn’t succeed in making you happy for more than a brief moment, you’re back at square one, only more depressed because your big plan failed.
This point has a big application in the personal finance world. When you get a raise, there’s a period of excitement because you have more money coming in each month, and you begin to splurge on things you couldn’t afford before. But after a while, you get used to that new salary and you’re back to living paycheck to paycheck and wanting more. It’s called lifestyle creep and you should do everything in your power to resist it.
You Can’t Be Happy Alone
If your quest for happiness is so focused on personal development, you may be sacrificing relationships that were bringing you happiness before. If you don’t find the happiness you had been craving, or if it only lasts for a short while, you may find yourself even less happy than you were in the first place because you’ve isolated yourself from the people who cared about you.
Do things that make you happy, and choose friends who will be supportive of you in your pursuits, but don’t expect them to continue offering support when those pursuits take up your entire life and you have no time for your relationships anymore.
Even Out Your Happiness
Let me tell you a story. I used to love the card game Apples to Apples. It never failed to liven up a party. For years I played it at family gatherings, parties, and quiet nights with friends. Then one of my friends introduced me to Cards Against Humanity. It’s basically Apples to Apples for horrible people, and it’s the most amazing card game ever created. The problem is, I can never play Apples to Apples again because it’s exactly the same, only worse, than Cards Against Humanity.
This is exactly what happens when you overdose on happiness. Other things that don’t produce as much happiness all in one shot become much less enjoyable. Once you’ve played to a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden, a local neighborhood bar doesn’t give you the same thrill. That’s not to say you shouldn’t shoot for the stars if it’s what you really want, but just know it’s not necessarily going to make you happy in the long run. You’re much better off finding things that will produce an even level of happiness on a regular basis if your goal is long-term happiness.