Many people think they know what will bring them happiness, and even more worryingly you will probably meet many people who think they know what it takes to make you happy and what you should do with your life to be happy. The truth is that nobody knows exactly what it takes. It can be a variety of things, both physical and psychological which varies from person to person. In many ways, Dictionary.com’s definition of happiness sums it up perfectly. Happiness is “The quality or state of being happy”, which is completely accurate yet sheds very little light on what this entails or how it occurs. Despite its elusive nature, recent research indicates links between what does and doesn’t make us happy.
Before we discuss what might leave us with a lasting smile on our face, it’s important to consider modern misconceptions of obtaining happiness. Have you ever seen a new game, sparkly dress or gigantic flat screen TV and thought “I want that in my life”, followed by fantasies of how amazing it would be to own such a thing? I think it is fair to assume the answer is yes. Don’t worry, you’re only human and there is a good reason for this, it dates back much further than the invention of these modern luxuries. According to Loretta Breuning, author of Meet your happy chemicals, “your brain spurts happy chemicals which reward you with good feelings when you do something it perceives as good for your survival”. Therefore, it is only natural to feel a temporary rush of happiness when we obtain something new and shiny, if operant conditioning has taught us anything, it’s that the rewarded behavior is likely to be repeated. However, this excitement of owning something new fades over time because we adapt and our desire to buy something new emerges again.
It probably comes as no surprise that new possessions may not be the key to a happy and fulfilling life. But what about life events such as a promotion, getting married or moving to a new house? These experiences are likely to provide a marvelous sensation, there is no doubt about it. But is a relationship really going to provide you with a happy ever after ending? The difficult reality is that we are adaptable beings and as we adapt to our life circumstances, so does our level of happiness. A meta study by Luhmann et al (2012) found that life satisfaction rises as an individual approach their wedding day and is momentarily higher afterward compared to immediately before. It then decreases in the following months and after 4 years completely reset to its baseline level. This is known as Adaptation and is the greatest difficulty we face when obtaining happiness and striving to hold onto it.
I know this sounds depressing and is probably the last thing you want to hear while reading an article on happiness. However, upon acknowledging this fact, it makes it easier to understand how we can be happy in our everyday lives. The truth is we can spend hours discussing what is likely to make you happy or unhappy but it will always be based upon your own perception. In a recent interview Mo Gawdat, a Chief Business Officer at Google, explains the algorithm he believes is essential for happiness. He sums it up perfectly and in many ways, I can relate. Before leaving the UK to travel the world as a nomadic freelance writer, I worked in a high-pressure sales job. The pay was good, I was free of all money issues and my company frequently spoilt us with trips to expensive restaurants and open bars. But the truth is none of it made me as happy as I am now. Today, I live off very little money but I spend my days doing what I love. I don’t have a perfect life, but I look at it with glee and I am grateful for each day and count my blessings. It is important to recognize that lasting happiness will not be achieved by buying something new, finding your “perfect partner” or when you lose a few pounds. Instead, it is important to look at what you have and strive to shape your perception of your life into a more positive outlook.