Why We Chase Happiness

Since this is phase 2 of my blog, I thought I’d add something a little different than what you are used to seeing from me. Don’t worry, I’m sure I go back to the deep depths of my soul in the not too distant future. But in the meantime, I wanted to add a little psychoeducation to the mix.

In my work in Behavioral Health, I am the Psychoeducation Nazi. Ask anyone who works with me and they will confirm my insistence that you cannot make real change without first understanding why you need to do it in the first place. For example, many of the parents of children with developmental disabilities or behavioral disorders that we work with have not been given vital information about their child’s diagnosis on the most basic levels. For example, individuals diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome lack developmentally appropriate impulse control. It’s part and parcel of the diagnosis and yet I often have to sit down with parents and explain to them why their 13 year old child (who may be developmentally 4 years old) doesn’t respond to “stop” just because you tell them to stop. This is a light bulb moment for many parents. Not because they don’t on some level know it. It’s just that no one has ever sat down and explicitly explained it to them.

Teaching psychology is, in essence, psychoeducating college students (often against their will). General Psychology is one of the most difficult but interesting classes I teach. It is difficult, not only in that I have to be a mini expert on just about everything (and I’m not), but also because when students think psychology, they think Abnormal Psychology. They want to talk about how screwed up everyone is and why their dad has an anxiety disorder or if I think their mother is Bipolar. Unfortunately for them, I save that chapter for the last week of class. Because, before you can understand the abnormalities in people, you first need to understand what is normal in all of us.

The interesting aspect of the class is that while my students may appear bored to tears at times, I learn something new every semester I teach it. I look at things differently each time. I have my own light bulb moments. And occasionally, the students do too.

This semester, when we got to the Emotions, Stress and Health Chapter, I pulled the powerpoint up and started teaching. I asked questions like “What comes first – the racing heart or the fear you feel?” And they stared at me. For a really long time. So I stared back. For a really long time. Eventually, I pull their teeth and get a few of them to actually engage in conversation.

So, in my frustration, when we got to the concept of happiness, I had them pull out a sheet of paper and make 2 lists; What makes you happy right now and what would make you happier?

Before I get into how they answered, I have to tell you, the study of happiness is one of my favorites of the semester. I love it because it universally eludes all of us on some level. We are seekers of happiness, often looking for something we cannot find. We vacillate between fleeting moments of despair, contentment, confusion and happiness, but finding true enduring joy appears to be a story written in someone else’s life. Happiness is the “something more” that the majority of people never fully seem to grasp.

With that being said, my group of 25 Millennials came up with nearly identical lists:

What makes me happy? Family, friends, the new job I just got, Bob (or insert another name) and I spending time together, the 100% I got on my test, etc. In the case of the here and now, most people define happiness in terms of being socially connected or as a reflection of their self esteem.

What would make me happier? Having a job that would allow me to live on my own, having money, having my degree, a brand new car, my own apartment, nicer clothes, knowing if Bob (or insert another name) and I are actually a couple (I had several of these). In the case of optimal happiness, most people define happiness in terms of external items, status or events.

So, the question posed to my students was…why aren’t the things that make you happy now enough? Why do you believe there is “something more” that will magically change your life and make you happier?

If you ever get the chance to watch the documentary “Happy”, I strongly recommend it. It is worth every minute of the one hour. The psychology of happiness has only been studied over the last few decades but it’s actually quite fascinating stuff. Theorists believe that, happiness is determined by 3 main factors. Surprisingly, research suggests that 50% of your ability to feel a sustained level of happiness is determined genetically. Much like a metabolic set point for your weight, each of us have a genetic “happiness set point”. For example, most of us naturally fall somewhere on a scale like this when it comes to how happy we are in any given moment.

Yes, we can move from one state of happiness to another based on a particular situation but genetically speaking, we will quickly return to baseline. So if you are someone who generally can’t stop smiling, even if you have a bad day, you will return quickly back to your own happy go lucky self. The same can be said for people who struggle with depression. They have good days but their tendency is to return to a negative mood state as soon as things go back to normal.

Interestingly enough, the remaining 50% of your happiness is distributed in a way that may surprise you. Only 10% of what makes people happy lies in those external items, status and events. And you may think to yourself, “Well, of course! Everyone knows that!” But do you? Because if you really knew that, then why would you being spending the majority of your time focused on those things? Why more money? Why a bigger house? Why a nicer car?  Why nicer clothes? Why isn’t Bob good enough now?

The cookie cutter answer to all of those questions is this: Because if I had more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, nicer clothes and a nicer Bob, I would have less stress in my life. It would solve my problems. I can’t pay my bills, my kid’s room is too small, my car smells like a dead cat, my wardrobe makes me look like I stepped off the set of “Cheers”. And well, Bob…Bob just needs to get with the program. (Because in the case of my Millennials, they’ve got a shrinking supply of eggs that need to be fertilized).

You know the old expression “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”? It’s actually true. My favorite part of the documentary, Happy is when Happiness researcher Dan Gilbert explains that while the differences in happiness levels reported in people earning $5000 per year vs. $50,000 per year were dramatic, the differences in happiness between those earning $50,000 and $50,000,000 weren’t even statistically significant.

Here’s what we fundamentally don’t get when it comes to happiness: We adjust. We adjust. We adjust. The Hedonic Adaptation states that while all that “mo'” stuff you’ve been just dying to have will initially create an increase in happiness states, we will quickly return to baseline (remember 50% of this is genetic). So it only makes sense that you will keep wanting more in order to chase that fleeting feeling of joy that a THING or SITUATION gave you. You didn’t give it to yourself. You looked for it in a place you could never find it in the first place.

Then how in the hell can I be happy??? We have just accounted for 60% of what makes us happy. One we have no control over; the other, in all actuality, has very little impact on our happiness. What about the other 40%? It appears, and the research supports, that 40% of your happiness can be obtained through intentional thought and activity. Nothing mind blowing here. How do you spend your time? Are you just going through the motions of life? Are you waiting until something changes to get to a place where you can allow yourself to be happy? Are you doing things you enjoy? Are you accepting of what is and not what could be, if only….? Do you appreciate what you already have? Do you even see what you already have?

This part, that 40%, while not mind blowing, is a different way of thinking about why we chase happiness. We chase happiness because we devalue our lives as they are. And we believe everyone else is living high on the hog. Truly happy people accept life for what is it. They live life with intention. They chose happiness over everything else. They aren’t happy because they have money or a car or a husband with rock hard abs. They are happy because the chose to be. They accept their genetic set point of happiness and then live with intention. So even a person who is not genetically predisposed to exude extreme happiness all of the time (and I’m one of these people), can make the choice to accept the imperfections of life and intentionally seek happiness in even the smallest things (and I’m constantly working this angle).

The light bulb moments this semester in this lesson on happiness were the following: I had multiple students go off and watch the entire documentary on their own and actually incorporate in a meaningful way into that damn take home essay exam I gave.  And as for myself, I realized that I really have almost abandoned the notion of external happiness. I’ve never been much for material possessions anyway, but I have, over the course of the last few years, made great strides in living with the intention of being happy. Have I fallen off the wagon? Absolutely. Have I separated myself from situations that don’t serve me well? Absolutely. I’m a work in progress.

Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Just please don’t believe that a new car is going to do the trick. Eventually, it will smell like a dead cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Why We Chase Happiness

  1. Pingback: Why We Chase Happiness | maximusred

  2. Thanks for visiting and following the Fountain. As you may know, I am in a transitional state when it comes to happiness. I read this post with interest, and continue to work on my outlook daily. It is a challenge right now, I am not sure I will ever be truly joyous again, but we don’t know what the future holds.

    • Any response to your loss may seem trite at this point. No one will ever truly understand what you have endured. In my own case, I have lost both my brother and mother in the last 5 years (and my father years before). Those experiences threw my life into a total upheaval that I still attempt to balance everyday. But for me, joy and happiness are defined differently now. I recognize them in smaller, seemingly mundane things. I appreciate things and people that I never paid attention to before. I have found a level of traumatic growth within the traumatic stress. Much of my blog, which started over at http://www.maximusred.blogspot.com is journey through my grief and trying to make sense of what at times was nonsensical. I wish you peace and understanding on your journey.

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