It might be what matters most
Do you fantasize about how much better the future will be?
Maybe you think things will be better when all your exams are finished. When you’ve graduated from university. When you’ve landed your first real job. When you’ve received that promotion. When you’ve bought that swanky home. When you’ve found “the one.”
Many of us endure what we perceive as the less-than-ideal present because of the promise that some future moment will be so much better.
As a result, we push happiness into the future by wanting more, being dissatisfied, and not feeling good enough. We think that at some unknown moment in the future, our lives will be set up exactly how we want them to be and then we can finally relax and be happy.
The trouble is, we are bad at predicting what will make us happy. The things we often imagine will make us happy, don’t.
Do you see our predicament? We sacrifice today’s happiness in the hopes of gaining more happiness tomorrow, yet what we’re working so hard to achieve probably won’t make us happy!
This sounds like a bad strategy for happiness, but do we really make these errors? And, if we do, is there anything we can do about it?
Why tomorrow seems better than today
There’s a reason why we are so inclined to be dissatisfied with today and think so highly of tomorrow. That reason is called dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives rise to the pleasure of wanting. It causes us to chase after things we like and makes the chase feel good.
Say, you eat a cheeseburger and you like it. Your brain then faithfully records that you liked it. The next time you’re hungry, your brain suggests “Cheeseburger?” and releases dopamine. Now, you’re motivated to go buy it and eat it. So, you do.
But, dopamine causes us to chase after more than just cheeseburgers.
Dopamine encourages goal-seeking behavior. So, it makes us feel dissatisfied with what we have and makes us feel like we’ll be better off once we attain whatever we’re chasing. It does this to push us to act.
Isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want to be pushed to pursue our goals?
Maybe, but that’s beside the point, because dopamine’s role in our lives is more insidious than we realize.
Dopamine’s daring deception
When we want something, we are often predicting that once we get it we’ll be happier. However, research shows that our predictions about how happy we will be once we’ve obtained what we want are often wrong.
When we want something but are wrong about how happy it will make us, we miswant. To miswant means you have made a mistake in wanting.
Unfortunately, miswanting is quite common and (surprise!) dopamine is to blame.
The role of dopamine is to motivate us to pursue rewards. However, in our excitement to achieve these rewards, we typically overestimate the duration of the positive feelings we’ll end up having.
Imagine spending a day at home from work watching your favorite TV show. Sounds amazing, right? You might imagine getting some snacks and cuddling up on the couch in your jammies.
But, if you’ve ever done this, you’ll have noticed how quickly you become bored. The first episode is a little better than the second, and the fifth is much better than the tenth.
By the tenth episode, according to your brain, lazing around the house and watching TV has become old news — it’s no longer exciting. As a result, your brain has stopped dispensing dopamine, which causes you to cease getting pleasure from that activity.
It is this diminishment of pleasure that we often fail to take this into account when deciding what to pursue — when deciding what we want.
Climbing Mt. Happiness
Do you ever think that the checklist of things you want to accomplish in your life will get you closer to the top of Mt. Happiness? Like, each accomplishment brings you closer and closer to the peak?
What will you do at the peak? Well, the sky’s the limit! At the very least, you’ll finally be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the shit out of life, right?
Unfortunately, no. This isn’t how life works.
If you’re into mountain analogies, we’re more like Sisyphus, the man from Greek mythology who was sentenced for all eternity to roll a huge boulder up a hill every day, only to watch it tumble back down once he’d reached the top. Then, he’d start all over.
Research has shown that we each have a baseline level of happiness that is not easily changed. When something good happens, our overall level of happiness rises, only to fall back to our baseline over time. The same is true when bad things happen — our happiness decreases only to rise back up again to our baseline.
Do you see how the ancient story of Sisyphus is also our curse? We work and work, hoping to achieve something in our lives, yet when we finally get it, our success is brief and our descent back to where we started is even briefer.
In psychological terms, this is known as the hedonic treadmill. It is the vicious cycle of wanting-achieving-wanting. What we achieve never feels good enough because we always end up right back where we started, so we simply end up wanting more.
But, if this is true, is our pursuit of happiness futile?
Stepping off the treadmill
Thankfully, the pursuit of happiness is not futile. Most of us are just wrong about how to achieve it.
If you’re sitting in the middle class or higher, despite what you might predict, additional things aren’t going to make you happier, at least not for long.
So, what does make us happy? Well, it turns out a simple adage like, stop to smell the roses, can help us understand what is required.
The thing we need to remember is that how we feel today is how we’ll feel tomorrow. We think we’ll feel happier tomorrow once we’ve attained that important something, but we tend to slide back to our baseline, eventually.
If you want to be happier than you are right now, you need to do something differently, right now. It is our intentional actions, done regularly, that seem to bring about lasting increases in happiness.
So, if we want to be happier than we are today, what can we do?
- Practice gratefulness. Write down 3 things every day that you are grateful for, along with a sentence describing why you are grateful for them.
- Perform acts of kindness. By intentionally doing nice things for others, you will gain a benefit in the form of additional happiness.
- Meditate. Meditation will develop the skill of mindfulness, which helps you to pay attention to and appreciate the present moment.
- Exercise. Get physical activity regularly. Our bodies are made to move, and they will reward you for moving them.
In the end, happiness is not given, bought with money, or earned through achievement. Happiness is practiced.
This doesn’t mean you should give up on your goals and dreams. It just means you need to remember that they won’t necessarily bring you the lasting happiness you think they will.
So, incorporate one of those 4 above activities into your life. You might find the additional happiness you’ve been seeking all along.