We have so much technology, we are living longer and in better conditions than ever before in history, however, the world is an unhappy place.
Why is that?
I have no doubt that for most of us, it’s our ultimate goal, even though we may be “zoomed out” a bit and be choosing goals that we use as a proxy for happiness.
When we say that we want to lose weight, want a new car, or to earn more money, on a deeper level we actually mean that we want to be happier. We choose to want things that we THINK will lead to us becoming happier. We assume that “car =happiness” so we focus on the car, assuming that getting it will result in happiness.
Whether that’s correct or not, I’ll discuss in a bit.
Happiness is a way to give us the motivation we need to keep doing things that are good for us and ultimately keep us alive to reproduce and continue the human race.
Being happy and getting pleasure out of doing things that are good for us keeps us on track. Our brain’s internal wiring is designed to give us a sense of drive and fulfillment when we are taking positive steps in our lives, and that’s what we sense as happiness.
Now many people tend to confuse pleasure and happiness. They are not the same thing. Pleasure doesn’t cause happiness. Pleasure is a result of happiness! This is important to understand for later on.
If you really think about it, the feeling of happiness is the sense that you really want to continue what you are doing, be it eating a delicious bar of chocolate or staying close to your loved ones. If you do something that is not so good for you like isolating yourself from others or eating dirt, you’re gonna feel bad – both physically and mentally.
Note, sometimes the feeling of “goodness” is not black and white and can quickly turn into bad feelings if you do too much of the said thing. i.e. eating too much chocolate. Also, sometimes you have to consciously override the bad feelings in the short-term to get good feelings. i.e. exercising when all your body wants to do is lay down on the floor and relax.
In our modern world with wealth and technology, the pursuit of happiness has become an entangled mess with distractions and no clear route to achieving it.
There are two types of motivation that drive us to do things that make us happy – internal and external.
Internal motivations are things that are self-motivating – they come from within and you get pleasure from the ongoing process without the people around you seeing you get any visible reward. Internal motivators are typically things that you do more than things that you gain.
These include things such as:
External motivations come from external sources. You usually get something and the reward is visible to onlookers. For external rewards, the reward is often the final outcome and you may not necessarily enjoy the process to get there. External motivators are things that you gain more than things that you do.
These include things such as:
Some of these things can be a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic. e.g. if your job gives you personal growth and you really enjoy it, but at the same time, the money also motivates you.
Imagine a graph which has a straight horizontal line across it. The level of that line represents your baseline happiness level. When something super good happens to you, there’s a spike in the line and it shoots up. When something mega bad happens to you, there’s a drop in the line. However, these peaks and troughs quickly return to the baseline.
So maybe you got your new car…you’re super happy and feel on top of the world. However, we all know the feeling of when something new no longer excites you and becomes “normal”. That new item in our life got old and we need the newer version to make us happy again. Basically, that was a peak and fall back to the baseline in the graph.
This graph actually has a name and is referred to as the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill effect states that there will be rises and falls in your happiness, but it will always revert to the mean baseline.
Basically, people overestimate the impact of good AND bad events on their life – Your state of well-being will always drift back the baseline level independently of joyful and sad events in your life.
Even if something bad happens to you like you lose your job or someone dies, you’re not going to be sad forever. You’ll slowly start to feel better, and after a while will return to how you felt initially.
Now, I mentioned at the start of this article how in the search of happiness we look for things like getting a new car, losing weight etc. However, these are things that spike our graph – they give us an initial high, but the line then falls back down to baseline. If you also noticed, these are external things. The car is money, image and status related, while losing weight is image related.
If doing these external things only makes us happy for a little while, what does truly make us happy?
What we need to do is raise the level of the baseline. If the baseline is higher, then we are going to have more long-term happiness.
Instead of procuring external sources of happiness which don’t last long, we can concentrate on our internal motivations:
Doing these things is what raises the baseline level of your happiness graph. Instead of the spikes you get when you achieve external happiness, you raise the whole graph while participating in activities that build relationships, grow yourself or help others.
These are the things that help us progress and survive, so as long as you are doing them your body is going to reward you will a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Yes, your life will be intertwined with good and bad events, however, this shouldn’t affect your overall long-term happiness. Any extremes in either emotion of joy and sadness will gradually revert back to your average level of happiness which is defined by the things mentioned above.
To understand more about how internal motivation drives our happiness as humans, we can look at examples where happiness isn’t yet affected by the modern world. Two excellent examples are babies and animals.
Neither babies or animals are driven by money or image, although animals sometimes status. Baby’s and animal’s drives are mostly all internal. They wake in the morning with an instinctive motivation to survive. This means that their actions drive them to build relationships, grow in some way and remain part of a community.
A baby will cry if it is not given attention or left alone (social relationships) and gets pleasure from playing (personal growth). Helping others doesn’t develop until a later stage.
An animal will concentrate on finding a mate and possibly being in a group depending on the species (relationships), they will copy others to learn new things (personal growth), plus they will bring back food for members of their group or warn of danger (community feeling).
These basic things tend to be lost when we become adults as we teach ourselves that we can quickly fake happiness by getting pleasure from external sources. Both babies and animals mostly lack these external sources, however, they still possess the ability to be happy.
Remember that I mentioned before that pleasure doesn’t cause happiness, but rather it’s a result of it. That means that seeking pleasure rather than happiness is also not going to better your long-term feelings. Thinking that we can trick the system and change our happiness levels quickly by using external things that are available to us in the modern world such as money, image, or status just isn’t correct. These external sources only provide temporary “fake” pleasure that peaks our happiness levels, rather than changing our actual happiness levels. Changing the actual happiness levels results in more pleasure to raise the overall happiness “line” – pleasure doesn’t create happiness but happiness creates pleasure. Because monetary, image or status pleasures come from an external source rather than being created internally, they will fall over time.
Imagine a bucket with a small hole in. If we fill it with water using a glass (external), it’s going to empty at some point as we can’t keep filling it up forever. However, if we link a hosepipe to it (internal), the bucket will remain full as it has a constant supply of water to it.
The minimal effect of external sources on overall happiness is evident in people who have a LOT of money. Yes, having more money can make you happier when you are without basic things. Going from poverty to comfortable in life is a big advantage to survival. However, once you are comfortable, gaining a lot more money doesn’t have much impact on your happiness levels as you are just peaking the line on the graph every time you use that money.
Over time the peaks get smaller and smaller as we become accustomed to the stimulus. This is one of the reasons that rock-stars often turn to drugs to seek extra pleasure – the money no longer spikes their pleasure enough. It’s also common for lottery winners to be depressed.
Ask yourself: What makes you get out of bed in the morning to work? Is it because you are driven by the monetary reward, or do you find your job fulfilling? If you had a choice to stay in bed, would you choose it, or does the sense of satisfaction from personal growth and helping others drive you to do your job anyway? This is the difference between external and internal motivations – if you take away the money (external reward), does what you are doing continue to satisfy you? If not, it’s possible that you need to seek something that gives you fulfillment as well!
One of the MOST common mistakes we make in the search for happiness is when we say things like “When I get x, I’ll finally be happy”. This is a good motivator as it drives us to want to achieve something, however, unfortunately, we get this so wrong.
When we say things like “when I weigh 2 stone lighter I’ll finally be happy”, we are confusing desire for happiness. What we are doing is creating a feeling in our head NOW of what we think we will feel when we achieve that thing. It’s just a concept in your head of our assumptions of how that one thing will affect your whole life while ignoring everything else that will be affecting you.
The problem is that we get the prediction of these future feelings so wrong. Psychology helps us explain why, though. When we make mistakes like this, it’s referred to the “affective/hedonic forecasting error” and “impact bias”. We basically overpredict how something in the future will make us feel and assume that it will change our life forever.
To explain simply why this is wrong, I’ll use an example:
Think back to when you were a young child and had just started to think for yourself.
Was there a toy that you really wanted? Something that you saw on tv or one of your friends had? You concentrated so much on getting this toy and imagined how happy you’d feel when you got it, right?…
This will probably have been the first time you committed this “error”. How do you feel about that toy now? Can you even remember what it was? What effect is it having on your happiness today? Probably zero right? Can you see where I’m going with this? When you apply this thinking to future predictions about what you want, the same thing will happen – apart from your mind making up how you’ll feel when you get said thing, your wants and needs are gonna change and you are soon going to want the NEXT thing.
So apart from following more intrinsic based goals like I mentioned earlier, we can actually LEARN to be happy. That’s right, happiness can be learned!
We spend so long reminiscing about the past and thinking about what will make us happy in the future, that we forget about the “NOW”! Remember that at some point, the “now” will be those moments that you reminisce about in the past. This is why that practicing gratitude is so powerful. We learn to be grateful for what we have now. Our health; our basic needs of food, water and shelter; our friends and family; the things that others don’t have. You’ve almost certainly got enough in your life to be happy NOW. Also, think about it from this perspective – for every time that you look up to someone and think “I wish I had what he/she had”, there’s someone looking up to you thinking the same thing.
Having problems actually makes us happy too. Problems are the things that make us set goals and push us forward every day to achieve something. Without “problems” you wouldn’t need to get out of bed. You’d not need to go to work, you’d not need to feed yourself, you wouldn’t need to do anything. You wouldn’t survive. Seeing problems as a negative thing is easy, but just reframing them can put you into a more positive mindset and make you happier in the moment.