When I told my editor-slash-husband that I was going to write about happiness, he wasn’t convinced. But it kept coming up with other topics so I knew it was something I wanted to explore. See, humans have always worried about happiness in some form or another (some cultures actually have a fear of being too happy!)
Before I dive in, I want to share a bit about my experience with “happiness.” I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for over 5 years and it’s that part of me that’s brought me to the journey I’m on today. I don’t mean to imply any of the ideas I’m sharing are quick cure-alls or substitutes for medication; they’re not. But they are useful in addition to medication, and also for people who aren’t dealing with mental illness.
I believe America (in the broad sense of the prominent culture in The United States and Canada) is going about happiness wrong. And it’s hurting people and the environment. I’ll explain how in a moment.
I’ll also explore other ideas about happiness, and share some ways to go about making yourself happier; the better way.
What We Have Gotten Wrong About Happiness
Americans are hyperfocused on being happy and living a perfect life. It’s not the average person’s fault; we’re bombarded by images in advertising, on TV, and on social media. Celebrity and “rich kid” culture makes us feel as though we don’t have enough; if only we had a bigger house, nicer clothes, fancier vacations then we’d be happy. This isn’t necessarily true.
Consumer Culture Makes Us Unhappy With More
We’re living in a consumer culture of more, more, more! where we buy nicer and bigger things to make us happy. But it isn’t actually making us happy. Why? Research in psychology points to the theory of hedonic adaptation (otherwise known as the hedonic treadmill) for a possible answer.
Hedonic adaptation states that positive and negative experiences do not affect happiness in the long term. Instead, while there is an immediate increase in happiness or unhappiness, over time we tend towards a set point. Our set point, or baseline level of happiness, is influenced by our genetics, our attitude and behavior, and our circumstances.
Hedonistic adaptation means that hedonism, the pursuit of immediate pleasure and avoidance of struggle, won’t increase our happiness in the long run. What we’ve been doing is not working. Worse, consumer culture is taking our time, wrecking our health, and hurting the planet.
Trying to Always be Happy Makes Us Unhappy
Our culture’s hyperfocus on happiness makes any grief or sadness unbearable. So we mask it or try to solve it: if shopping doesn’t work, we turn to medication. The happiness culture benefits pharmaceutical companies and anyone else who can market “sadness cures”. But unhappiness isn’t always something we need to fix.
Anything worth doing is going to be unpleasant sometimes. And when we accept that fact, we can stop feeling despair when we are in low spirits. It is normal to have off days. In effect, not worrying about being happy all the time, can actually make us happier.
An idea which is pervasive on social media is that we should always have everything organized and tidy; that we should always be happy and doing exciting things with lots of friends. When we get too fixated on the fake lives of online influencers, we can lose track of what matters.
Having a perfect matching kitchen is not as important as cooking nutritious food. A table full of pretty fruits and pastries is not as important as the people around you. If we focus on the “perfect life” that we want to live, we miss out on our real lives. And, we’ll never be satisfied; there will always be something else we want.
What Really is Happiness?
When you consider happiness, it can be looked at as overall life satisfaction, or as the experience of positive emotions. When you define happiness as the latter then the focus is on experiencing good things, and you easily fall into the happiness trap I described above. What feels good now won’t always feel good in the long run, and some unpleasant experiences are necessary to grow as a person.
The Ancient Greeks, Buddhists, and the new field of positive psychology focus on happiness as life satisfaction. The Ancient Greeks coined the term eudaimonia as an alternative to happiness as a life goal. Buddhism focuses on happiness through a positive mindset. Positive psychology studies the good experiences that make life worthwhile.
Happiness in Philosophy and Religion
Eudaimonia, whose biggest proponents were Plato and Aristotle, can be roughly translated to fulfillment. In the eudaimonic tradition of living, one focuses on living life in a worthwhile and satisfying way. Instead of trying to avoid bad experiences, you instead trust that while many of life’s projects may be unpleasant at times, they are also what makes life worthwhile.
In Buddhism, there is a distinction between transient pleasure, called preya, and real, lasting happiness, known as sukha. Happiness is defined in Buddhism as a state of mind. To be happy is to actively work on replacing negative, unproductive thoughts and actions with ones that foster gratitude and compassion.
Happiness in Positive Psychology
When hedonistic adaptation was first introduced in the 1970s it was prematurely concluded that we cannot do anything to make ourselves happier. No matter what we do, we will always return to our baseline of happiness. But new research in the field of positive psychology suggests otherwise.
As mentioned earlier, while our baseline is determined by genetics and external circumstances, it is also partly determined by our attitudes and behaviors. This implies that by changing the ways we act and think, we can make ourselves happier.
How Do We Really Make Ourselves Happier?
You cannot become happier by wanting to be happy. When you want something, you tell yourself you don’t already have it. And the feeling of needing more to be happy, which is a symptom of the consumer culture we live in, is bad for our health, our wallets, and our planet.
Instead, to become happier you should focus on creating a positive mindset and finding enjoyment in the processes of wellness. Wellness is the active pursuit of a more successful existence. It’s about conscious decisions to engage in activities and behaviors that serve to improve some aspect of your wellbeing.
Many of the habits that will make you happier are similar to the habits for wellness I recommend. Wellness is the process of improving your existence; it’s about finding satisfaction and fulfillment (as well as maintaining good health.) Of course your life satisfaction will improve as you work on your wellness!
Part of mental wellness focuses on your thoughts and how you perceive the world. By fostering a positive mindset throughout your day, your overall mood is improved as you spend more time feeling gratitude and contentment.
If you’ve woken up to find yourself surrounded by a consumer culture that is trying to sell you empty happiness, don’t be discouraged. Every action opposed to consumerism and every act of self-care is a step in the right direction; for you, and the rest of the world
Have you been focusing on the wrong things trying to make yourself happy? Did I miss your favorite activity to make yourself happier? Let me know in an email!
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