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Why you aren't as happy as you could be

When asked what people most want to achieve in their lives or in their work with a life coach, the most common response is “more happiness”. Indeed, implicit in the goals we work towards in our lives is usually a belief that accomplishing them will bring happiness.

In the next few posts, I’m going to share four reasons that explain some of the barriers to sustained happiness, and how we can address them.


1. You are viewing happiness as a goal to achieve, or a result of a change in circumstances.


“Once I get the promotion, then I will be happier.”


“Once I lose the weight, then I will be happy.”


“When I get through graduate school, I’ll be so much happier.”


“When I get my graduate school loans paid off, then I’ll really be happy.”


“Once I find a partner, I will be happy.”


These are all statements I have heard coaching clients, friends, and colleagues say. I certainly have said some of them, too. We all clearly imagine the positive emotion we will have once a circumstance changes, an event happens or a goal is met. We seek happiness by changing circumstances, waiting for an event to occur, or achieving a goal.


But the truth is, this is not going to be successful in providing lasting happiness or contentment. Even if we do experience a sharp increase in positive emotion after we get the promotion, get married, etc., the happiness isn’t going to stay at that level.


Why?


Because our brains aren’t wired that way. Once we achieve something that brings happiness, that level of happiness doesn’t stay, and thus we keep searching for new things to bring about that happiness again. Social scientists refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”. This theory states that people tend to return to their baseline level or “set point” of happiness regardless of what happens to them or what circumstances change.


In other words, no matter what goal we achieve or positive change we experience in our lives, the happiness we experience at that time isn’t going to last. We will never stay 100% happy.


Cue Anchorman Ron Burgundy: “And in no way is that depressing.”


No really, it’s okay. I promise. Because in order to experience happiness / joy / bliss, we need to have contrast. There is no happiness without unhappiness. There is no positive without negative. There is no light without dark. If we did sustain that level of happiness for the rest of our lives, it wouldn’t be so sweet and wonderful, because we would have nothing to contrast it with.


It’s also okay because, when we stop viewing happiness as the goal, we are ironically freed up to experience more happiness as a by-product, along the way. Let me explain. If you change your goal from achieving increased happiness (i.e., achieving something or getting a circumstance to change so that you will be happy) to living life in line with your personal priorities and values (see my last blog post here), you are going to experience greater meaning and fulfillment as you take action and meet goals within that context. And you’re more apt to experience happiness while you’re taking those actions (e.g., spending more time with people you care about if that’s something you highly value; spending more time playing the guitar if that’s something you highly value). The happiness comes along the way, not just at the end for a brief moment.


Now, taking action in line with our values does not mean we will have only positive emotions. We also will have unpleasant emotions. Discomfort, fear, anxiety, and frustration are all common feelings that can occur when we are making changes in our lives or challenging ourselves in new ways. But it’s worth it. Because with all those emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, comes growth, a deeper sense of meaning, more generation and creation, and ultimately positive change in the world – which continues to produce more happiness and contentment along the way.

 

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