More than ever, the idea of happiness and the achievement of this elusive state echos in our collective consciousness. Often, our thoughts tell us that if only… then we could be happy.
If only I made a six figure salary, then I’d be happy.
If only I dated him (or her), then I’d be happy.
If only I drove this type of car, then I’d be happy.
If I was famous, then I’d be happy.
And on, and on and on.
If we achieve these marks, we often find that it does not give us the satisfaction that we are looking for. Celebrities, whom seem to have it all, cheat, steal, end up in rehab or are involved in tragic events. Most of our parents are divorced…well, fifty percent of them. Depression rates are on the rise. Anxiety is at an all time high. Americans consider this an all time low in the history of the country.2 We are at our unhappiest in 50 years. When you consider this, it doesn’t seem likely that you or I will end up in the “happiness winner’s circle”. That idea pisses me off!
I’m okay, now. Thanks.
What is Happiness?
Let’s start by clarifying exactly what we mean by happiness. For our purposes, happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”1 I think the differentiator in this definition in comparison to others, is the reference to life being meaningful and worthwhile.
Modern Life and Happiness
Staying indoors, not interacting with nature causes unhappiness. Shelter is necessary for humans. However, we are designed to be outside. Consequently, being indoors all the time depletes our happiness. The sunlight strengthens our circadian rhythm and increases our energy up to 40%.10 Spending time outdoors has many positive impacts on our health including increased cognitive function, reduced stress and blood pressure.3 The quarantine’s effect may have brought home how important this is.
Only about half of Americans have any daily meaningful in-person interactions.4 Three in five American’s feel lonely.8 Drinking and drugs, while providing short term bumps in happiness (while you’re drunk or high), can have a negative impact on your long term happiness. Not getting enough sleep, poor eating habits and not exercising are all associated with being unhappy.
Our cell phone addictions have made us less happy. Social media and social comparison has shown to have a negative effect on our mental health.5
We know that happy workers are more productive. However, we work more hours per year than Japan, England and France. Today, 70% of children live in households where both mom and dad are employed. So we’re teaching our future generations that this is the norm.6 If we are working more, are we happier?
Daydreamers beware. Mind wandering has been shown to be a cause of unhappiness. The wandering mind, is an unhappy mind. With all the distractions put in our faces each day, how does one not allow the mind to wander?
There are more than 175 million tweets every day (this data is a year old). Thirty billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook every month. Each of us see somewhere between 3,000-6,000 ads per day! This is compared to 500 to 1600 in the 70’s!
Our minds are overloaded with information. With our brains “red-lining” we are more likely to be less efficient, have memory loss and make bad decision about important things.11 There’s just too much! Our brains have not evolved to deal with this just yet.
Evolution and Happiness
Anxiety evolved in us to encourage us to be adaptive, to survive (If we see a lion, then run!). Happiness, is the same. It is to encourage behavior that will have us survive or reproduce.
Happiness is often associated with or leads to an adaptive behavior, similarly to anxiety. This is vital to understand why this emotion evolved in us. Thoughts that make us happy suggest increased probability of survival or mating. Happiness is not an outcome. Just as once we escape the lion, we are not filled with anxiety forever.
That would fucking be terrible!
As anxiety fades away, so will happiness.
So, our emotions are designed to provoke a behavior. And, this is true for happiness as well.
At the end of the day, happiness is just not the purpose of our lives. Not with where evolution has brought us. Evolution’s purpose is to ensure our survival. Survival is the point, not happiness.
You’re Going to Die
When considering happiness, know that you’re going to die. Most people aren’t thinking about the salary that they wish they would have earned on thier deathbeds. The top five deathbed wishes/regrets are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Happiness is a choice. Be there, present for your life.
You’ll Never Be Happy
The counter intuitive truth is that if we chase happiness, we won’t become happy. It’s not something you can find. But there are some things you can do.
- First, Practice Gratitude. I identify three things everyday that I am grateful for. I also try to tell others when I appreciate them.
- Next, Be Here, Now. I have this on a poster in my office to remind me. Other ways to say the same thing are be present, be mindful etc. If you are thinking about the future, you’re filled with anxiety. If you’re thinking about the past, you’re filled with regret. Point is, you can’t control either, past or future. And, you’re not experiencing either. Your here, now. So be here, now.
- Third, Be Mindful. There are many ways to be mindful. For me (and maybe you), number one is slow down! At a certain point, life had become a checklist of meaningless tasks. There was a rush to complete the task list to get to…fall asleep on the couch?
Yeah, it was ugly.
- Do One Thing At a Time. No one can multitask (that goes for you too, ladies). When you do two things at once, the performance of each is severely damaged.
- Watch Your Mind, I call this meditation. Be aware that you brain is just throwing random thoughts at you to see what sticks. Watch this little bugger and take control!
- Walk. You’re moving, you’re present.
- Volunteer. Humans are social beings. By helping others, we are engaging in social behavior that is helpful to generating happiness. It helps strengthen social bonds and provides more of a sense of purpose and well-being to our lives14.
It’s funny, these habits essentially point out that we are already happy. Yet, here we are considering what we should do to get to be happy. But as we’ve said, if you chase happiness, you’ll never be happy.
*-If you chase it.