Post No.: 0314
Happiness is ironically not easily found when demanding and pursuing constant feelings of happiness and pleasure, or when expecting our needs and desires to be quickly met (e.g. via opioid drugs, gambling or impulsive shopping). People who are told that they must be happy otherwise they’re failures, or expect happiness all of the time, or try to abstractly ‘will’ themselves to be happy all of the time, tend to feel less happy. Feeling stressed to feel happy is like feeling pressured to feel relaxed(!)
To be more precise, there are effective and ineffective ways to pursue happiness. Certain things can increase our happiness, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always pick those things that will. We’re not intuitively great judges of what will make us happy or sad, or how long things will make us happy or sad, in the future. We make errors of ‘affective forecasting’, such as when we choose to accumulate material wealth over accumulating positive experiences. (Fluffystealthkitten wrote about going for positive experiences over material possessions in Post No.: 0149.) We tend to overestimate our emotional reactions to future events (an ‘impact bias’). Things tend not to be as great (or as hard, bad or scary) as first forecasted – indeed, over-hyped things can end up disappointing because of the mismatch between our expectations and the subsequent actual experience. This all means that we often end up making bad decisions, such as missing opportunities due to unfounded fear, or desiring and chasing the wrong things.
Happiness and meaningfulness overlap but they aren’t quite the same things. Some things give us pleasure in the moment but are fleeting (e.g. eating a chewy dog treat, drinking a cup of gravy). Other things give us a more durable sense of meaning, connection and satisfaction but may be painful and stressful while we’re doing it (e.g. completing a marathon, studying for a degree).
‘Hedonic pleasure’ is happiness but without meaning (simply pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance actions), whereas ‘eudaimonic pleasure’ involves meaningful and self-realising (fulfilling one’s potential) pleasures, such as being with family and friends, or learning to cook a new recipeh. Eudaimonic pleasure increases our resilience or ability to bounce back from adversity and boosts our immune system, whereas hedonic pleasure does not; although both can help fight depression.
Constantly seeking hedonic pleasure compared to eudaimonic pleasure is analogous to like if we attempt to constantly seek short-term shortcuts for achieving good health – we can end up doing things that give us a superficial sense of health, which in the long run can actually harm our actual health. So something like recreational drugs can give us a quick and easy boost of pleasure each time but can potentially ruin our life in the long run, which isn’t pleasurable overall.
Not everything that adds up to a great life satisfaction is about ecstasy or pleasure, at least while doing it, such as overcoming challenges and arduous goals that have a great sense of furry purpose – these eudaimonic pursuits will be hard and painful while we’re doing them but will be worth it in the end, and even frequently worth it intrinsically in themselves. We are more likely to stick with work that has a greater sense of purpose, even when the going gets tough. And indeed, the greatest, proudest and most memorable victories in life are usually the most hard-fought and tight victories too.
When we acquire more material accoutrements, we often end up just wanting even more due to the ‘hedonic treadmill’ effect. When we pursue happiness but the goalposts for the ‘standard required to feel happy’ keep on moving further and further away beyond reach whenever we get closer to the goal or just manage to touch it, this makes us unhappy (e.g. first thinking one will be happy with any car, but then a few years later thinking one will only be happy with a faster car with a prestigious badge). We start to lose touch with reality and assume ‘luxuries’ are ‘essentials’, and rather than having more things making us happy, not having more will make us unhappy because we start to take what we have for granted.
Setting a high or ever-moving standard for happiness means that it’s disappointing if we never ever meet it too. Optimism is vital for happiness but expecting a ‘perfect marriage’ and ‘living happily ever after’ will also set us up for likely disappointment. And the harder we try to demand happiness as if we’re failures if we’re not (always) happy, the more difficult it is to actually feel it, which ironically risks depression. Therefore seeing happiness as a direct goal in itself can be self-defeating.
So rather than zealously seeking happiness – build acceptance of your current emotional state first. True happiness is found by being kind to others, as well as on yourself. This isn’t so much about not chasing happiness as if it’s a stressful must-achieve goal, but about not avoiding unhappiness as if one has failed in life to ever be unhappy. To be unhappy is not a failure. Conflict and negative emotional exposures are an inevitable part of (an interesting and full) life. What’s important is not avoiding or suppressing them but being able to deal with and recover from them quickly – to pick oneself up again after each fall. And we need to know what’s ‘bad’ before we can recognise what’s ‘good’ too, for we can start to take things as if we’re entitled to them when we fail to realise that we’ve got it so good (e.g. when we start to think that cheaper but perfectly wearable clothes are a ‘hardship’ because we’ve been so used to and always demand at least expensive branded clothing now). Our comfort zones narrow and we can become weak and fragile if we can only feel happy with ‘the best’.
This doesn’t mean not striving for the best – just recalibrating what ‘the best’ means, not crumbling if ‘the best’ is not achieved, and choosing when ‘the best’ really matters. Many things we treat as if ‘life or death’ aren’t really so. And we must not forget what’s really important in life, such as our family and health.
Happiness can still be earned and worked at, and in many ways it must be, otherwise all we’ll get is unsustainable, short-term ‘buy now, pay later’ hedonistic pleasures. Some lasting fluffy pleasures are again the deep and meaningful ones that may involve hard work, pain and sacrifice to reach i.e. ‘pay now, buy later’ pursuits, such as learning a new skill or making new friends. Eudaimonic pleasures hold the primary key to improving our happiness and life satisfaction in effective, deep, sustainable and longer-lasting ways.
Therefore we should always seek improvement but this doesn’t mean in the material goods we acquire or the hits of hedonic pleasure we seek – it means in the eudaimonic or self-realising pleasures that mean so much more. For the former, happiness is more sustainably achieved by reaching contentment. It’s not sustainable for one’s resilience, or the planet, to demand and expect constant feelings of hedonic pleasure.