I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot lately, ever since I was interviewed for The Embracing Happy podcast. Have you ever had the idea that happiness is contingent on some external event?
Like thinking, “I’ll be happy when I…”
- …get married.
- …am offered my dream job.
- …make enough money.
For so many of the women I meet, losing weight is assumed to be the major catalyst for those life events that promise happiness. The thought process goes something like this: if I lose X pounds, then I can be attractive enough to get married, which will bring me happiness.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, weight is not as much in our control as we’re often led to believe. So if you believe your happiness is contingent on certain life events (like a job promotion) which, in turn, are contingent on another event (weight loss) that is not really within your total control…
No wonder so many of us are miserable.
As it turns out, there’s very little connection between long-term happiness and specific life events1. For sure, big events we dream about may make us feel great… but only for a short while.
According to author Jonathan Haidt2, we have a sort of happiness set-point. Like your weight set-point, any changes to your average happiness tend to be short-term. Winning the lottery makes you feel great for a while… but then you get used to having money and your mood is back where you started. Admit it, you’ve watched those TV shows about lottery winners who spent all. that. money.
Falling in love makes you feel crazy great, too… but then you get used to it. (Technically, long-term love typically turns from passionate love to companionate love, but many misinterpret that as boredom.)
One good thing about all of this is that negative events usually also have more of a short-term impact than we expect. We tend to be pretty bad at predicting how much either a negative or positive life event will affect us. 3 So if you’re sure you’ll never get over losing a job…you might be pleasantly surprised at what really happens. I hope that you never lose your job, but you may find you’re more resilient than you imagined.
It’s more like a mirage. Just when you think you’re about to reach it, it evaporates.
A different way to look at happiness is to sidle up to it from a different angle. Live your life from the inside out. Psychologist Sonia Lyubomirsky discusses making choices according to what’s intrinsically – not extrinsically – satisfying1. Rather than going after happiness as a direct goal, live your life in a meaningful way and you’ll likely find happiness right there with you.
What might it look like to have intrinsic satisfaction? It could be as simple as going hiking because you love it – as opposed to going to boot camp because it burns a lot of calories. It could be taking a lower-paying job that gives you more time with your family. The beautiful thing about intrinsic satisfaction is that you get to decide.
I would never get out of bed at 5 am to go to boot camp if the main reason is to “get fit.” But I’d get out of bed for boot camp if it meant I would see my friends there. I’d also roll out of bed for a dance class.
Luckily, even with a built-in set-point, there are ways to increase your happiness. Here are the top three practices that help me:
- Keep the big picture in mind. I think of happiness as more of an general state than a minute-by-minute mood. So you can have a crappy day (hello, traffic ticket and gossiping co-workers) and still be happy overall.
- The journey is what matters. This doesn’t mean that you never set life goals, but that your day-to-day choices have a profound effect on your mood and sense of meaning.
- Find opportunities to express gratitude. This skill builds resilience to help you weather life’s ups and downs.
1Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2013). The myths of happiness: what should make you happy but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy but does. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.
2Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The happiness hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.
3Gilbert, Daniel (2005). Stumbling on happiness. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Bride With Flower Bouquet On The Beach – Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net