Why is it so hard to be happy? It seems as if nothing we do
scratches the itch. No goals we accomplish ever suffice. But this feeling of dissatisfaction is not a new one. Ancient philosophers and religious leaders all over have tried their best to answer this question and have given potential solutions to this problem.
I believe most people mistakenly think happiness is a permanent state of bliss. A place where there is a constant supply of joyful emotions flooding our daily experiences.
But our bodies are designed to adapt.
Studies show that our minds are more sensitive to changes in our lives than our actual position in life itself. The anticipation of a reward is usually more gratifying than the reward itself. There is simply more information in new experiences than ones that we are familiar with. This is of high interest to our novel seeking minds. Unfortunately, our minds were not designed to be happy but to simply seek more.
Modern science has made amazing breakthroughs within the fields of psychology and neurology to help us understand how our natural reward systems operate and how we can tweak our behaviors and ways of thinking for the better. If you want to be happy, this must become an active process.
The author of The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt uses a great metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe our divided minds. The rider represents our conscious mind and our constant attempts to try and control this massive animal which represents our subconscious mind. Our elephant controls our natural reaction to events and decides to bombard us with positive or negative emotions as it sees fit. While we will never fully control it, but we can try our best to tame it. But first, we must tackle a few issues.
This has to be the single most destructive emotion if left unchecked. We, humans, are the only known mammals that can trigger our body’s fear-driven threat response by thought alone. For example, when a gazelle is chased by a lion, it’s body triggers the fight or flight response. When the chase is over, its body returns to normal with minimal to no thoughts of what just happened. We are not like this. We will replay a negative experience repeatedly. This is the process our minds naturally go through to try and “solve” what happened so we know how to better respond in the future.
This is what anxiety is. Constant fear of what is uncertain and attempts to predict what will happen. This prediction is usually the worst-case scenario. If we’re prepared for the worst, then anything less can be easily handled, so we tell ourselves. This strategy is good for survival but not for happiness. We suffer in thought while waiting on a doomsday that never comes.
It is estimated that 85% of our negative predictions never come true. The problem is we have terrible short term memory and never remember all the false predictions, only the one time we were right. I challenge you to track your negative predictions and write down the times you were wrong. You might be surprised. Our brains can not distinguish between our internal fantasies and what is happening in our physical reality. Once you get a grip on anxiety, you will gradually increase your overall happiness. The key to crushing the effects of anxiety is mindfulness and accepting thoughts as just that…thoughts.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, the author has come up with a formula that he believes is optimal for happiness.
Happiness = Set Point + Voluntary Activities + Conditions
The setpoint represents a general range of our default happiness levels that is a combination of nature and nurture. We all know that one person who is just so happy. And we are sure to know others whom no matter how good things are going, to them, the sky is always falling. This factor might be slightly out of our control but we have plenty we can do to make up for it.
Voluntary activities are the things we do in our daily lives that bring us joy. Working out, playing video games, painting, or whatever the hobby that you love happens to be. We should do these things often but not too often that our minds adapt. We must enact a variety of activities and space them properly as not to get tired of them. Our brains love and seek novelty. So adding time between our favorite activities can make them seem as good as new. The last portion of the formula is about the conditions of our lives. Having loving relationships, being financially stable, and pursuing what is meaningful are examples of conditions we strive for. Optimizing the things in our lives that are relatively constant will increase our happiness. This is where you, as the rider, will gently guide your elephant down the right path.
Our conscious minds can only focus on one idea at a time. We spend most our day spaced out entertaining random thoughts. Being present helps block out a lot of our negative self-talk because the mind is too busy focused on the task at hand. You can not feel mental pain for something that you are not thinking about.
Pay attention to this current moment.
As you’re reading this article, you’re not thinking about how your partner broke your trust or how work is stressful. Hopefully, I didn’t just trigger anything. The point being, your mind may have been in panic mode at some point about this event but in this current moment, it is not. As you gradually become more aware of this process, you can slowly shift your thoughts to more positive ones or even no thoughts at all. Real-life can inflict pain on us but the majority is experienced in thought alone. Meditation is a practice I encourage you to engage in. It teaches one how to become more present. Live in the moment. And in that moment, nothing else matters.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that usually gets the bad wrap of being a mindset of having no emotions. But this is not the case. The key tenant of Stoicism is focusing on what you can control and accepting what you can not. How useful is it to be upset that the earth spins? What about other people’s opinion of you? Sure you can influence it but the final decision is up to the other person. Treat their final decision like you treat the sun rising and setting. You can’t control it, so why stress? No amount of worrying can influence this. When we worry, we suffer twice.
What is in our control is our behavior and the meaning we attribute to things that happen to us. We must condition our elephant to react less and respond more. Responding gives us time to process with mental clarity rather than letting our emotions do this automatically. This change must be consistent and will take time. Our elephant is strong-willed and will not accept change lightly. Our little rider can only do so much to control this massive animal whose factory settings come with its own agenda. Being at peace with our decisions and accepting what we can not control, will undoubtedly lead to a happier life.
What constitutes a life well lived? I believe it is when we have more positive and meaningful moments than negative ones. Time is the only asset that we can never get back, so we must cherish every moment. By default, negative events are typically experienced more deeply than positive ones. This means having a 1 to 1 ratio of positive to negative events will lead to a less happy life.
It has been shown, that on average we need three positive events to cancel out a single negative one. One thing we can do to help combat this is to “steal” some of these negative events and reframe their meaning with a better perspective. Reframing softens their impact on our happiness by trying to find a silver lining in the event.
Understand this, happiness and joy are relative emotions that can not stand alone. Our greatest moments are in relation to our worst. It’s a lot more rewarding having money when you know how it feels to be broke. How great is it to be at the top when you’ve only experienced the bottom? We must accept everything life throws at us. Getting threw it will make it that much better. Life is about the journey, not the fleeting moments we experience when we finally reach our goals. You only get one shot at this thing called life. Enjoy the ride.