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The Happiness Myth

Why the pursuit of Happiness will make you miserable

Getting what we want brings us happiness, right? Wrong! We believe this and go in search of happiness as if it were something that could be “found” or “obtained” but it is actually something that we can and do; manufacture internally. “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” wrote William Shakespeare.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist has run a series of workshops which explore the idea that whatever happens to us, we have the ability to synthesize (i.e. manufacture) happiness; it is not something we “find.” A survey between lottery winners and paraplegics showed that a year after the event which either made them extremely rich or caused them to be wheelchair bound, each group was as happy as the other. When people are asked to imagine which scenario would make them happier—winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic—they obviously choose winning the lottery. This is wrong but it is the expectation of what winning the lottery will bring us that causes us to believe we will be happier if we win it and it is our expectation of what it means to be disabled that causes us to believe it would be a terrible fate. In fact humans appear to have a “psychological immune system” which enables us to make the most of any situation and believe that it is for the best.

In his book “Affluenza” Oliver James highlights how consumer driven societies convince populations that the pursuit of certain things, cars, facelifts, handbags etc. will bring happiness. This is based on superficial values and in fact each generation over the last 70 years has become more depressed and anxious than the last as this lie is perpetuated. Oliver James found that the societies with the most depression were those where inequality was the highest–ie, in general, Western societies. He concludes we need to look inwards not outwards for happiness to flourish. This means pursuit of our own attributes and talents and not of things

Some psychologists believe they have come up with a happiness formula. Pleasure + engagement + meaning = happiness. Certainly these are recognizable ingredients for happiness but there are problems. If we become too engaged in anything we can become obsessive and overtired and lose our enjoyment. We can take great pleasure in the experience of gambling but this does not mean it will make us happy. So a formula for happiness cannot be fool proof.

Certainly wealth does not bring happiness. In a BBC survey in 2008 they found that although we have become much wealthier in the last 50 years we have also become unhappier. Fame, also does not bring happiness. We only have to look at a selection of famous people to see many with marriage problems, drug addictions and the difficulties of living in the public eye. Pursuit of happiness is illusory. If we keep seeking “happiness” as though it were a thing instead of an experience we risk missing out on the experiences and everyday pleasures which constitute happiness.

Many psychologists believe that we have what is called a “set point” for happiness. This means that if two people face the same situation one may view it as a problem and the other as an opportunity. This point is probably set through experience and circumstance when we are growing up. However we can learn to challenge a negative set point by arguing with our own beliefs about certain situations and finding examples that disprove our assumptions. Secondly, Professor Martin Seligman, suggests that we play to our strengths. By pursuing activities we are not good at or dislike, we set ourselves up for discontent and unhappiness. However by playing to our strengths we raise our chances of success and approval and in this way raise our happiness levels. The third aspect of increasing our happiness is to count our blessings. Many people focus on what they want rather than what they have. This is not productive and can cause envy and misery. Focusing on what we have and the pleasures this brings us, enhances our happiness.

And, of course, as humans we need to nurture our relationships. This is probably the most important investment we can make. We are group animals and we all need love, approval and appreciation. When we start giving these generously to others we will find them returned with interest. Meaningful connection to others which is reciprocated in kind really does make us happy.

In conclusion, happiness cannot be “obtained.” As Herman Hesse says “Happiness is a how not a what, a talent not an object”. It is rare to find happiness by the acquisition of wealth or “things.” There is no foolproof happiness formula. We are all able to manufacture our own happiness to some extent and if we obsess too much about whether or not we are happy we may miss out on the experiences of living and relating to others that are likely to bring us pleasure and contentment. Happiness is not an end-goal, rather it is a by-product of a well-lived life where we love and connect to others. So, instead of looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, start enjoying the rainbow instead.

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