Don’t Pursue Situational Happiness

The idea that one more dollar, one more dalliance, one more rung on the ladder will make us feel sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature - a misunderstanding which is built into human nature; that we are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there.Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

We’ve inherited a desire to strive, to pursue success, to improve our external conditions, because this striving helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Find food, guard against threats, impress potential mates. Contentment doesn’t motivate, doesn’t compel action; anxiety does. Vigilant ancestors had more offspring than blissful ones, and so we are the children of restlessness. Our emotional circuitry was designed to induce behavior beneficial to survival and reproduction, not to create happiness. We are hardwired to be effective, not satisfied.

This hardwiring has at least six interrelated consequences on our emotions which misguide our pursuit of happiness. 1. It’s preset: By default you have a baseline happiness level that you spend most of your time at. 2. It’s situational: Deviations from the baseline level are determined largely by whatever just happened to you. 3. It’s relative: Your happiness depends not on your overall condition but on your current situation relative to your recent past or your expectations. 4. It’s transient: successes and improvements generally don’t provide the expected lasting satisfaction. 5. It’s acclimating: you get used to what you have, it ceases to be enough, and you want more. 6. It’s recurring: although the last success led only to fleeting happiness, you don’t learn the lesson and still expect lasting satisfaction with the next success. Let’s examine these consequences and their impact on our emotions and behavior.

  1. Preset: We each have baseline levels of happiness, contentment and satisfaction where most of our lives are spent. These levels are remarkably persistent and largely hereditary. A person’s future happiness is much more highly correlated with their past and present happiness than with their age, marital status, income or net worth. Lottery winners are surprised to return to their prior happiness levels once the initial high of winning wears off. For most people, there’s minimal correlation between how well their lives are going and how happy they are in the moment.
  2. Situational: The idea that one’s emotional state should be determined by events is pervasive; it’s no coincidence that the words happen and happy share a common root. Almost every action life performs is designed to improve its external conditions: every amoeba wriggling up a chemical gradient, every car on the road driven by someone to somewhere they’d rather be. But letting today’s events determine today’s mood is problematic because circumstances are transient and so the happiness dissolves when the circumstances change, as they inevitably do. Seeking refuge in the impermanent and the unreliable lets minute-by-minute events hijack your emotions, your mind, your self. To the extent that your emotions drive your behavior, situational happiness reduces your authenticity, by expressing a conditional, contingent version of you, not the absolute, essential you.
  3. Relative: By default our happiness is determined relatively. Today relative to yesterday. Actual relative to desired. Outcome relative to expecations. This is unfortunate because if you’re happy only when things are improving, or when things turn out better than expected, then no matter what you do, your life will be spent on a seesaw, above your baseline emotional state half the time and below it the other half.
  4. Transient: We behave as if we’ll get permanent happiness from achievements, but we usually get only fleeting happiness, even from unchanging good circumstances. One blessing, one smile. Happy about the money we just found in the street, not the pile we already had. The sweetness of any good outcome swiftly fades as other concerns vie for our attention, and our emotional state returns to its default level. After we accomplish a goal or realize a dream, our attention is redirected elsewhere. Quieting one inner voice of discontent, we hear the others more clearly. This is good for survival, but bad for happiness.
  5. Acclimating: Because our emotions were designed for circumstantial living, we have an impoverished ability to feel emotions that didn’t serve our ancestors’ day-to-day survival and reproduction. Gratitude, compassion, and awe don’t come naturally. Everyday miracles go unnoticed. We quickly get jaded, and return to our baseline happiness level. We exaggerate the difference between our current circumstances and the next level up and down: up so that we’re motivated to improve, and down so that we’re motivated to not lose the progress we’ve made. Most people feel they’re one step above poor and one step below wealthy. When people are asked what the good life is, what would make them happy, their requirements ratchet up over time as their circumstances improve. Have more, need more. Bliss remains just out of reach, tantalizingly close but elusive, always on the receding horizon.
  6. Recurring: When you get what you wanted, you find to your surprise that it leads only to temporary happiness. Then you immediately forget the lesson and believe the next thing you get will lead to permanent happiness. That promotion you got didn’t bring you lasting satisfaction? That can be explained away; the next one will. You’re earning more now than you were before, but it’s still not quite enough; with the next raise you’ll be able to buy the stuff you really want. This mentality traps people in a cycle of hope, pleasure, disappointment. Forever chasing the more.

So what can you do to about this predicament?

  • Bring mindful awareness to your emotional biases. Notice when your emotions are influenced, or even controlled, by minute-to-minute circumstances.
  • Have an internal locus of happiness, not an external one. This enables a more authentic expression of the self, and it’s empowering to realize that your happiness is under your control.
  • Base your happiness on absolute conditions, not relative conditions. I’m not suggesting unconditional happiness; one’s emotional state should be rooted in reality. I’m saying that you have reasons to be happy, and they are fundamental and ongoing, not situational. You are alive. You are conscious. You can contribute one sentence to humanity’s great story. Cultivate a deep gratitude for these and other persistent goodnesses.
  • Continue to improve your life. As your happiness becomes based more on your absolute conditions, your progress will serve as a refuge, letting you handle the inevitable setbacks with equanimity.
  • Increase your baseline happiness level. There are sources of happiness within your power: self-esteem, self-efficacy, extroversion, optimism, and gratitude. All are accessible with the right frame of mind.
  • Be more present. Since we’re bad at knowing what will make us happy, focus more on today’s happiness than tomorrow’s happiness. Don’t sacrifice the journey for the destination; a life should be lived, not optimized. Being present doesn’t mean letting today’s events dictate today’s mood; it means living each moment with an awareness of persistent blessings and a savoring of temporary ones. Your genes use happiness as a goal state to serve their ends; repurpose happiness to improve the present and not just the future.
  • Don’t deprive yourself of pleasure, or the things that give you momentary happiness. Don’t turn away from the happiness right in front of you just because it won’t last, but accept its impermanence.
  • As you become more successful in life, don’t ratchet up your requirements for contentment.
  • Learn to differentiate between conditions and events that are renewable sources of happiness and ones that lead to adaptation and put you on a happiness treadmill. Most people discover too late that achievements and material possessions bring only fleeting happiness, while cultivating close friendships and pursuing self-selected passions bring lasting happiness. But everyone is unique, so examine what works for you.
  • Don’t pursue happiness singlemindedly to the exclusion of other goods, like joy and meaning.
  • Don’t stop striving, but choose for yourself what’s worth striving for, what’s worth moving toward. Achieve not just for the temporary happiness it might give you, but also for the lasting impact the achievement has on the world.
  • Strive positively, not negatively. Be motivated not by a desire to flee the present but a desire for an even better future.