Why Your Pursuit of Happiness is Fundamentally Flawed

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It's the way we're wired.

Woman's legs on a bright orange hammock near the sea

Humans are interesting creatures. Our wants and desires are plenty, and that’s probably what pushes us along, reaching higher for new roles, homes, adventures and loves. While this constant pursuit gives our lives momentum, it won’t lead us to permanent happiness for the goalpost is always moving. The good feelings come but are short-lived. A number of psychologists have figured out why.

“The point cannot be overstated: every desirable experience – passionate love, a spiritual high, the pleasure of a new possession, the exhilaration of success – is transitory,” wrote David Myers in his 1992 book, The Pursuit of Happiness. Sure, you might be on cloud nine thanks to a new gig, or crazy giddy over an unfolding romance, however, over time, both of these emotional reactions will come to settle back down and you’ll return to a similar state as before.

“Gradually, even the most positive events will cease to have impact, as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.”

This sentiment is captured in the “hedonic treadmill” theory, which is that most people have a set point of “happy” most of the time, even though circumstances might cause it fluctuate, for better or worse. Psychologists Brickman and Campbell theorised the idea in 1971, and Brickman, along with colleagues Coates and Janoff-Bulman, tested this theory by later studying both lottery winners and survivors of accidents, and found that, after a certain amount of time, both groups returned to a level of neutrality.

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Instead of looking at a job as a slingshot towards permanent happiness – it will bring pleasure but not for long – find ways to boost your spirits daily. A strong sense of connectedness with those nearest to you isn’t the same as a salary bump, but it will reliably feed your pleasure centres. Likewise, defining your purpose regarding work, as in, why you’re doing what you do, will fuel a deeper wellbeing that a one-off high cannot.

“If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact,” wrote the study’s authors. Your joy isn’t likely to come from one source or life-changing event, so diversify. Maybe you nab your dream role or research grant, maybe you don’t. Rest assured, your happiness was never hinged on that anyway.

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