People often talk about happiness as though it’s a commodity – something to buy, seek out and ultimately secure. This searching for happiness becomes the focal point, shunning feelings of unhappiness or anything that doesn’t make them happy.
It’s true that happiness matters, but it’s more complicated than just searching for happiness in personal and professional contexts.
We all have a set-point for happiness. Think of it as a scale. Just as everybody weighs a certain amount, we all have a happiness level, which remains relatively constant. Some things we do or that happen to us will temporarily adjust the level. For example, securing a new job, winning the lottery, or buying a new car will temporarily make you happier. Sadly, these are only short-term activators. They don’t last. Over time, the joy diminishes, and so you seek something new to rekindle the spark, only to find that in time it too fades and so the cycle begins.
The cycle of seeking happiness, finding happiness, experiencing diminishing returns, seeking again, finding again, having diminishing returns can be constant. This cycle is the Hedonic Treadmill in action.
In 1971, American Psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell wrote about this in their paper “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society”.
Hedonic Adaptation, as it was initially termed, explains how once we have experienced a positive (or negative) event, we tend to return to the same level of happiness. Over time, we adapt, and so the initial emotional intensity of an event diminishes. This concept was later renamed the Hedonic Treadmill by British Psychologist Michael Eysenck. The idea of a treadmill is a useful metaphor because it is easy to visualise yourself on a treadmill where you keep pushing hard and feeling happy about the progress. Still, the pushing feels never-ending, and you don’t know how to get off the treadmill.
And so it can be in your personal and professional life, where the satisfaction and joy from meeting one need or securing an accomplishment can be short-lived. In fact all it does is lay the stone for the next set of needs and desires to be achieved.
In a consumer and material focused world, many people equate happiness with possessions, external rewards and accomplishments. Research shows that genetics accounts for about 50% of your happiness quota (i.e. your happiness setting at birth, predisposition and personality traits); 10% is due to circumstances; and the remaining 40% to variants that you can determine; that is, intentional activities. The researchers define intentional to mean “discrete actions or practices in which people can choose to engage”. These are activities that require some form of effort. For example, exercise, meditation, being in nature, experiencing awe, helping others and being grateful.
Being happy, therefore, isn’t about solely seeking pleasures or securing a never-ending dopamine hit. Savouring life involves experiencing, noticing and growing through the good and the not so good times. It also involves putting in place intentional practices to cultivate a happy and healthy life.
Lyubomirsky, King and Diener examined whether happiness leads to success and the causal factors. They argue that the happiness–success link exists not only because success makes people happy but, more importantly, because having a positive disposition engenders success. Their results showed that happiness is associated with and precedes numerous successful outcomes and behaviours paralleling success. They also reviewed data that showed happy individuals are more likely than their less happy peers to have fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health and long life.
They concluded that happiness has a compounding effect because happiness, which has its origins in personality and past successes, leads to behaviours that lead to future success.
Happiness matters, but it’s never a one-hit wonder and if you are on the wrong treadmill and going too fast to notice what’s around you, you may not end up where you want to be.
As Maya Angelou wrote, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away“.