What Brings True Happiness in Life
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…
– Henry David Thoreau
What is the true key to happiness? Is it fame? Is it high status? Is it a good reputation? Is it money or fortune? Is it that new big house or that amazing car?
People have many hopes and dreams. Goals and needs.
Given that, we believe that once we’ll get all that we want, we’re going to be happy. And even though that might give us a sense of pleasure, evidence to the contrary suggests that it’s not “stuff” that’s going to make us happy.
Indeed, history, science, and real life experience shows us that lasting happiness comes from one single element. And this is what we’re going to talk about today.
Why “Stuff” Isn’t Going to Make You Happy
We overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Even though we think that buying a new house, a fast car or winning the lottery is going to make us happy, in reality, that is all subject to the adaptation principle:
People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed.
Two psychologists — Brickman and Campbell — have coined a term for this phenomenon in 1971, called hedonic treadmill. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at The University of Virginia, and author of the insightful book The Happiness Hypothesis explains it this way:
On an exercise treadmill you can increase the speed all you want, but you stay in the same place. In life, you can work as hard as you want, and accumulate all the riches, fruit trees, and concubines you want, but you can’t get ahead.
Because you can’t change your “natural and usual state of tranquility,” the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before.
Yet, not realizing the futility of our efforts, we continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of life. Always wanting more than we have, we run and run and run, like hamsters on a wheel.
In other words, as you make more money, your expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Whatever happens, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will.
Thus, a question arises: What brings real and lasting happiness?
The Progress Principle: A Vital Element For Lasting Happiness
Here’s the key insight in a nutshell: As human beings, we feel the most joy and fulfillment when we make progress towards something meaningful in our lives.
This is one of the most groundbreaking discoveries scientists in positive psychology have made.
In the same book, Jonathan Haidt says:
The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this.
They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask: Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind.
We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.
Isn’t it interesting?
Just think about it:
You get a promotion, finish a significant project, or achieve a meaningful goal and this gives you an instant positive emotional boost. Almost euphoric you might say.
But how long does it last?
An hour, a day, maybe two? Or maybe a week at the very most?
You see, more often than not, when success is within reach, we start building expectations.
And when some final event confirms what we’ve already begun to expect, we typically feel a sense of relief and the pleasure of finally reaching the goal we’ve set for ourselves. We celebrate momentarily and then we ask:
Haidt put it this way:
When it comes to goal pursuit, it is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer.
In other words: What we become in pursuit of what we want is infinitely more important than what we get after reaching our goals.
America’s foremost business philosopher Jim Rohn said it best:
Success is not something you pursue. What you pursue will elude you. It can be like trying to chase butterflies. Success is something you attract and accumulate by the person you become.
Money, cars, big houses, private jets, power, fame and reputation aren’t going to make us as happy as we think they will. They’re only going to give us a short burst of pleasure, which will soon fade out because of the adaptation principle explained earlier.
Ultimately, real and lasting happiness comes from growth. If you don’t grow, you’ll never be happy. It is who we become in the process that brings us lasting happiness.
And still, we focus on all the wrong stuff.
The paradox is that if you’ll focus on becoming a better person every single day, success is going to come as a by-product. In other words, success is not the result of making money; earning money is the result of success.
And here’s another critical distinction. You don’t make money. You earn money. And the amount of money you earn is in direct proportion to what you deserve. In order to deserve more, you’ve got to become more.
As Frank Clark put it, “the more you learn, the more you earn.”
If you’re not where you want to be today, then probably this is what you deserve. You might think that I’m a little bit tough, but you and I both know that this is true.
Money is only going to make you more of what you already are. If you don’t have the knowledge to manage a thousand dollars, you’d better stop praying for a million dollars and start learning what to do with a thousand. You better start early, when the amounts are small.
Don’t blame your misfortunes, your lack of money, “bad luck” or some other stories you continue telling yourself.
All the beauties of life are hidden in the obstacles and challenges you’re facing daily. Your attitude towards them and how you choose to respond in tough situations is what’s going to make the difference. Enjoy the struggle and grow through it.
As Jim Rohn beautifully remarked:
Don’t wish it was easier; wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems; wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge; wish for more wisdom.
The bottom line is that if you’re not growing, you’re slowly dying. You either go up, or you go down. There’s no middle point.
Therefore, focus daily on growing in every major area of your life: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot
If there’s one thing I want you to get out of this article, it is this: Don’t focus on what you’re going to get. Focus on who you are becoming along the way because what counts is the journey, not the destination.
Do it for the journey itself. You’ll be so much happier than being always motivated by the attainment of some extrinsic goal.
Finally, progress works best when it is linked to a higher life purpose or mission in life. As Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface of his magnificent book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.
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Daniel Cerescu writes at DanielCerescu.com, where he shares science-based tips, strategies and insights on how to reach your full potential and thrive in today’s increasingly distracted world. You can also download his free Life Mastery guide by following this link.
This article was originally published on DanielCerescu.com.