Could we have it all wrong?
For most of us, happiness is always just over the horizon. If only we could… earn a little more money, own a bigger home, go on more vacations, have more children, finish our education, get that promotion, find that perfect partner… then we’ll finally be free of the worry, stress, and dissatisfaction that engulfs our lives.
The thing is, every time we achieve something or get something we’ve wanted, aren’t we a little bit dissatisfied? Aren’t we let down by the fact that we thought something fundamental would change in our lives, but all that’s happened is the benchmark for happiness has now miraculously moved further away?
We’re like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, destined to roll a massive boulder up a hill each day only for it to tumble back to the bottom the moment we reach the top. Then, the next day, we start over.
We work and work thinking that once we reach the end things will be different, we’ll be different. Yet, not long after the moment of achievement, we realize we’re right back at the bottom of another hill. Amazingly, instead of questioning the whole process, we determinedly begin it again.
I’m sure there is a biological drive here that has served us well in the past, but no longer. The desperation we feel to get more, to achieve more, to be more is built into us. And when we were hunter-gatherers, living off the land, hunting for our food, perhaps that drive was well suited to its purpose.
Today, I’m not so sure. We’re less struggling to survive and more trying to figure out what to replace that struggle with. Tens of thousands of years ago, rolling the boulder up the hill meant fighting for survival. In 2019, rolling that boulder up the hill means getting more likes and followers, having a sweet job title, and earning more money.
The question is, do we get the same satisfaction in 2019 by chasing these things as we did 20,000 years ago when all we had to chase was survival?
What if a simpler life is the key to happiness? What if happiness is practiced through our daily actions rather than gained after years of sacrificing it on the altar of success? What if we have this all wrong?
A thought-experiment about pre-history
What was the life of a human like twenty thousand years ago? One thing is for certain, it was very different than our lives today.
There were no cities, no agriculture, no domesticated animals (perhaps not even our best friend!). We lived in small groups in which everyone relied on each other to fulfill critical roles to keep the group alive.
Imagine having that kind of purpose? Each day you played a necessary function that served the only people that mattered to you — you’re world. How fulfilling would that be?
The drive to achieve and attain also had limits. For example, there was only so much hunting you could do. Once you had killed an animal and prepared it, there was nothing to do but relax and enjoy it.
Back then, there was a pause — the boulder reached the top of the hill and didn’t immediately plummet back to where it started. You could look around and enjoy the view because it was enough. This was no pointless struggle. The reward — life itself — was obvious.
True, this is an over-simplification of life back then and there is no sense in glorifying what was undoubtedly a grueling existence. Yet, we are no different biologically from our ancient ancestors. They felt peace, joy, and happiness exactly how we do. Since humans lived in those conditions for far longer than in our present circumstances, this means our biology is adapted to our hunter-gatherer days much more so than it is to our lives today. As a result, finding peace, joy, and happiness may be far less complex than we think.
Practice makes happy
What if we’re looking in all the wrong places for happiness? What if happiness isn’t gained from external events or things, but can only be gained through action? What if happiness is practiced?
Does that sound utterly uninspiring? Who would want to practice being happy? Only a loser would do that, right?
Well, that depends whether the happiness achieved is genuine, doesn’t it? If we’re simply telling ourselves sweet little lies, that’s delusion. But, what if our pursuit of happiness through external accomplishment is also a delusion? What if the path to happiness is more simple and straightforward than we realize?
Science has shown that we have a baseline level of happiness that isn’t usually changed by attaining conventional goals like marriage, completing university, receiving a promotion, or making more money. Not even winning the lottery will permanently change your baseline level of happiness — it will return to where it started within a year or two.
You see, once you have your basic needs met, external things aren’t going to add much happiness to your life. You imagine they will, but you’re wrong. This error in predicting your future state of mind has appropriately been called miswanting.
Consider for a moment that all the external things you think will bring you happiness are distractions — distractions from a present moment that is crying out for your attention. Remember, the only place that anything ever happens is in the present, including being happy. If you are building the habit of never being happy or satisfied with what you’ve got by constantly wishing you had more or something else, well, then you never will be either of those things — happiness and satisfaction will forever be just over the horizon.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals. By all means, have goals! Just realize that the achievement of those goals likely won’t bring you happiness you think they will.
It’s really no more complicated than this. You’re desire for more and your incorrect assumption that more is going to make you happier is distracting you from what makes life worth living.
So what does make life worth living? I think it’s about zeroing in on the present and finding the beauty there. Look, happiness, satisfaction, contentment — these things will never be given to us. We can’t buy them with external achievement, either. They are earned through how we live our lives, through the actions we take every single day.
Now, if you think that happiness is unimportant in your journey to make a difference in the world, think again. Happiness is a precursor to success, not the result of it (see The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor).
There is a huge win-win to be found here. By engaging in some of the activities that have been proven to increase happiness, you are not only increasing your chances of making a positive impact on the world, but you’re also increasing your chances of living your best life. What could be better than that?
What follows are some ways in which science has shown we can raise our baseline level of happiness.
#1 Practice meditation
Meditation can be as simple as sitting quietly and counting your breaths. If you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s not easy. Your mind will wander. You’ll be frustrated. However, if you persevere through these hardships, meditation will train your brain to pay more attention to what’s happening now.
As a result, you will focus more of your energy and attention on the present. This is good news for everything you do, including spending time with friends and family or getting down to work at the office.
Mindfulness meditation will also make you happier by literally growing the part of your brain most responsible for feeling happy. Amazingly, it can also decrease activity in the part of your brain associated with sadness. As a daily meditator for nearly two years, I have certainly noticed a shift toward a happier state of mind that began shortly after I started meditating.
#2 Practice gratefulness
Practicing gratefulness can be as simple as taking a couple minutes out of your day to write down three things you were grateful for throughout the day. To have the greatest impact, be as specific as possible and include the reason why you’re grateful.
Why should we practice gratefulness? Because our minds are naturally inclined to notice life’s problems. We are constantly scanning our environments for things that are wrong or need fixing. To make matters worse, we’re often encouraged to do this at our jobs.
What’s the result? The lens through which we see the world is skewed. We have essentially trained our brains to be really good at seeing problems to the neglect of everything else.
Think of it like this: there is too much going on in our environment for the brain to push everything into consciousness. Therefore, a filter in the mind removes what it considers extraneous information. But, what is considered “extraneous” is based on what we pay attention to — this filter changes based on what we do.
Since the filter is naturally inclined to let “negative” experiences into consciousness, practicing gratefulness is a way of conditioning that filter to also let in “positive” experiences. In other words, it allows you to see life more clearly and find more enjoyment in everything you do.
#3 Practice intentional kindness
It turns out that being altruistic comes with a built-in reward. When we perform an intentional act of kindness toward another human, we are made happier. How much happier? On a ten-point scale (0–10), a meta-analysis of existing research found that kindness raised happiness levels of givers by about 0.8. Not bad for something as simple as buying someone a cup of coffee.
There’s also a virtuous cycle to kindness in that the receivers of kindness are more likely to perform an act of kindness to someone else. Imagine, then, the ramifications of you performing one act of kindness. It could trigger a series of events that spread kindness and happiness far wider than you’ll ever know.
They say, no good deed goes unpunished. Perhaps we should rethink that mentality.
I hope some of the ideas you have just read have challenged your perspective on what to pursue in life, especially if you want to be happy and successful.
Consider giving one of these practices a try. They can change your life and, as a by-product, the lives of everyone you know and interact with. It’s worth the effort.
Thanks for reading!