Happiness Is Not A State Of Mind

Why the pursuit of chronic happiness is an unhealthy expectation

Following the financial collapse of 2008, there were a number of stories about wealthy hedge fund managers who lost everything. There was one in particular that stood out — one that was featured by some of the mainstream press. It was about a wealthy fund manager who was forced out of living a life of luxury to living in an apartment and delivering pizzas.

I felt bad for him, but it was more than that. Upon further reflection, I noticed that my sense of grief for this stranger was worse than the thought of someone spending their whole adult life living in relative poverty as a pizza delivery person. My emotional reaction seemed odd and unfair. Furthermore, if I imagined someone raised in abject poverty in some third world country moving to America to deliver pizzas and live in an apartment, I kind of felt happy at that thought.

My emotional reaction to these three individuals (one real, two hypothetical) did not reflect my attitude toward their current station in life, as each one shared the same state — living with little money in an unpromising career. Rather, my emotional reaction was clearly a response to each individual’s trajectory. In fact, I would argue that whether people feel happy or sad is mostly determined by their movement along a trajectory, as opposed to existing in a particular mindset.

In other words, how you feel is not a state of mind.

We Habituate To Almost Everything

Habituation refers to an organism’s tendency to feel less, physically and/or emotionally, in response to more exposure to a stimulus. We can habituate to negative stimuli, and indeed this forms the basis of exposure therapy for anxiety problems in therapy. If one has a spider phobia, psychologists can systematically expose the person to spiders (ex: pictures, videos, real spiders) and eventually with more exposure, the person will feel less anxiety.

This is not a response limited to the negative things in life. We habituate to pleasure and positive emotional states as well. Eat pizza every day for a week and you will enjoy it less on the 7th day than you did on the 1st day. This habituation applies to everything positive in life — the excitement of dating someone new, the new house you bought, video games, etc.

In other words, emotional states are not possible to chronically maintain over time. They wax and wane in response to life events. It is well known in clinical psychology that sadness occurs when we lose something of value. The more valuable the loss, the most sadness we feel. The loss could be of an object, a person (ex: death), a relationship, an emotion (ex: hope), etc. The opposite of sadness is happiness, and thus happiness occurs when we gain something of value. Like its counterpart sadness, happiness occurs when we gain an object, person (ex: a new baby), relationship, emotion (ex: hope), etc.

Notice that the cause of these emotional states are shifts or changes from the status quo. Life is moving along according to trajectory A, and then there is an upward (gain) or downward (loss) shift that becomes trajectory B.

Habituation is the flattening of a trajectory. It takes our upward or downward slopes and flattens them so that we feel less.

Implications for Our Emotional Expectations

One question that might be asked at this point is the following — if we can habituate to emotions, couldn’t we just expose people to negative things to treat depression? The answer is partly yes and no. The ‘yes’ comes from excellent research showing that having people write about the negative things in their life, including past traumas, tends to result in improvements in mood. The ‘no’ is more complicated. Leaving a clinically depressed person on their own to just write about negative things may not help, and such exposure to negative material should be done in a more organized way, such as in therapy.

My primary motivation in writing this piece stems from a consistent tendency to perceive, both in therapy and society in general, people chase and expect chronic happiness. When one considers the sheer number of people taking antidepressants in the Western world, and at an unparalleled time in human history where quality of life should be at its highest, it is clear that something big is amiss. I suspect that our emotional expectations play a big role in this state of affairs. Too many people consider sadness to be abnormal and happiness to be the norm.

I have personally had cases in therapy where a sizable portion of progress was made solely from helping the person change their expectations for how to feel emotions — to allow more sadness and disappointment and let go of their need to feel pleasure and happiness.

Our society has an addiction problem, and as I’ve tried to outline in this article, it is neither physiologically, neurologically or psychologically possible to sustain happiness. Life presents loss and gain, and with those experiences come the shifts in emotional trajectory. This is normal. We can try to minimize the length of our sad periods, but please note that feeling sad and being without pleasure are necessary conditions for eventually feeling happy and pleasurable states. In fact, if you want to maximize pleasure and happiness, use sadness and deprivation to your advantage.

For example, if you really want to enjoy pizza, ice cream or sex, extend the amount of time without experiencing these things, and your experience of them will be heightened when you invite them back into your life. Some of the most unhappy people are those who constantly chase happiness and pleasure. They keep hitting that dopamine release in the brain through shopping, sex, food, being liked, and so forth — which ultimately pushes higher the threshold needed for enjoyment. An ever increasing slope or trajectory is required to feel good.

Rather than chase happiness and pleasure, which are short-lived states, I would recommend people focus on more broad-based emotions (ex: mood stability across time) and quality of life. Living with a sense of purpose(s) provides a framework that makes us less reliant on day-to-day emotional states, and more concerned with where our lives are moving, and consequently who we are becoming as people.

By letting go of the need to feel and sustain happiness, you are ironically more likely feel it in the future.

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