Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness … 2 out of 3 Ain’t Bad!

How happy would you say you are right now or recently?  Is it possible to really tell whether or not you’re happy at the moment?  Is it a quantifiable experience or feeling?  Have you discovered what it is that truly makes you happy?  Are you pursuing that?

Happiness is one of those intriguing things, isn’t it.  We all seem to identity different things that we feel are sources of happiness for us – loving family, nice home, good job, healthy income, meaningful relationships, the latest electronic gadgets or technology, going out to eat at a great restaurant, good health, a spa day.  The list is endless.  Does this mean it takes different things to make different people happy?

And have you noticed that often when you possess the very things you feel would make you happy the happiness tends to wear off a bit in time?  What’s that all about?  Is that normal?  Does it mean that you simply misidentified what it is that genuinely contributes to your happiness?  So if you could just land on the right thing, you’d finally be happy?

We live in a culture that is almost obsessed with happiness.  In fact, it’s wired into the very fabric of our Constitution as Americans – sentence two in the Declaration of Independence – our unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  And boy have we Americans taken seriously our pursuit of happiness!  So you’d think that the earnestness of our pursuit would result in a truly happy existence.

And yet every poll and survey taken in recent years about American’s happiness indicates the exact opposite.  Americans are less happy now that they’ve ever been.  Our standard of living is higher than ever.  Our income is higher.  The amount of possessions we own (including the proverbial right to own our own house) is greater. We have more opportunities accessible to us than ever.  And yet our happiness is at an all time low.  What’s up?

The New Yorker printed a book review by John Lanchester in which he said, “The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a ‘hedonic treadmill‘: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.”

This notion of a “hedonic treadmill” is quite helpful.  When I work out at the gym and run on the treadmill, it doesn’t matter how fast a speed I set it at, how hard and fast my legs are going, whether I set it on an incline or decline, how hard my lungs are working to breathe and get sufficient oxygen to my muscles – no matter how good my health and conditioning are, I remain in the same spot – everything else in my body is working harder but I’m not getting anywhere.  The proverbial rat race.

I’ve experienced the hedonic treadmill numberous times in my life.  I remember some years ago living up in the Puget Sound and standing on the shore looking longingly out at the sailboats.  How I wished I could be out there!  If I could just have a boat to sail on, I’d be happy!  And then I got one.  Fun and happiness had at last arrived.

And then I was sailing up one of the channels in the Sound on a beautiful day.  And suddenly, as I looked at the beautiful houses nestled up to the shore, I caught myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a house right on the edge of the water and have such beautiful, inspirational views every day!”  If I could just be in one of those homes on the Sound I would be happy!

And it hit me – the hedonic treadmill – I had achieved one of my happiness goals and was still wanting more.  My expectations had risen at the same pace as my increased possessions.  When would there ever be enough?  Could I ever outpace my happiness treadmill?  Could I ever come to the point where I actually said, “Okay, now I have everything I need to be completely and absolutely happy.  From here on out, my life will always have happiness.”

The experts in the field of positive psychology (who have led the movement of the study of human happiness) talk about a “set point” that every person has when it comes to happiness.  In other words, no matter what additional input we receive or achieve that drives up our feeling of happiness, we will always return to a natural level of happiness.  And since people have different set points from each other, we can never use “the Joneses” as an accurate standard of measurement for our own experience of happiness.  The idea of having to keep up with the Joneses is a faulty paradigm (even though so many people operate their lives with this kind of comparison).

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, described a comparison study done with lottery winners and paraplegics.  Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt concluded. “Though it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, it’s not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics had both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

As the hedonic treadmill principle indicates, our internal expectations and desires tend to increase or decrease with our external circumstances so that in the end no net gain or loss is experienced.  And we end up returning to our natural set point of happiness.

So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to pursue all of the things we’re being told make us happy when a true net gain of happiness never happens in the long run?  Why do we spend so much time complaining that we don’t have this or that when none of those things will genuinely increase our level of happiness?

One historian, commenting on The Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on the unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness” makes a powerful observation.  The eighteenth-century understanding of the word “pursuit” was rather darker than it might seem now.  Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined it as “the act of following with hostile intention.”  Maybe the writers of the Declaration were trying to tell us something important?  “Go ahead, pursue happiness if you want.  You are guaranteed the freedom to that pursuit.  But if you make that choice, engage with and follow happiness as a hostile foe – something you can try to conquer but very possibly might never possess.  It might conquer you.  So perhaps it be a wiser tack to declare your independence from that hostile pursuit?”

So are you and I stuck on the hedonic treadmill of happiness?  Is it possible to get off it?  Is there any hope for a life of genuine happiness?  What would that life look like if it were possible?  Stay tuned.

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