“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Aristotle said this more than 2,000 years ago. And it still holds true today. What is the true purpose of life, if not to live a happy life until we die?
As humans, we are always chasing rainbows. We want something—be it different weather, a better job, or a bigger house—but shortly after getting it, we want something different. We adapt to our circumstances, they become the “new normal,” and we want more.
This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation.” It’s a term coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in the 1970s to explain our tendency as human beings to chase happiness, only to return back to our original emotional baseline after getting what we want. We run on a hedonic treadmill, and get nowhere, despite exerting massive effort along the way.
A belief that “bigger and better” leads to more happiness results, paradoxically, in less of it. We work really hard because we want more. We obtain more, and the shine soon wears off. So we work harder, in pursuit of even more, and become less happy as a result. The beat goes on.
It’s clear from the science that the acquisition of bigger and better things won’t make us more happy. So what will?
It’s the Journey not the Destination
In his book Happier, Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar defines the “arrival fallacy,” which is a corollary to the concept of hedonic adaptation. He describes the arrival fallacy as: “The false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”
I’ve certainly fallen victim to the arrival fallacy, having felt at first elated, then almost immediately letdown, following job promotions, raises, and new car or home purchases. I wanted these things so badly, but the reality of obtaining them was far different than my expectations.
In an interesting study from the 1970s, researchers studied the happiness levels of two different groups of people: lottery winners and accident victims. The surprising result of the study was that, once the initial elation of winning the lottery and shock of the accident wore off, both groups returned to their original levels of happiness. Over the long-term, these drastically different external events—one seemingly positive and the other negative—had no appreciable impact on happiness.
If winning the lottery won’t make us happier, what will? Ben-Shahar suggests that it is not reaching a particular destination (metaphorically speaking) that makes us happy, but rather learning to appreciate the journey toward the destination:
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
In this sense, ambition, itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. If humans did not want for more then we’d still be living in caves, without access to basic, modern human necessities such as electricity and clean water, nor marvels of human ingenuity such as modern medicine, art, and technology.
Problems arise when we allow the unending pursuit of growth and acquisition to inhibit our pursuit of happiness. Both ambitions—happiness and growth—can coexist, but only in balance. Growth can crowd out happiness if you’re not careful.
One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities. —Richard Eckersley
I would, of course, never presume to suggest that I know what makes you, or anyone else, happy. We all have distinct visions, preferences, and desires for our lives. But years of scientific research suggests that certain things make most of us happy. In particular, happiness is not derived from attaining outward signals of success (bigger and better in order to “keep up with the Joneses”), but rather seeking satisfaction from new and novel experiences in pursuit of a life well lived.
10 Ways to Cultivate More Happiness
What types of experiences pay the biggest happiness dividends?
I recently attended a conference in New Orleans and the keynote speaker was University of Amherst professor Catherine A. Sanderson, author of Science of Happiness. She is known as “The Happiness Professor.” Sanderson explained that there are 10 ways to increase your everyday happiness, according to decades worth of scientific research:
1. Make little changes in your daily routine, such as getting more sleep, exercising, getting out into nature, and meditating.
2. Read more books. Read books to learn—research suggests that lifelong learners remain healthy and engaged, and live long lives. Read books as an escape from your everyday life, Read books—it will make you happy.
3. Find your right fit or match, both personally and professionally. If you love what you do and who you are with, you’ll position yourself for personal happiness and professional success.
4. Be grateful. Sanderson suggested two specific activities to help foster a greater sense of gratitude. First, keep a daily gratitude journal. Second, pay a “gratitude visit” to someone from your past who has had a significant impact on your life, and let them know how you feel.
5. Smile more—even if you don’t feel like it. Research shows that the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into a happier state.
6. Relish simple, everyday moments. Appreciating life’s small moments, such as a beautiful, sunny day, green shoots sprouting from the ground, and skipping rocks at the beach, teaches you to be more grateful for what you have, especially during moments of stress and angst.
7. Perform random acts of kindness. Do good deeds. Volunteer. Be charitable. Shop (for someone else!). Numerous studies have shown that you can help yourself by doing good for others.
8. Spend money on experiences versus things. Studies have shown that buying an object—a car, handbag, or kitchen gadget—can quickly lead to buyer’s remorse. On the other hand, investing in experiences—a concert, a camping trip, music lessons—leads to greater happiness. Experiences create “happiness residue,” and our perceptions of them often get better over time.
9. Avoid comparisons. Whatever you may think of someone else’s life, particularly as viewed through the phony, filtered lens of social media, it’s almost certainly messier than you imagine. It’s easier to embrace, and learn to love, your own imperfections, if you don’t conjure up myths about how perfect everyone else’s lives seem.
10. Build and maintain close relationships. According to Sanderson, having a small number of tight, meaningful relationships is one of the highest predictor of happiness.
Don’t feel bad if you lose sight of some of these happiness priorities—we all do. We have to battle relentless marketing and societal expectations that suggest that the path to happiness lies elsewhere.
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think. —Daniel Kahneman
Don’t over-complicate your pursuit of happiness. As the research suggests, it’s the simple things that matter most. Make happiness a habit that is within your control, rather than seeking it from external sources. Life is nothing but a series of moments, both big and small, and the key to happiness lies is living each one with purpose and intention.
15 Simple Ways to Live a Happy Life:
1. Do What You Love
If your passion is playing soccer, writing poems, or teaching children how to swim, make time to do it. You’ll find that when you’re doing what you love, you’re filled with joy. How much better does that sound than forcing yourself do something you don’t like?
2. Help Others
Sometimes after we’ve achieved our own personal goals, we still feel empty inside because we haven’t made a meaningful contribution to someone else’s life. When we volunteer or help others, it feels good to just be of service to someone else. The impact we make feels fulfilling and is a big potential source for our own happiness.
3. Be Thankful
When you think of all the things that you have to be grateful for, you realize how blessed you already are. Without even realizing it, we take our basic necessities for granted — a roof over your head and plenty of food to eat. By appreciating the things that you already have, you’ll begin to feel happier in your life.
4. Share With Others
When we share our thoughts, our time, and our abilities with others we feel better for it. A life lived without sharing can become lonely. When you share with others, they’ll feel great towards you and help you to feel more joy in your own life.
5. Smile More
Practice smiling more and see how it affects you internally, as well as those around you. You can always afford to give a smile. Smiling can make you happier — even if you have to force it, you’ll still feel better.
When was the last time you went to the gym or worked out? Exercise reduces stress and releases endorphins, also known as a “runner’s high.” Playing sports is a fun way to exercise as well, whether it’s kicking around a soccer ball or shooting hoops.
7. Seek Out a Life Coach
A life coach will help you to evaluate your life and why you’re not feeling happy in it. Maybe you’re holding limiting beliefs or you have an emotional block without realizing it. By speaking to a life coach, you can uncover why you’re actually unhappy and what you can do to feel better.
8. Find Ways to Manage Stress
Don’t let stress rob you of your birthright to be happy. You deserve to be happy, and it wouldn’t be right to let stress get in the way. Practices such as meditation can help you to manage stress better and feel great.
9. Eat Healthy
It’s much more challenging to feel truly happy when you’re sick. But when you eat right, you feel better both physically and mentally. And you’ll avoid that guilty feeling that you just pigged out on junk food.
10. Spend Time With Your Loved Ones
There’s no replacement for spending quality time with your loved ones. We’re social beings, even if you’re an introvert or a loner. People love spending time with their friends and family for good conversation, bonding, and some laughs. Life’s too short to live it completely alone.
11. Dump Negative Thinking
You already know that negative thinking will bring you down. So how do you stop it? Become more aware of it and try replacing your negative thoughts with some positive ones. Spend less time with negative people and more time with positive people.
12. Give More Gifts
You don’t have to give expensive gifts; sometimes a poem, a quick note, or a thoughtful email will brighten someone else’s day, and yours. Share what you can give to all the wonderful people in your life.
13. Forgive and Forget
Holding a grudge will harm you more than the person you’re holding it against. Ask yourself, “What would it take for me to let go of the past?” and notice how you feel when you let go of your anger for a few seconds. Focus instead on a bright future and you’ll feel better for it.
14. Take a Walk in Nature
Spending time out in nature can be very refreshing and renewing, especially when you’re living in an artificial, manmade world. Taking a walk in your local woods or park and getting some fresh air can allow you to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.
15. Be Yourself
As Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” Accept who you are, just be yourself, and you’ll feel a world of difference.