If we reflect on what it is that all of us essentially want, it can generally be summed up as: wanting to find lasting happiness. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the way we got about finding lasting happiness often doesn’t work. Here are 6 reasons why that is:
1. We’re Chasing the Wrong Kind of Happiness
The kind of happiness that most of us know is conditional happiness. We are happy when life cooperates: when we get what we want, when we’re right, when people we love do well, when our body feels and looks good, when we’re healthy; basically, when things are going well. This type of happiness is contingent on external circumstances. One of the main reasons we look for this kind of happiness is because the society in which we live encourages us to get what we want and to get rid of what we don’t want. We spend most of our lives chasing the conditions that will make us feel good and avoid those that don’t make us feel good. But, as you have probably noticed in your own experience, there are many problems with the pursuit of this type of happiness.
2. We’re Terrible at Predicting What Will Actually Make Us Happy
One reason why chasing conditional happiness doesn’t work is because we are not very good at predicting what conditions will make us happy. For example, many people think that winning the lottery will make them happier. But research shows that lottery winners are eventually no more happier than they were before winning. Similarly, we are bad a predicting what will make us unhappy. Most of us would predict that becoming paraplegic would make us less happy. But research findings don’t support this prediction: accident victims who become paralyzed are eventually no less miserable then they were before becoming paraplegics. If we were good at predicting what conditions would make us happy, we would expect that those who are able to get what they want would be happier. For example, people who have jobs that pay them enough so that they can move into a big house in a safe neighbourhood with a beautiful wife and kids that they drive to the best schools in a luxurious car, would be generally satisfied with their life. Yet, a large number of affluent people are still left unsatisfied in their lives.
3. Circumstances that Make Us Happy Keep Changing
Another reason that conditional happiness doesn’t lead to lasting happiness is that conditions keep changing. If one thing is certain, is that everything will change, and in ways that are not always inline with the way we want them to change. If you are getting what you want, it won’t be long until something goes wrong. For example, you might get stuck in traffic, your kids might start misbehaving, or your favourite sports team might lose the big game. And even if you don’t sweat the small stuff, more serious changes will inevitably happen: you may get divorced, become sick, lose someone you love, and eventually you will lose your own precious life. There’s no way of escaping it. Things don’t stay as we want them to stay. So, if we are expecting life to cooperate in order to be happy, it’s no wonder that we will be often disappointed and fail to find lasting happiness.
4. We Hold Our Desires and Expectations Too Tightly
Does this mean that we should never benefit from external circumstances? Of course not! They may bring us a lot of joy: giving birth to our children, having our efforts at work be recognized, enjoying a dinner with good friends and family, tasting good wine. These are all good reasons to be happy. The problem arises when we tightly hold onto these conditions and need to have them in order to be happy. Since everything changes, and often not to our liking, if we hold on tightly to these circumstances, it’s like getting rope burn when we hold on too tightly to a rope that is continuously moving. Rather, the invitation is to hold these desires and expectations lightly so we don’t get “burned”. In other words, to let conditions come and go as they will. To be clear, the idea is not to get rid of our desires and expectations. Trying to not have expectations is in itself an expectation! The idea is to be aware that we have expectations and be flexible enough to let go of these expectations when things do not cooperate.
5. What We Think Will Make Us Happy Is Always Just Around the Corner
Maybe you think that you can make sure that you have control over most circumstances in your life, to make sure that you mostly get what you want. But think about it for a moment: even if we were able to control all external circumstances in our life and optimize the conditions conducive to being happy, it wouldn’t be lasting happiness. The problem is that we quickly adapt to what we have and continuously need to renew the conditions that make us happy. Psychologists refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill”. Here is an example: in the best of conditions, you think that relaxing on the beach while on vacation will bring you happiness. So after booking your trip you finally get there. You have arrived, and you are really taking it all in, listening to the waves and wind and soaking in the sun. But after a while you have enough of it. You think that what you really need to be happy is to go for a nice dinner with your lover. So you get ready, get to the restaurant and order your favourite meal. That will surely do it for your happiness. So you start eating your delicious meal and next thing you know, you ate too much. You’re happiness is not quite there yet, but you think that all you need is a soothing herbal tea. So you order one, enjoy the warm liquid, but happiness is not quite there yet because now you have an uncomfortable feeling that your bladder is too full. So you go to the bathroom and your bladder feels better, but you are not totally satisfied yet; you feel like going for a nice evening walk will finally be the thing that will satisfy you. Happiness is just around the corner now, so you go for a quiet walk with your partner, but after a few minutes you notice that you are a bit chilly because of the cool breeze. But you know just what you need to be satisfied: the sweater in your hotel room. As you can imagine, this just goes on and on. Life is one problem to solve after another. A never-ending to do list, with a chronic dissatisfaction of never having enough.
6. We’re Looking for Happiness in the Future
Paradoxically, when we are chasing happiness, we are everywhere but the only place were we could actually find it: the present moment. This is analogous to being on a motor boat, searching for a place on a lake with no waves. The very fact of searching creates waves. Counterintuitively, the only way to find a place on a lake with no waves is to stop searching for it, and to stop the boat. In other words, not trying to get somewhere else in order to be happy is the only way of truly finding happiness. Research shows that when our minds wander to some imaginary future or past that is/was presumably better than this moment, we are in fact less happy than if our minds stay put on what’s going on right now.
THE SOLUTION: Learning to Inhabit the Present Moment
The present moment is the only moment when we can actually be happy. Think about it, when else could we experience happiness? Whenever we get to the place we want to be, it is now again. So to find lasting happiness, the challenge is to see if instead of constantly living in “in-between” moments — on our way to some better moment — if we can savour even little things in each moment and to be grateful for whatever is there. For example, in any moment, we can appreciate that our bodies are breathing and that we are alive. Since we are alive, this means that in any moment we can tune into our senses and see the extraordinary in the ordinary; like feeling the texture of your steering wheel when you are stuck in traffic, or noticing a tender moment between a mother and her child while we wait in line. In fact, you may not feel as though you are “waiting” anymore, because you don’t need to have anything else happen to be satisfied, you already are. Research shows that taking the time to savour and deliberately be grateful for even little things makes us happier. Research also shows that practicing returning our attention to the present moment in daily life makes us happier. Mindfulness practice is the act of continuously and deliberately waking up to what is going on in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness means cultivating precisely the opposite of conditional happiness: being happy for no reason at all, no matter whether we’re experiencing something pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. It’s about learning to open ourselves to everything that is already here and to realize that what happens in each moment is enough. It’s the understanding that we don’t have to attain anything in particular to be happy; that we can be happy right now, no matter what happens. That is the recipe for lasting happiness!