Cultivate the Habits of Lasting Happiness

Cultivate the Habits of Lasting Happiness

The key to happiness is in giving, not getting. Yeah, you know that. But do you know why?

Photo Credit: Lisa Congdon

As I paid the bill at a diner one December evening, I noticed an evergreen tree in the entryway. Tiny cards hung from each branch, displaying the names of children who would not be receiving Christmas gifts unless someone like me did something about it.

I grabbed three cards, drove to a nearby store, and bought a hundred dollars’ worth of books and gift cards.

I wish I could tell you I did this for virtuous reasons, but that would be a lie. Rather, for months I’d been trying to game the law of karma to get my soon-to-be-released memoir on the best-seller list. In the name of that quest, I’d saved countless spiders from our shower drain, given all the cash in my wallet to men with signs that said “Will work for food,” and let people ahead of me in line at the post office.

I was betting on karma as someone else might count on a statue of Saint Joseph to ensure that their house sold at a good price. But this is not a story about karma, whether or not it exists, or even how to game it. No, this is a story about how what we think will make us happy ultimately causes our suffering.

Take that best seller that—through my writing, my marketing, and my extensive good deeds—I thought I’d earned. Was it the secret to my lasting happiness? No, not at all. Pinning my happiness on seeing my name on the best-seller list filled me with suffering. First, let me humbly admit: my quest failed, leaving me feeling resentful, burned out, and downright embarrassed.

Even had I succeeded, however, I still would have come up empty. The initial mania would have quickly evaporated with the thought, Can I keep it on the list two weeks in a row? Three? Four? People, there’s always an author whose book has sold more copies or stayed on the best-seller list longer.

This is true for most of what we think we need to be happy, whether it’s money, fame, good looks, a thin body, a new smartphone, admiration, validation, or even a soul mate. If we get what we want, we quickly become habituated and stop valuing the very thing we thought was so important, says Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher and the author of Before Happiness.

“People think that if they just work harder or become more successful, then they’ll be happier, but they have the happiness formula backwards,” he says.

Don’t believe him? Consider the following questions.

Approval: A friend compliments you on your ability to remember everyone’s name at a party. How long do you feel good about that praise? Does it even last you until the end of the evening?

Money: After your last salary increase, how many weeks went by before you muttered, “A little more money would be nice”?

Food: After taking the last bite of a chocolate chip cookie, how many seconds tick by before you yearn for another?

Want still more proof? Consider any number of celebrities in the news for drug overdoses, bad behavior, or even suicide. These are people who seemingly have everything a person could ever need: money, fame, beauty, and multiple mansions complete with elevators, koi ponds, heated pools, and many feet of private beach. Yet they are miserable.

Contrast that with what Jason Kurtz discovered when he traveled to India and volunteered at a home for aging Tibetan refugees.

“These were people who had been forced from their homes. They had crossed the Himalayas, gotten frostbite, starved, and lost family members during the journey. They arrived without visas and took whatever menial jobs they could find,” says Kurtz, a psychotherapist who writes about this and other experiences in the memoir Follow the Joy. “That home was one of the happiest places I’ve ever been. Volunteering there shined a bright light on what really mattered and on what did not.”

Superficial Happiness?

If hedonistic pursuits leave us empty, why do we continually seek them out?

“Our brains evolved to enjoy a chase,” explains Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford.

Life’s hedonistic pleasures—food, sex, shopping, snagging the best parking space at the mall—trigger a dopamine release in our brains. This fills us with a lovely and addicting buzz, one that is quickly followed by a crash. When our ancestors were living in caves, this was beneficial. They needed dopamine’s short-lived rush to propel them to walk miles and miles to find more and more berries.

Now? Not so much. So we go from job to job, house to house, vacation to vacation, relationship to relationship, and one slice of chocolate cake to the next, all the while feeling short-lived waves of euphoria followed by boredom, loneliness, and depression.

“You can chase after pleasure your whole life and then wonder where your life went,” Seppala says.

To experience lasting happiness, we must move away from our hedonistic urge for dopamine-driven pleasure and toward another urge that is more powerful and longer-lasting: our drive to cooperate and connect. When we bond with others, our brains secrete oxytocin, a chemical that brings on a sensation just as intoxicating as dopamine, but without the crash. Scientists call this eudaimonic (“meaning driven”) pleasure, and it does a lot more than make us feel good. It brings health to every cell in our bodies. According to research done at UCLA and the University of North Carolina, people who tap into meaning-driven pleasure are rewarded with improved DNA and immunity, whereas people who chase after hedonistic pleasure reap the opposite.

The Habits of Pleasure

To move from short-lived hedonistic pleasure to lasting eudaimonic pleasure, swap:

Getting for giving. In experiments done at the University of British Columbia and Harvard, people who spent money on others felt happier than people who spent the same amount of money on themselves. And it doesn’t take much to get an oxytocin boost. Spending just five dollars a day on someone else generates a lasting euphoria, the research found.

Thanklessness for gratitude. If you remind yourself of what you already have, you’ll be less likely to seek happiness in the things that you haven’t yet acquired. To do so, write down three new things you are grateful for every day, suggests Achor. Another way to practice gratitude: writing an email of thanks to one new person a day.

Self-focus for other focus. Self-loathing and self-pity have one thing in common: an excessive focus on me, myself, and I. If you flip that inside out and focus on helping and connecting with others, your problems seem to dissipate. One easy way to connect with others: share a smile with everyone you meet. Seppala suggested this tactic to one of her students, who began smiling whenever she walked past a surly young woman who lived in the same dorm. For a few weeks, each of her smiles was returned with a glare. But eventually the other young woman said, “Thank you for seeing me.” The two became friends.

“Whatever we feel inside, we share with others,” says Kurtz. “If you are angry, you will end up sharing anger. If you are anxious, you share anxiety. If you are happy, you will spread that.”

And happiness is exactly what I’ve been trying to cultivate and spread ever since I snapped out of my not-getting-my-memoir-on-the-best-seller-list depression. One spring day, a few months after my book release, a colleague called, asking for my advice. Like me, she’d chased after a big goal, and she’d failed to achieve it. I found myself giving her the very advice that I needed to hear: “Happiness doesn’t come from titles, awards, respect, or success. It comes from being your best in every moment.”

It was as I hung up that I realized that my quest to game karma had not been in vain. I didn’t have a best-selling memoir, but thanks to all of those good deeds, I already knew how to be my best in every moment. I now wake each morning with a strong wish: make the world better for as many beings as possible. And this wish fills every moment with meaning. This is true no matter what goes on around me. My dog can upchuck on the carpet. My clothes dryer can call it quits. Someone can write a scathing online review of that non-best-selling memoir. No matter what, I usually go to bed feeling the same as when I woke: happy.

Question Your Meaning of Life

To separate meaning-driven desires from hedonistic ones, contemplate:

  • What am I feeling? Why am I feeling what I am feeling? Why am I doing what I am doing?
  • Do I really need to buy/eat/experience this to be happy? Or is this desire for more merely a way to distract myself from something I don’t like to feel, such as loneliness or boredom?
  • If I had three days left to live, what would I do with those final hours? Would I spend them watching reruns of Duck Dynasty? Going on a shopping spree? Or something else?

Previously published as "Move Over, Ice Cream; Here comes "Eudaimonic Pleasure" in Spirituality & Health's special issue Sustainable You.

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