How Your Search for Happiness is Making You Miserable
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Happiness: we all want it, and we want to know how to get it. We read books about it, try to buy it, and attempt to pin it down in a lab. We get close to happiness—we fall in love, get married, and move into a big new house—yet the joy inexorably wears off. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that even winning the lottery isn’t enough to make us happy in the long term: “the overall happiness levels of lottery winners spiked when they won, but returned to pre-winning levels after just a few months. In terms of overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-winners.”
Perhaps when we pursue happiness, we are trying to bottle the intense joyful state of getting good news, those inevitable ups in a life that must also come with downs. This happiness is dependent on some external factor, and when that external factor inevitably loses its luster, we feel inadequate, and we seek to change something. We go shopping, move again, or change partners. If happiness is out there somewhere, we think we have to look for it out there. Unfortunately for us, it simply won’t install itself permanently in our bones, so the pursuit never leaves us alone.
Buddhist teacher Michael Stone believes that the expectation that we should be constantly in a state of extreme joy is a false promise. We believe that we should be extremely happy as a default setting, and that if we are not, there’s something wrong with us: “The baseline of our moods, we're told, is really a hyperarousal,” Stone explains, which is not a natural state, but rather “kind of a manic condition.” Constantly chasing after this state keeps us locked in a feeling of inadequacy and lack. We don’t feel free unless we are also happy.
However, Stone points out, if freedom is based on feeling any certain way, whether it’s happy or peaceful or content, then we’re not free at all. We will be enslaved to seeking some specific state of mind, and when life happens and that state of mind flits away, as emotions tend to do, we’ll be locked back into the prison of craving. We’ll need change, or novelty, or money, or whatever external source provides you the brief addictive hit of happiness that inevitably disappears into our baseline brain chemicals.
No job or partner can “make” anyone happy. Partners can support, commit, be kind, and lots of other things, but they can’t be responsible for our happiness. Part of being human means going through a range of experiences, some of which are good, and some of which are bad. Freedom is about understanding that the fundamental state isn’t happiness or peace or sorrow, it’s change, and that’s okay.
A mindfulness practice like yoga or meditation cultivates a compassionate observation of the self that makes it obvious that no emotion lasts forever. Attaching to any story about what we should feel like or what our life should look like enslaves us to that story. When we can let go of the illusion that your fundamental state should be anything, let alone the manic intensity of happiness, we are free to feel whatever we feel—to love, to be unhappy, to change, to embrace the momentary joy of happiness because we know that it’s momentary. We won’t be happy forever, but that’s just fine, because we’ll still be free.