The Trouble With Happiness

The truth is, we take pretty much everything for granted

A man looks out over Manhattan.

A man looks out over Manhattan. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As a reformed cynic, the subject of happiness has fascinated me for a number of years. Why are so many people unhappy? Why do a lucky few have it figured out, while the rest of us merely exist? The most confusing aspect for me is how dirt poor people in developing countries can be so happy while others, who don’t have to worry about the basics of survival, are miserable.

This begs an obvious question, considering the advances we’ve made and the money we put into education: why haven’t any of us been taught how to be happy? After all, happiness is far more important than STEM subjects, English, doing our taxes or really, anything else.

The reason we don’t teach happiness is probably because it’s in such short supply. In fact, most wouldn’t know where to begin. Gallup polling shows 75 percent or more of us are disengaged at work, divorce rates are around 40 percent (give or take, depending on the data you review), and half the population can’t pull together $400 in an emergency. If we have no idea how to achieve happiness ourselves, how can we possibly teach it to our kids?

Once upon a time, we turned to the church for such advice, being that it was the center of our spiritual lives and community. Unfortunately in years past, many religions—Christianity chief among them—often preached more about sacrifice, the nobility of work and the rewards that await us in heaven. It’s no surprise the popularity of religion is declining, as most people have become rightly suspicious of such a message. They don’t accept (nor should they) that they are expected to wait for a promised afterlife to attain the happiness that should be theirs here and now.

Philosophy also once taught us to live better and more satisfying lives, but such concerns have been abandoned by philosophers who prefer to spend their time in semantic tail chasing—debating what the meaning of “is” really is or considering concepts far above the concerns of a typical citizen. Even the more ancient, stoic philosophy has become arguably less useful because we now live in a comparatively hyper-fast world full of social media and problems they had never even contemplated.

All of these institutions and authority figures have failed in teaching us how to be happy, because they don’t know themselves. So, where do we turn? Are we meant to just figure it all out on our own?

Many people turn to therapy, because—truth be told—most of the answers lie with psychology and understanding how the mind works. We generally require a cognitive shift to become happy and psychology provides these tools. Unfortunately, most people are so divorced from their own psychology, so completely habitually used to life in its current state with a thousand distractions every minute that they don’t have a grasp on how they sabotage their own ability to be happy. Some will turn to therapy, others will have various mental crises and go in search of self help, but most will find it an impossible dream. After all, happiness is reserved for poor people in poor countries and rich people who don’t worry about anything.

I believe our inability to be happy stems from two sources: destination syndrome and consumerism. Dig a little deeper, and these are both just manifestations of a single, erroneous belief at the root of our unhappiness: events will make us happy.

Marketing and advertising have become such an integral part of our culture that we are conditioned from the time we are kids staring at TVs to believe toys will make us happy. As we get older, the toys change but the idea stays the same—a new car, new kitchen, new dress, new gadget will make us happy. We go out, buy such things, and they do make us happy—for a couple of days, and then it’s back to normal. When the dopamine response and novelty subsides, we return to our base level of unhappiness—before we find our next purchase. Every time we buy something in this fashion it’s an event, because the subconscious mindset is I’ll be happy when I have that.

Here’s the secret: Change your outlook from one of expectation to one of gratitude.

Similarly, we have achievement and major milestones. In a culture addicted to success, we’ve also been sold the idea that achievements are going to make us happy. We make a big deal of graduations, promotions, job offers, weddings and birthdays—all are important in our lives and should be celebrated. Unfortunately, they don’t offer lasting happiness. Look around the Internet and the media, however, and the idea that achievement will make us happy is the dominant narrative.

“When I finish college and get a job, I’ll be happy.”

“When I get out of this dead end job and into a career, I’ll be happy.”

“When I get a promotion and a raise, I’ll be happy.”

“When I leave my job and start a company, I’ll be happy.”

“When I’m valued at ten million dollars, I’ll be happy.”

“When my company does its IPO, I’ll be happy.”

I’m sure you’ve realized by now that, considering there are only a handful of such moments throughout life, it’s a pretty bleak outlook.

So, where do we go from here? If the behaviors we were conditioned to accept as making us happy provide only temporary relief once a decade (on average), what exactly are we supposed to do day-to-day?

The answer lies in those very words: “day to day.” You may have heard the phrase “happiness is a choice” bandied about here and there when you’ve heard Tony Robbins or someone similar. You’ve likely also written it off as a bunch of motivational woo-woo. From a reformed cynic, believe me when I say that it’s absolutely true. Happiness is a choice, and we make that choice by looking in the most mundane of places for it—the every day. In our fast-paced society, it’s no secret we take a lot of things for granted. Actually, the truth is, we take pretty much everything for granted.

Take flying for instance. People complain about flying economy class, that it is cramped, they aren’t treated well and that it’s a crappy experience. No one stops to marvel at the fact that humans aren’t supposed to fly. That, to travel such distances only a hundred years ago would have taken days or weeks—if you could afford it. Instead we find something to bitch and be unhappy about.

Here’s the secret: Change your outlook from one of expectation to one of gratitude.

Get yourself a notebook and at the end of each day write down three things you’re grateful for. Don’t cheat and make it about your family every day either. The reason this is so powerful is because it is a cognitive behavioral shift—rather than spending your time in a negative mindset, you learn very quickly to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, the calmness of things going right for a whole day, the pleasure of a family meal where everybody is smiling. It’s not like one of those silly motivational posters you see on Facebook where you’re standing on a cliff with your arms in the air, though—that’s not what happiness is. That’s a caricature of it. Keep up this practice and you’ll find that, slowly but surely, your whole life begins to change, because you’ve gone from being someone with a scowl on their face to someone people actually want to be around. If you want to double down, do it in the morning as well. As you’re traveling to work, look for anything to be happy about. Trust me, you’ll find things sooner than you think.

Now, I’m sure the rebuttals are going off in your head right now. Why should I be happy when I have a crappy job, I hate my boss and nothing ever goes right for me?

Because even if you aren’t satisfied with your life, it’s a hell of a lot more fun when you’re happy than when you aren’t.

It’s that simple. So many people fight happiness away, because they don’t feel they deserve it or they over-analyze it. If you choose happiness, your life begins to change for the better. It might shock you to be told that people don’t really like being around others who are negative, bitter and cynical about everything.

Think of it this way: two people live the exact same life. One makes a conscious effort to be happy, to be grateful for the little things and to stay as positive as possible. The other doesn’t—instead, remaining cynical, always looking at what they don’t have and the bad parts of life. Who is right and who is wrong isn’t the question. Rather, the question to ask is who has the more satisfying and enjoyable life. I guarantee you it’s the former.

There is also the fact that happiness isn’t a binary choice. Yes, there is a lot of injustice in the world. Yes, the one percent and politicians are screwing the rest of society. We have climate change going unchecked, soldiers killed and every other problem in the world. You don’t have to choose unhappiness because of this. You can be happy with your life and mad at these problems simultaneously.

The other thing with happiness is that we don’t allow ourselves to feel the opposite. No one in their right mind would believe you can be happy 100 percent of the time. Going through a rough patch? Maybe you’ve lost your job, you’re getting divorced or some other momentous life change has caused you to go into a black pit of despair. Friends and family will tell you to cheer up and stay positive, doctors will prescribe medication (even if you aren’t even clinically depressed). Basically everyone will encourage you to be happy and “look on the bright side.” This is all incredibly damaging, because the only way for us to know the highs of happiness is to know the lows of sadness. At such times, being positive means nothing more than continuing to put one foot in front of the other. But instead of feeling that sadness, working through it and learning to come out the other side, we medicate it away. Our friends talk us out of sadness because it’s too much trouble to be around a downer.

You can’t tell a recently divorced person who is having a hard time to not let it get to them.

You can’t tell someone who has just lost their job to throw themselves head first into a job search the next day.

You can’t tell someone who has just missed out on Olympic selection that “there’s always the next Olympics.”

This is why the message of being positive and choosing to be happy gets lost on so many people, because it’s used as a blanket, one size fits all solution. We’ve effectively told people that it’s not ok to be deeply sad or unhappy, and even worse, the people surrounding us often put a limit on how long they will put up with our grief. There are times when we as humans need to grieve the loss of something, to feel the lowest of lows, to work through it on a subconscious level and come out the other side wiser human beings, capable of feeling great happiness again. You can’t put a limit on it.

It’s little wonder then that, for many of us, real happiness and sadness are forgotten states of being. We instead settle on a zombie-like state of misery right in the middle, akin to that feeling of insomnia so perfectly encapsulated in Fight Club when the main character laments that “you never really get to sleep, and you never feel fully awake.”

Could it be we’re afraid to feel? That, if we allow ourselves to be truly happy, we’re afraid to lose it all and crash to the bottom? There is probably also the fear that we’ll have the shame of people seeing us come crashing down, to add salt to the wound.

That’s probably fodder for exploration in a future article.

Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and every day life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.

The Trouble With Happiness