Let’s Talk About This Whole ‘Happy’ Thing

Posted: May 18, 2013

The Friendly City Files

I was sitting in the bleachers at a high school soccer game and couldn’t help overhearing someone declare to her friend, “I am just not happy.”

I have no idea what else they talked about. I didn’t want to know and consciously tuned them out. But the statement did make me think about happiness, and how we all seem to search for happiness — even though that search might actually make us less happy.

A number of studies show that, the more value people place on happiness, the less happy they become.

Why? There are a bunch of reasons.

One, when we want to be happier, we tend to want more: More joy, more satisfaction, more money, more contentment, more stuff, more excitement … more of something.

So, naturally, we compare the past to the present to see if we’re making progress toward “more.” But when we do, we switch from experiencing to evaluating. We’re no longer in the moment because we’re studying the moment. We’re not enjoying the movie because we’re comparing it to other movies we’ve watched or could be watching. We’re not enjoying a meal because we’re comparing it to other meals we’ve eaten or could be eating.

We don’t enjoy this because we’re constantly comparing it to the possibility of that — and that, because it’s imagined rather than actual, usually always wins.

Think about it: When you’re doing something really fun, you quit thinking about everything else — you just are. Later, you might think about how much fun you had …  but, if you evaluate what you’re doing while you’re in the moment, how can you have fun?

We also tend to overestimate the impact of major events on happiness. We tend to think a life event will make us happier: new house, new car, new job, etc. Yet, studies show the impact of major life moments last a very short time. Then, we reset our expectations so that where we are now becomes the new normal.

Plus, we naturally tend to focus on ourselves when we consciously think about happiness, even though studies show that focusing on yourself makes you less happy and sometimes even depressed since the more value people place on happiness, the lonelier they tend to feel. “It’s all about me” tends to be a recipe for “woe is me.”

And when we try to get happier, we tend to look for intense “happy” experiences. We want to feel emotions such as joy, elation, enthusiasm and excitement. But research shows those intense feelings don’t necessary lead to overall happiness: Happiness is driven by frequency, not intensity, of positive emotions.

When we search for an intense emotion, it’s easier to be disappointed and that causes us to frame normal experiences as less positive — because they don’t measure up. (Walk on the moon and it’s probably impossible  to get excited about a short hike on the Appalachian Trail.)

When you constantly look for “awesome,” you lose the ability to appreciate a nice evening, a meal or a day with family or friends.

Often, the best things in life are pursued indirectly. To experience a sense of meaning, a sense of joy or a sense of fulfillment, try shifting the focus away from meaning, joy or fulfillment and concentrate on work, relationships or activities that create those feelings.

So if, like me, you find yourself sitting in the cold on incredibly hard bleachers at a soccer game whose outcome is no longer in doubt, instead of thinking about what you could be doing, maybe we should just let go and focus on the moment.

Could we be watching better and more exciting soccer? Sure. In greater comfort? Yes. Or doing something else? Absolutely.

But then we wouldn’t be watching our kids do something they love to do — and that would, in the end, make all of us a lot less happy.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a bestselling ghostwriter and Inc. Magazine columnist. He can be reached at www.blackbirdinc.com.