Archive for Happiness

Increasing happiness: activities and circumstances

How do we go about increasing our happiness? We have all striven for something we believed would make us happy – a new house, a relationship, or a flexible job – only to find that, 3 months later, our happiness fell right back to where it started. At this point, we may have enthusiastically chosen a new goal to strive for, or we may have realized what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation”: that we quickly adapt to any favourable (or unfavourable) change in our circumstances, and that our happiness remains essentially constant.

The evidence for hedonic adaptation is well established. Lottery winners report an initial high followed by an eventual return to their former levels of happiness. Similarly, recent paralysis victims report the same happiness levels as before their misfortune, aside from an initial low. This is also true for less dramatic changes in our life: marriage, income, and the region in which we live, all have very little impact on our long-term happiness. So, if none of these things will help our happiness, is there anything that can help us be happier?

The key to sustainable happiness is to change our activities rather than our circumstances. A change in circumstances, such as a new car, relationship, or promotion, can quickly be taken for granted. It becomes a background fact that does little to alter our happiness. On the other hand, changes in our activities or behaviour do have the potential to permanently increase our happiness. Examples of activity/behavioural changes include beginning to exercise daily, practising smiling at people, learning to meditate, or starting each day by writing a list of things to be thankful for. Hedonic adaptation applies only to changes in circumstance, and not to changes in activity.

Therefore, when we seek to increase our happiness, we should look to change our activities and not our circumstances. Of course, sometimes a change in circumstance may lead to a change in our activities. For example, if our new car just means driving to work instead of going by bus, then we will quickly adapt. On the other hand, if our new car means that we can now drive to the mountains and take up hiking, and if we do this regularly, then substantial increases in our happiness could result. Similarly, a relationship for which we are consistently thankful and into which we pour all our energy and love is likely to yield great benefits. However, if we begin to take our relationship for granted, we will be back to where we started.

Permanent increases in happiness are possible, but they require a sustained and intelligent application of effort. We must develop useful habits and ways of thinking, a good one being the practise of gratitude (see Gratitude: Focus on what is right with life). The traditional goals of more money, a nicer house, and a faster car, will not help us. We must change our activities, our behaviours, our thinking…not merely our circumstances.

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Happiness, introspection, and thinking

How much time do we spend thinking about happiness? Is all of this thought worthwhile? Numerous studies have shown that happy people are those who are less introspective (see Lyubomurski and Lepper 1999, or Veenhoven 1988), suggesting that excessive reflection can lower our mood. We probably all know people who rarely reflect about deeper issues of life, spirituality, or happiness, and yet are the happiest people around. Does this mean that the best way to be happy is to stop thinking? Or is the causation the other way around? Perhaps introspection does not cause unhappiness, but rather, unhappiness causes introspection.

There are definitely problems with thinking too much. Almost every spiritual tradition speaks against this. Peace and happiness can only exist in the present moment, and thought takes us away from this place. We all recognize the negatives of being burdened with thought. Many of us set goals to “live in the moment”, and resolve to relax and be at peace. Ironically, although our ultimate goal is to be free of thought, we spend much time thinking about how to do this.

The natural way out seems to be to stop thinking altogether. We still think thoughts such as how to get our next meal, but we leave the deeper questions of life aside. However, this notion of giving up thought altogether is not only unrealistic, but it is also a cop-out. A cow has very few deep thoughts, but it is only a cow after all. Should we not strive to rise above this?

The answer lies not in giving up thought, but in changing the way we relate to thought. It is true, as the studies showed, that introspection may lead to unhappiness, but this is simply because we need training in the way that we reflect. We must think but without brooding, and we must recognize that our thoughts are not reality. There is a difference between being prepared for an earthquake or hurricane, and lying awake at night for fear that one will strike. Similarly, there is a difference between exploring ways to be happy and peaceful, and  constantly focusing on the idea that we have not yet achieved this happiness or peace. Thoughts are essentially a brainstorm: they represent all possibilities of which we can conceive; however, they do not arrive with some guarantee of authority. The thought that an earthquake might strike does not mean that this is a likely occurrence. A twinge of sadness does not mean that our life is ruined. We must relate to our thoughts as though we were searching the Internet – there is a lot of information there, but it is up to us to discriminate between what is false and what is true. It is up to us to decide where our attention should lie.

Therefore, returning to the initial question of happiness and introspection, the problem arises when our thinking focuses too much on what is wrong. This leads us to believe that we are unhappy – our thoughts become our reality. We must stop taking ourselves so seriously, we must stop taking our thoughts so seriously. If we do this, we can have the best of both worlds – we can think, but without being burdened by these thoughts. Our mind is no longer our master, but instead our greatest friend.

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