Audio: Why Don’t We Become Happier?
Transcript: Why Don’t We Become Happier?
Well, the simple answer is that the things that we do to reduce our distress, and to become happier, don’t work. In fact, they’re doomed to failure. It’s like hitting yourself in the head to get rid of a headache. “Stupid pain go away!” While that sounds ridiculous, what we actually do to become happier backfires just as badly.
Our first problem is believing that our unhappiness and suffering are due to the situation we’re in, to our circumstances. “If I could just change these problems then I’d be relieved of my suffering and become happy.” We tell ourselves: “If only my husband would help out more around the house, then I’d be happy.” “If I could just have more money then my stresses would be gone and I’d be happy.” “If I could only find my soul mate, then I’d be happy.” “As soon as I can have children, then I know I’ll feel fulfilled.” When I get over this cold, when I lose weight, when I finish this job, when I buy that dress, when I have sex with that woman, when I get that promotion… you can fill in your own examples here … then I’ll be happy.
The problem, of course, is that none of these things will make us happy. How many times have you told yourself that you will be happy “when”, only to discover that any happiness you experienced was short-lived. Thousands of years of wisdom, including from Jesus and Buddha, emphasizes that focusing on our material circumstances will not bring happiness and indeed will lead to suffering. We now also have hundreds of scientific research studies that come to the same conclusion. And it’s not just that these things won’t make us happy, but that the more we’re focused on getting these things, especially material things, the less happy we’ll be.
We all know stories of people who seem to have it all, yet who are so miserable they commit suicide. We also know stories of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from who are blissfully happy.
Now of course our happiness is not completely unrelated to our circumstances: We’ll probably feel happier while honeymooning on a tropical beach than sitting in prison. So, there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to change our circumstances. If you have a choice between prison and a beach, take the beach. But don’t expect that changes in your circumstances will have any enduring effect on your happiness. And, if you devote most of your energy to changing your situation, you won’t have much left for working on the things that will actually make you happier.
What I said earlier wasn’t completely true. All those things that I said wouldn’t make you happy, they will. More money, having children, having sex with an attractive new partner. Any of them can make you happy – briefly. And here is the diabolical trap. Getting what we want feels good, briefly. And then when we want to feel happier we understandably go after more of it. And more, and more. More money, more sex, more purses, more power. But it doesn’t work. Getting what we want, whatever it is, feels a little bit good, and then we go back to where we were, experiencing whatever unhappiness was there before.
So our first mistake, of trying to become happier by changing our circumstances, happens because we get fooled by that brief happy feeling, even though ultimately, it backfires on us.
Our second mistake actually works the same way. Because we want to feel good, we understandably do whatever we can to avoid distressing feelings. “Bad feelings, go away”. And again, this feels like a relief – briefly. And then, boom, our distress inevitably springs back even stronger. So it’s another diabolical trap where what we do to feel good, to get relief, seems to work, but then leaves us worse off. And the more we try to avoid our distressing feelings, the worse we end up feeling.
Well this seems really mean! We go after the things that give us a shot of feeling good, but it backfires and leaves us feeling worse, or we try to feel better by avoiding distressing feelings and this backfires too. It’s like a cruel joke. Doing what feels good leads to unhappiness in the long term.
While this may seem rather discouraging, at least we now know what not to do if we want to become happier. As we psychologists say, if you keep doing things the same way but expect to feel differently, you’ll be disappointed. And fortunately, there are lots of things we can do to become happier. … It’ll help a lot if you understand intrusive feelings.
Some people with fame, wealth, & beauty on their experience:
Note: Outside content; may contain advertising.