Could Our Pursuit of Happiness Really Be the Reason We're Not Happy?

Updated 06/05/17
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As a society, we devote a lot of time and attention to pursuing happiness. It makes sense—at the end of the day, if we aren’t happy, what’s the point? But for many, happiness is viewed as something won after a series of goals are met; it's a condition attached to specific milestones. We speak of happiness with sentences that start with “I’ll be happy when I get…” and end with things like “that job,” “that raise,” “that handbag,” “that apartment.” But as Psychology Today points out, making our happiness contingent on these outside sources can be a dangerous strategy and actually keep us from being happy.

Far from saying it’s unhealthy to have goals or even desire material possessions to reward oneself, psychotherapist Ilene S. Cohen, PhD, warns, “If you’re someone who tries to find happiness through those things; puts off starting your life until you have certain objects in your possession; or won’t turn that frown upside down until you get that bonus check, pay off that credit card, or lose those 10 pounds, then there’s something you might want to explore.” It’s unlikely you’ll be satisfied with the present when you’re always looking to the future to check the next impending item off your list.

On the other hand, “If you know that happiness isn’t up for permanent keeps and doesn’t come from external rewards, you won’t be doomed for a life of dissatisfaction.”

Cohen cites the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation as an explanation for our insatiable pursuit of happiness. She describes it as “the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.” So according to science, no matter how good things get, we’re quick to adjust our baseline expectations, which in turn leaves us feeling unfulfilled and looking for the next thing to make us happy. “To shift our set point” that we eventually adjust to, “we must begin by changing our mindset and shifting our values, goals, attention, and interpretation of situations,” says Cohen. She underscores the importance of remembering that happiness is the lenses you wear, the ideas you hold, and the values you keep.

It’s how you live your life and experience every day rather than the emotions derived from the events and acquiring of material goods that may punctuate it.

Read what one Harvard study found to be the key to happiness—it may change your perspective.

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