These days it feels like everyone’s striving to secure their place in the happiness race. And if we take social media as our reference point, it would appear most of us have already made it through the finish line. Picture-perfect Instagram posts showing friends in the ecstatic throws of relentless joy, self-help books professing to contain the age-old secret to everlasting happiness… Perpetual positivity is the name of the game, and as long as we keep aiming for this state of sheer bliss, someday somehow we’ll finally make it; and everything will be OK.
Of course, when it doesn’t actually happen it can leave us feeling a little dumbfounded, like we’ve let ourselves down somehow. If everyone else is so happy all the time, why can’t I be? Well, the truth is you probably can’t. Let me correct that with — no one can (permanently, that is). There’s a psychological theory called the “hedonic treadmill” which suggests that no matter how high we ‘peak’ on the happiness scale, we inevitably end up returning to what our baseline was beforehand. In their research paper Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? psychologists Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman studied people who’d won the lottery alongside victims of accidents who’d been left paralysed because of their injuries. Understandably, the initial emotional responses were extremely strong and on conflicting sides of the scale. However, these peak emotional responses weren’t as long-lasting as you might expect. After a period of time, the study showed that both groups ended up returning to whatever their baseline level of happiness was before these major life events took place.
Happiness is an emotion, and emotions are fleeting by nature. No matter how much self-work we carry out on ourselves, our emotions will always fluctuate. The problem is that in today’s happiness-driven world, we don’t always see the other side of the picture. We don’t see the relationship meltdowns outside the perfect couples sunset shot, or the next day hangover anxiety that followed the pre-party Saturday night selfie… We’re only seeing one side of the story.
Sometimes this quest for never-ending happiness can have negative consequences. Maintaining our happiness cover encourages us to brush difficult experiences and emotions under the carpet. Over time, most of us discover that this doesn’t work — or at least, not in the long-term. In order to accept life’s challenges we normally have to process them, and feel them properly. Burying our head in the sand and pretending everything’s OK usually only works as a temporary fix. Moreover, when we refuse to be open about how we actually feel, we encourage others to do the same. By being open with our struggles (as well as the good stuff), we send the message that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes too.
Of course, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use happiness as the amazing driving force it is. The pursuit of happiness is never in vain; it propels us forwards to find fulfilment, our place in the world. But instead of using it to disguise life’s challenges, it might be better to move our focus towards developing our baseline; that place we level ourselves out on when the emotional highs or lows begin to dissipate.
We could look at our baseline as those things that give us meaning in life, a sense of purpose. This might involve deciding to build a business around your passion, or training for a marathon… Whatever it is, these goals contribute towards creating a baseline of contentment that is sustainable, and not as fleeting as our short-lived ‘hits’ of happiness.
After spending a lifetime chasing the pleasure train it can be easy to forget what makes up our own unique baseline. Relentlessly pursuing short-term future happiness goals can serve as an easy distraction from what’s really happening today. For this reason, sometimes it requires a bit of patience to gently ease ourselves out of the loop. This could be in the form of meditation, or by talking to someone who can help offer some guidance. MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) combines the best of both worlds, bringing together the analytical, functional benefits of CBT alongside mindfulness techniques that can help you acknowledge mental loops without getting wrapped up in them. MBCT was developed following research carried out by Jon Teasdale and Philip Barnard who discovered that the mind has two main modes: ‘being’ and ‘doing’. Emotional developments take place in our ‘being’ mode which is why tapping into present experiences and emotions is so important if we’re going to enact real, long-lasting changes. By working on our baseline like this, we acknowledge that it takes time and perseverance to really master fulfilment in the long-term. And actually that’s what makes it all the more worthwhile.
So instead of building a life around attaining one specific emotion, maybe it’s about embracing all of them. Learning to delve headfirst into the mess of it all, accepting that each and every emotion is as valid as the next one. When we have a strong baseline, we have the foundation to weather both the good and the bad — and perhaps even enjoy it all along the way.
Laurence O’Keefe summed it up nicely when he said, “We can’t be happy all the time. If we were we wouldn’t be people, we’d be game show hosts”.
So there it is: I’m throwing the happiness towel in and saving my game show face for next time. To be honest, it felt a bit limiting anyway.
If you find yourself struggling with low moods, therapy is a great place to start putting positive changes in place. Answer a few simple questions to start connecting with therapists who can help.