We all are in pursuit of an elusive goal called ‘sustainable happiness’. We all want to be happy, yet so few of us seem to know exactly where sustainable happiness comes from. We try to define happiness in many different ways – life’s good work (or even no work at all), good friends, materialistic measures etc.
Renowned psychologists have mixed news about our search for sustainable happiness. The disturbing news is that we have essentially no control over 50% of our happiness levels because, like many of our other attributes, ‘happiness’ is partially set by our genes. Only the other 50% is to do with the environment about us, which can be controlled or influenced by us.
This controllable 50% is good news for us to start with in pursuit of our happiness. How do we bring about sustainable happiness. Well; there are several ways:
First there are the overall living factors in our lives, our ‘existential circumstances’. This includes things like how much money we have, our education level, whether we live in rich or poor countries, how old we are, whether we are married or not and whether we are religious.
All of these factors have some relationship to happiness. For example, higher levels of education are associated with more happiness, as is higher age and even being married (No debates pls!).
These are all factors which, generally speaking, are easy to adjust and influence but difficult to change wholly, and need to be assessed as ‘short-term’ factors or ‘long-term’ factors. Arguably, it is easier to get married than it is to become younger, but they are both classified as very long-term living factors.
While living factors do matter, psychologists are convinced that they contribute only about 10% to our happiness and hence is completely dwarfed by the genetic contribution to happiness.
So if we can’t change our genes and we can’t, broadly speaking, change our life circumstances, what on earth can we change?
The only thing that we can probably change, control and drive is the activity that we do every day. We refer to this as ‘motivated activity’. They activities are intended to pep up out happiness within the set range determined by our genetics and our living factors.
But which activities to choose, and how should we carry out these activities? Answering this question is all about understanding how quickly we adapt to new and exciting experiences.
The first time we try something stimulating that we find enjoyable, it is likely to increase our happiness levels considerably. Whether it’s that first big ticket sale, the first national award or just a new and exciting book we’re reading. New experiences tickle our pleasure centers and we feel good.
Unfortunately when presented with that very same stimulus again and again we soon become used to it. This is what psychologists have called ‘hedonistic adaptation’. The amount of pleasure we can get from the same experience tails off with repeated exposure. The first bite of chocolate tastes a damn sight better than the last.
This leads us to suggest that the activities we choose should have three characteristics:
– The activities should fit our needs and our personalities. E.g. If you don’t crave excitement, car ride is unlikely to fit with your needs. But it could be perfect for someone else.
– The content of the activities should vary. We often run around the same circuit, or walk the same route to our shopping center. Varying the routine is likely to minimize the effects of hedonistic adaptation.
– The timing of the activity should vary. E.g. Our weekends could start with an action movie than routine paper reading. This also helps to avoid hedonistic adaptation.
When we think about the proportions which genetics, living factors and motivated activities contribute to our happiness, we need to have a second look at the priorities in our lives.
The genetic component is essentially a write-off because there is precious little we can do about this until gene therapy or some equivalent lets us adjust our preset happiness levels. So our sustainable levels of happiness can be influences and pepped up only bu our living factors and our intentional motivated activities.
But ironically, in this competitive world, our essential everyday activities are so huge that it is nightmarish to accord a decent priority to each.
To provide a rather cliched example: consider whether it is better to be at work trying to get a promotion, to get a raise to increase your living factor or to be at home with your family. Of course it’s quite possible to get more pleasure out of being at work than being with your family – although not many will admit to it.
The ‘Now’ Factor
The interesting implication is that in order to achieve sustainable happiness, long-term plans and goals should be ignored in favor of the here and now. After all, why bother to strive for a better job if it won’t increase your happiness? Surely it’s better to just do whatever makes me happy right now?. I am not advocating this approach, but there are many in India who dearly follow this. Be happy now than gamble on a possibility of tomorrow.
Long-term plans do, of course, contribute to our day-to-day happiness, but indirectly. A better job, leading to more money can mean we have more freedom to do those day-to-day things which we like. Life circumstances and day-to-day activities clearly interact. To talk of one without the other doesn’t make sense in the real world.
These debates acknowledged, the attention is therefore more on seeking a ‘change’ in the content of the otherwise ‘unavoidable’ activities.
This ‘Now’ factor has given more ‘issues’ to mankind than make them happy. Otherwise how do we discuss on issues like divorce, attrition, crime etc.
In office life, people fall prey to this ideology of the ‘Now’ factor and we see red in terms of office politics, favoritism, cyber-crime etc.
Humans are craving to find the existing of a living form outside our planet. Many have asked this question. Are we ready to meet them? What is their motivation? Are they happy? Can they teach us better ways to be happy?
I hope they do….for on this planet…sustainable happiness is elusive to most…