Why Chasing Happiness Is Futile

The next meal I eat will be one of the best meals I’ve ever had. 

My grandfather had colon cancer. My father had colon cancer. Thankfully, they both recovered with surgery to remove it, but if the trend continues, I’m next. So, at the “young” age of 36 (I used quote marks because this is the oldest I’ve ever been), I’m getting a colonoscopy.

To prepare for a colonoscopy, you must clear out your digestive system so that the doctor can see what’s up… there. When I say clear it out, I mean CLEAR. IT. OUT. The day before the procedure, you’re treated to a buffet of laxatives, followed by drinking a gallon of colon prep liquid, and of course, you can’t eat any food. The day ends up being like that one scene from Dumb and Dumber on repeat. Take care of your colon, kids.

All in all, it will be almost two days between meals for me. Sheesh. I’ve been taking food for granted. I’m looking judgmentally upon my past self, who looked judgmentally at the contents of my fridge and thought there’s nothing to eat. Picky fool of a Took, I was!

I would scale a mountain to eat a stale pretzel right now. I would eat gas station sushi. And my food experience reminds me of how happiness works. It’s dynamic and relative. Bad food to a hungry person (me) tastes much better than gourmet food to a full or spoiled person.

Just because the first slice of pizza is heavenly, does not mean eight more slices will be 8x better. It may be 8x worse!

Human happiness is not an absolute scale that you can climb higher and higher.

Josh Radnor played the main character Ted on the show How I Met Your Mother. He’s experienced this concept. Radnor said:

“When How I Met Your Mother first went on the air, I ran into an actress that I knew and she said, ‘Are you just like so happy all the time?’ And I remember thinking, ‘Does she really think that when CBS picked up this show, it left me with an inability to feel anything other than unbridled joy?’ But the joke was on me because I kind of thought it would.”

Any positive windfall of good fortune will spike a person’s happiness levels higher temporarily: winning the lottery, a new relationship, winning an award, having your show picked up by CBS, and so on. But it acts like a drug in that the initial high can’t be sustained for long. It will quickly dissipate, usually faster than you expect. And that’s a good thing.

If you try to sustain a high (which requires seeking higher highs), you may prolong the magic, sure, but you also elevate your expectations, making it increasingly more difficult to get that feeling until it becomes impossible. This is called the hedonic treadmill, because no matter how hard you chase this feeling, you will never permanently reach it and stay there. Nobody ever will because the human brain isn’t designed that way!

The harder you chase happiness as a destination, the less satisfied you’ll be (regardless of what you accomplish).

The highest highs in life are actually the greatest danger to your long-term contentment. The higher you raise the bar, the more likely you’re going to be under it. There are a lot of people out there who are “living the dream” and completely depressed because their expectations are too elevated. Radnor noticed this direct correlation with the show: “As the show got more successful, I got more depressed.” (full speech link)

Radnor won’t get much sympathy as a beloved millionaire on a hit TV show, but let’s not dismiss his feelings. Radnor’s feelings are real, reasonable, and common in his situation. Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Now, to address the elephant in this conversation, of course everyone would rather cry in a mansion than in a cardboard box. But the truth is that great success makes people more susceptible to this phenomenon, and this phenomenon has a crucial lesson for all of us. It’s perhaps a lesson that we learn at different times, and at different levels.

It’s only when you start checking off all of your wildest dreams (as Carrey says) that you fully realize there’s no destination like you thought there’d be. You never arrive. Most of us don’t get to experience all of our wildest dreams, so we stay in this fantastical mindset of if only I had this, then I’d be happy.

The real answer to greater happiness lies elsewhere, and it applies to everyone, regardless of their status, fame, or fortune. 

Why A Varied Life of Contentment Is Best

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over this past year, it’s that life’s middle and low moments have a lot of value. They aren’t as fun as the highs—I spent hours in my bathroom today—but they make highs possible and more enjoyable. Think about it. You can’t have highs without lows or middles. Imagine a perfect life in which all you ever experienced were highs. They wouldn’t be highs anymore, they’d become normal. 

Update: The colonoscopy went well. No polyps either. And boy do I appreciate food now!

A good life has challenges. It involves hard work, play, and problems to solve. It has lows, middles, highs, and occasional colonoscopies (apparently). Together, this variety can weave a fabric of contentment if you so choose it. The lows keep you humble and off of the hedonic treadmill, and they not only make you appreciate the highs more, they make you appreciate the middle, where we spend most of our lives! For example, people eat every day and there’s nothing more ordinary than that, but I can assure you that fasting changes that dynamic. That’s relative happiness in a nutshell. Nutshell. Mmm… I want to eat pistachios now.

If you go without food for a day or two, you will appreciate your next meal at least twice as much!

The big takeaways are ideas that can serve you for the rest of your life. You can apply these instantly and anywhere. These are simply perspectives you may choose to adopt if you wish.

  1. Do not expect constant happiness. It will make you sadder than a person who doesn’t do so.
  2. Do not chase happiness too hard, because in the best case scenario, you’ll create a hedonic treadmill situation, which can only end in sadness (hopefully resetting your expectations).
  3. Do choose contentment or happiness when possible. This amounts to being grateful. You can appreciate the high without expecting or chasing more. This will keep you in a healthy place mentally.
  4. Learn to appreciate the struggles and challenges of life for how they keep you grounded, humble, and able to experience highs on a more profound level.

Every person’s life will have a different ratio of lows, middles, and highs. But I think the best perspective applies to all of us.

Rather than expect or chase a feeling that will come and go, simply do your best in life and appreciate the feeling of happiness when it’s there. It will come naturally and more often this way.

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