How should we pursue happiness?

In an article he wrote about his documentary film, “Happy” (2011), Roko Belic discusses that he was inspired to make it by his friend and highly successful Hollywood filmmaker, Tom Shadyac. Shadyac had observed that the millionaire film stars and producers he worked with on a daily basis often seemed to be much less happy than his housekeeper and his gardener. Shadyac’s observation flies in the face of what society tells us we need in order to be happy. After all, if film stars who enjoy high status, enormous wealth and conventional good looks find it so difficult to be happy, surely “ordinary” people must find it almost impossible?

Such an observation would strongly suggest that society encourages us to look in all the wrong places to find happiness. For example, western society places a heavy emphasis on acquiring material possessions. Every day our senses are deluged with advertising that conditions us to think that the path to happiness and contentment is through the things we own. And to buy more and more possessions, we obviously need money: something society also tells us we need a great deal of in order to be happy. However, after the initial excitement of buying the latest “toy” or shiny new possession, the thrill quickly begins to wear off and we soon start to look elsewhere for a new object of desire. This is something the majority of us are pretty familiar with, and psychologists have termed this phenomenon “hedonic adaptation”.

During the making of his documentary, Belic spoke to many psychologists who had studied the factors which affect people’s happiness levels. A leading researcher, Ed Diener, told Belic that he had consistently found that “a person’s values are among the best predictors of their happiness. People who value money, power, fame and good looks are less likely to be happy than people who value compassion, cooperation and a willingness to make the world a better place.”

The findings of these studies strongly contradict society’s ideas of how to find happiness. In his book “Resilient”, the psychologist Rick Hanson proposes that without certain mental resources such as determination, self-worth and kindness, we won’t be resilient to life’s inevitable challenges, or to our frustrations and negative thoughts. He tells us that resilience is what fosters wellbeing and promotes an underlying sense of love, peace and happiness within us.

Hanson’s ideas and the findings of happiness studies tell us that creating favourable external conditions in our lives isn’t enough, or even necessary: we also require a particular set of psychological skills and values. These ideas go a long way in explaining why many people who meet society’s “happiness” conditions still find it elusive, and despite their wealth, fame, beauty and high status, they can still feel miserable.

What exactly do we mean by “happiness” anyway?

The film “Happy” ‘s central ideas are that our commonly-held concept of happiness is flawed and that instead, non-material things (like our values) hold the key. This is echoed by the meaning that, for example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy( Or ACT) attributes to happiness: that it is about “living a rich and meaningful life”. In contrast, the word “happiness” is often taken to mean “feeling good”, or, to be more specific, to experience feelings such as gratification, pleasure or joy. While things like money, success and fame may certainly bring about many of these positive feelings in the short term, many people who have attained these admit that they are unable to find happiness in the long-term.

However, feeling good is usually temporary in duration, and trying to hold on to this sensation often leads to experiencing emotions that are the opposite of happiness. For example, having a glass or two of wine or beer can produce very pleasant feelings, but trying to maintain these feelings by drinking many more is likely to make us feel melancholy and unwell.

Take a few moments to reflect on any positive experiences you’ve had in your life that made you feel good and produced pleasant sensations, such as going on holiday to an exotic location or buying a new car. How long did these effects last? Would you say that they brought you a long-term sense of vitality?

Now take a few moments to reflect on something that you achieved at some point in your life, such as completing a degree or other qualification, or giving a theatrical performance. How long did these effects last? Did they bring a long-term sense of vitality (despite having the deal with negative feelings like anxiety and stress)? How does this compare with your reflections on your positive experience?

An alternative concept of happiness is the one we just mentioned: “living a rich, full and meaningful life”. When we re-evaluate society’s idea that happiness is a by-product of money and success (which it insists will make us feel good) and look at examples of people who have little of these things yet still seem happy, we may come to the conclusion that this notion is flawed. As Diener said, people usually experience happiness when they live in accordance with their values.

Logically it is impossible to feel good constantly as everyone experiences sadness, rejection, illness and death at some point in their lives, and so it is futile to expect that we should only experience positive feelings. In life, we all experience pain of some kind, and although pain is unavoidable, the good news is that we can learn how to manage it effectively.

What we should do is create a rich, full and meaningful life by living according to our values while cultivating mindfulness skills alongside the experiences of pain and suffering. While it is completely natural to pursue experiences that generate positive emotions (and we should, of course, enjoy things that make us feel good), we should not expect to feel happy all the time, as this is an unrealistic expectation that creates a vicious cycle. Expecting to be happy all the time, ironically, causes us to experience more negative emotions such as frustration and disappointment. After all, the human mind has been shaped by evolution to maximise our chances of survival and not to give us lasting fulfilment.

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