Happiness Is Not Sustainable - Accept It.

Now, what do I mean by that?

Well, the things is we treat happiness as a destination. Something to arrive to. Something to work towards. Something to struggle towards. 
‘When I get this new job and I will be happy’ .. actually, that is only half the sentence, the complete sentence is ‘When I get this new job, I will be happy, for a short period of time.’ 
Because that will become the new normal. The same principle applies to everything else.

“When I get this bigger house/car/salary/‘fill in the blank’ I will be happy”

Part of the human condition is that we adjust to any situation (negative or positive) fairly quickly and make that our base condition, our new normal, to base all comparison against. This is in essence what a hedonic treadmill is.

You essentially have a set level of happiness where you consistently remain. When good things happen (winning a lottery, getting a new job, a new house etc), that level of happiness can spike up and similarly when bad things happen, that level of happiness can dip down. After good and bad events in your life, you eventually return to your set level of happiness over a period of time — the amount of time is different for everyone and relevant to the event itself but everyone almost always returns to their base level sooner or later.

Think of alcohol or substance addiction, over time the body gets used to it and you need more and more to get the same hit or high. Same is the case with happiness — you require more and more over time to feel ‘happy’. However, understanding how the hedonic treadmill operates in your life can make you experience the world more positively.

We can’t always keep on increasing our levels of happiness, so, what do you do about it?

Do not strive for happiness.

As Jordan Peterson has pointed out over and over — Do not strive for happiness.

Happiness is usually a consequence or an unintended outcome of certain events. In some of the best moments of your life, you were not actively pursuing happiness but rather a goal, target, or an intention. Happiness was a (positive) side effect of completing the said goal. 
Happiness is not something to chase or something out there to find. It is instead, a state of mind and a state of being. 
Ultimately, happiness is a choice.

More often than not, we don’t know what will make us happy in the long run and what we think will give us lasting happiness usually doesn’t. Needless to say, that is pretty ironic for us to not know what will make us happy while happiness is the one thing we claim to pursue. We are very bad at predicting our own future happiness. Therefore, bad at making decisions based on such predictions in pursuit of that happiness.

I will give you a minute (or two) to re-read that paragraph.

Why do we constantly want more?

There is, almost always, a base layer of emotion and need underneath all the surface level, ‘superficial’ desires; a bigger house, bigger salary, fame, status etc. This is in part the reason why the hedonic treadmill works because we don’t actually know what we truly want as we are not always in tune with our true desires and nature. Often the base desire is a need for security or wanting to grasp at permanence or creating certainty in our lives. 
Yes, we indeed need a base layer of security and comfort, but the root cause for this insatiable desire of wanting more and more is nothing more than insecurity and uncertainty. (Read my post on letting go of stuff for better insight into this)

So, it is important to understand the base layer emotions and then understand what will actually make you happy — not the things culture and society says will make you happy eg: a bigger house, faster car, bigger salary etc.

  1. So, the first step is to get in touch with your true nature and desires so you can know what will truly make you happy. Happiness is personalised and not one size fits all.
  2. And, in order to get in touch with your true nature and desires, you need to spend time with yourself, introspect and find what your own core values and priority.
  3. Once you know what it is that promises to make you happy — chase it. If you don’t go after what you want — it will not come to you. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. Go out and make it happen.
  4. Repeat this process as often as needed. Remember, with time your priority and your needs change and so does your personality. So, whatever it is that is making you happy today might not do so in three years from now.

Getting off the hedonic treadmill

Some of the best ways to get off the hedonic treadmill and stoping the obsessive, insatiable need for more:

Ground yourself in the present

We plan for the future and often regret or reminisce the past. The present, however, is the only real moment that we ever have — Naimat Ahmed

(quoting myself in my own post — how meta)

This seems meaningful on a theoretical level, however, if you manage to internalise this and make it practical — it is life-altering. Learn to ground yourself in the present moment by training your awareness via meditation and spending time with yourself in solitude. The strategy to help ground you in the present moment involves the following:

  • Notice when you are getting caught up in thoughts about the future or the past
  • Stop what you’re doing and in your head name 3 things you can hear.
  • Take a look at the space around you and name 3 things you can see.
  • Name 3 things you can feel or touch. It might be your feet on the floor or the clothing against your skin, etc.

Be grateful for what you have

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” Need I say more? 
The more grateful you are for the things you already have in your life, over time, the less you will need. Gratitude is one of the best practices you can build for yourself. I advise you get a gratitude journal and start writing in it every day/night.

Make time for high-quality leisure

As Cal Newport has pointed out in his book Digital Minimalism– Make time for high-quality leisure. Intentional hobbies

Intentional activities like writing, playing music, creating art, or practising a sport have been known to prolong feelings of emotional satisfaction. Many people also derive satisfaction from endeavours like volunteering and charity work.

Find meaning & purpose in your life

If there is one thing that I would classify as the most important thing to identify and know in life is — the purpose or meaning of your life (Read my detailed post about this subject here). Again, there is no one size fit all and this is a highly personalised thing.

And again I echo Jordan Peterson’s words, don’t strive for happiness. Strive to be of value by finding a purpose and a meaning in your life. Create value not only for others but also for yourself.