Productivity Fast Company

Why Chasing After Happiness Is Making You Unhappy


Jane Porter

April 28, 2014

How many times have you been ecstatic about a job, relationship, or situation in your life, then found yourself, only months later, feeling indifferent or even disappointed in that same scenario?

Can it be possible that your happiness ran out?

Sort of.

Psychologists have a term for this: the “hedonic treadmill,” or “hedonic adaptation,” a concept that looks at humans as each having a set point or constant level at which they maintain their happiness, regardless of what happens in their lives. It’s the theory behind the study showing that lottery winners aren’t any happier a year after winning the lotto than paraplegics are a year after losing their legs.

Strive for unrealistic or vague goals and you’ll have a greater likelihood of being disappointed.

Turns out, happiness is relative. According to Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, human beings have a “psychological immune system” that helps us adapt our views of the world so we can feel better about it.

Gilbert distinguishes this kind of happiness as “synthetic happiness”–the kind we make–verses “natural happiness.” “Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as if you were to get exactly what you were hoping for,” Gilbert said in his popular TED talk on the topic.

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness

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But according to a recent study by researchers from Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Houston, chasing happiness can actually make you less happy. The reason? People are often wrong about what they think will make them happy.

Still, the study found that individuals who went after specific goals that concretely helped others were able to achieve and maintain greater happiness. Setting specific vs. vague goals would be like the difference between wanting to recycle vs. wanting to save the environment. Strive for unrealistic or vague goals and you’ll have a greater likelihood of being disappointed.

And how about not letting that happy feeling slip once you’ve gotten there? Psychologists and happiness experts, Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky have developed a two-part model for staying happier longer:

  1. Keep appreciating what you’ve got.
  2. Introduce some variety into your life.

Remind yourself what it was you loved so much when you felt that first jolt of happiness. And shake things up a bit so you don’t get bored with what you’ve got.

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