Cultivating Happiness

A Column on the Importance of Being Happy—Now:

“Last month, we began our quest to cultivate immoderate happiness by discussing why happiness is a worthwhile goal—especially for healthcare providers. Today, let’s talk about the first step in boosting happiness: understanding that it comes from within.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ll be happy when…” and then completed that sentence with some set of future circumstances, like, “...when I’m my own boss,” “...when I pay off these loans,” or “...when work slows down?” While it may sound totally reasonable to assume that happiness will follow the attainment of some future state, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, we humans are pretty darn terrible at predicting what’s going to make us happy. And the real trouble is, we think we’re great at it. According to psychologist and happiness expert Dan Gilbert, a year after John wins the lottery and Jane becomes a paraplegic, they are equally happy with their lives. It’s true. And it’s totally counterintuitive.

So what gives? Why do we think we know what’s good for us, when we really don’t have a clue? According to Gilbert, our understanding of happiness is all wrong: “...our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing...” We can create happiness—regardless of our external circumstances. And this “synthesized happiness” is just as real as what we like to think of as “natural happiness”—the happiness that occurs as a result of getting what we think we want. In other words, happiness (and the lack thereof) is all in our heads.

That’s why once we hit the milestone we thought would most certainly bring us joy, we find another one upon which to fixate. As psychologist Shawn Anchor says: “Every time your brain has a success, you just change the goal post of what success looks like. You got a good job, now you have to get a better job. You hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.” But there’s a better way. Instead of living in a constant state of sitting, waiting, wishing to find happiness outside of ourselves, we can tap into our capacity to synthesize happiness right now—no matter what is going on around us.

Gilbert talks about our “experience simulators”—our ability to play out entire events in our minds, before ever experiencing them in real life. It’s this same virtual reality mechanism that lets us choose the experiences we wish to focus on and milk them for all the positive emotions we can get. So what feels better to focus on: what you don’t have yet or what you do? Try this: quiet your mind and think of something you really wish you had, something you feel is particularly lacking from your life right now, something you might be tempted to place in the I’ll-be-happy-when category. Focus on it for a few more seconds. How does it feel to think that thought? Good? Doubtful. Anxiety-inducing? Likely. Now focus on something you do have—your loyal dog, the ability to move, patients who love you, steady employment, a roof over your head—whatever resonates with you. Sit with that for a few more seconds. Feel better? It should.

By focusing on the good things in our life—and not what’s missing—we can actually improve our levels of happiness. And if we do this enough, we’ll retrain our neural network, so we naturally find the good in life, without even having to try...”

(Note: All source links have been removed.)