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The necessary transience of happiness

The happiness industry is booming, yet few of us are happier. Why not?

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Public Domain.

When sociologists look back on my generation they might well view happiness as the defining cultural issue of the times. Governments monitor our levels of happiness, universities fund whole departments to research it, and the world’s largest companies including Google employ ‘happiness gurus’ to proselytise to their employees. We trade smiling emojis with each other on social networks, walk past billboards encouraging us to “#choosehappiness,” and spend over one billion dollars a year on self-help books. Put simply, we’re obsessed: get happy or die trying.

As the historian Darrin McMahon writes, happiness “is the last great organizing principle of life. We no longer live our lives according to beauty or honor or virtue, we want to live in order to be happy”—with happiness invariably described as an individualistic endeavour to be achieved through self-help, self-care or materialistic selfishness.

But this obsession with happiness clearly isn’t working. Sixty years of human progress and huge increases in GDP have barely touched the life satisfaction scores of most people in higher-income countries. For example, the United States’ General Social Survey shows almost no change in levels of general happiness since records began in 1972.

On an individual level happiness is also remarkably inflexible. Births, marriages, deaths, promotions and demotions do have transient effects on self-reported happiness scores, but they typically return to previous levels after six months or so. While chronic deprivation affects life satisfaction significantly, happiness has a marked resilience to most other life events. Why is this?

According to Oxford University researcher Michael Plant, the reason is something called ‘hedonic adaptation’—the tendency to return to stable levels of happiness after most life events. “We are extraordinarily good at getting used to things” he says, “such that very few events in life have a long-term impact on our happiness. If you don’t believe me, think how annoyed you get when the WiFi doesn’t work, then consider that humanity existed quite happily without it for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Hedonic adaptation is a well-known psychological phenomenon that has been proven by studies analysing the experiences of lottery winners and those who have experienced disabling accidents. Yet this evidence remains counter-intuitive for most of us. No matter how many studies are cited, we continue to seek gratification through individual wealth, ambition and good health, in fierce denial of the futility of our actions.

The happiness industry suggests that—if only we could adapt our environment, perhaps by finding a new job or entering a new relationship—we could achieve more happiness. Yet the evidence shows that we can’t, and evolutionary psychology reveals why. Rather than an individualistic commodity that can be achieved or accumulated like home ownership or a job promotion, happiness is evolution’s chief motivator. Designed to promote a range of behaviours associated with increased survival, the motivational purpose of happiness is revealed by its tendency to dissipate soon after the achievements it inspires. That’s why the ideal of constant euphoria marketed by the happiness industry is impossible: it flies in the face of the physiological basis of happiness itself.

Why else would we put such thought, effort and care into our own futures if not for the promise of happiness? Just like an addict longing for another dose of drugs, hedonic adaptation leaves us forever chasing greater happiness—and crafting a future that searches for but never finds it. The transience of happiness is completely unremarkable in this sense; evolution cares only for our survival, not our experience of surviving.

What is most surprising about the evolutionary mechanism of hedonic adaptation is how skilfully it has been co-opted by the powerful in society. Our economies depend on that elusive promise of happiness, which also provides companies with industrious employees. Governments promote home ownership, ensuring that people take out mortgages and other debts, which helps to guarantee an obedient workforce who must pay them off. Even social traditions like marriage have their roots in the illusion of utopian happiness, despite being criticised for upholding patriarchal attitudes. In a social Darwinist world, it is the most ruthless who take advantage of these evolutionary myths. What then, can we do?

Before making a diagnosis, a good psychiatrist always asks for a patient’s own thoughts and perspectives of their symptoms. When diagnosing a patient with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example, particular attention is paid to the level of distress a patient attributes to their obsessive thoughts. It’s an introspective and reflective approach common in the management of mental health conditions, derived from the principle that the guiding factor for intervention should be a patient’s own experience of their condition.

The approach of the happiness industry couldn’t be more different. Rather than asking whether individuals are comfortable with their own melancholy, we are bombarded with indiscriminate campaigns which tell us that such feelings are unhealthy, unnecessary and undesirable. Last year a group of psychologists at the University of Melbourne in Australia set out to investigate whether such an approach was helpful. What if campaigns encouraging us to perfect our experiences were actually making our lives less pleasurable? 

The researchers encouraged over 100 participants to document how they felt in a daily diary for a month, as well as how much social pressure they experienced urging them not to feel too ‘down.’ Interestingly, the researchers identified a measurable relationship between the two; more social pressure not to feel depressed reliably predicted increased symptoms of depression the following day.

Having identified this correlation, the team investigated further. What if the social environment which pressures a person to be happy could be recreated in order to monitor its effects? To test this hypothesis the researchers separated participants into two groups; one to undertake a series of tasks in a “happy room” decorated with motivational posters and positive imagery; and the other to perform a series of tasks in a room that was plain. It turned out that the “happy room” group were three times more likely to ruminate over the tasks they failed to accomplish, and that was associated with a higher rate of depressive symptoms.

This research is far from conclusive, but it should serve as a warning: our cultural obsession with happiness risks transforming society into a place intolerable to melancholy, where we are made to feel as though our lives are failing if we aren’t happy all the time—a scaled-up version of that “happy room.” Meanwhile, the happiness industry continues to sell us the biological lie that a constant state of happiness is actually achievable, which achieves nothing but addiction to the happiness industry itself and its products.

We often think of our lives as going somewhere. The structures we’re taught from an early age—in which we graduate from one class to the next and then on to high school and university—provide us with a framework through which we approach other areas of life. Hence we progress from renting to home ownership, dating to marriage and work to retirement. Yet with each of these supposed achievements, hedonic adaptation returns us to the beginning, and we are left yearning once more for that illusory utopia of constant happiness.

That is, until we realise that life has passed us by. Nearing the end of his own life, the philosopher Alan Watts described this flawed way of thinking:

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end. Success, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”

Contemporary analyses of happiness are consistent with Watt’s decades-old lesson. “If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts,” says Michael Plant. “We try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house. A few of us think about trying to spend less time working. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think.”

Plant recommends mindfulness-based stress reduction, a technique which “helps people accept, rather than fight, negative emotions and so reduce the suffering they cause.” The principle isn’t to fetishize happiness but almost to ignore it completely, encouraging people to enjoy the present regardless of whether it can be classified as ‘truly happy.’ Strategies include meditation, muscle relaxation and non-judgemental awareness of daily life.

Such techniques have been criticised for seemingly ignoring injustice and encouraging people to ‘think their way out of’ oppression. These are important concerns, but we should be equally wary of the ways in which capitalist societies use the concept of happiness for their own ends. By selling a myth about the nature of happiness, capitalism creates atomistically-ambitious but socially-obedient individuals who can be distracted from collective values and aspirations.

The risk is not only that social ties are weakened but that individuals are permanently dissatisfied. If we are encouraged to pursue a vision of constant, utopian happiness, we may begin to approach moments of transient happiness with entitlement rather than gratitude, regardless of our relative fortunes. Our joyful experiences may then come to be viewed as glimpses of what should be achieved permanently rather than precious moments to cherish for their own merit.

To return to Alan Watts, the solution might be to move away from the analogy of life as a pilgrimage towards something very different: life is best understood as a piece of music, and a beautiful one at that. Why would we want to wish it away in the hope of one spectacular note at the end?

About the author

George Gillett is a freelance writer and a student doctor at the University of Oxford. He has written for Salon, the New Statesman and the Spectator. Visit his Blog at www.georgegillett.com and follow him on Twitter @george_gillett


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