Or not! Science has pretty much established that your circumstances are not very relevant to your happiness. The impact is not zero, but decades of research have shown that only about 10% of your happiness level is determined by external circumstances.
The reason is something called hedonic adaptation. In short, that simply means when our circumstances change, for good or bad, we fairly quickly adjust to those new circumstances. Any bump in happiness is temporary. Once you get that bigger house, that fancier car, more free time, or whatever, you will soon be needing a new fix. An even bigger house, and even more luxurious car, something to do with your time, etc. My home and cars are certainly bigger and more luxurious than they used to be and it didn’t take me long to get used to them. They are now my baseline. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we also adjust when bad things happen. One study showed dialysis patients are just as happy as healthy people. That one just blows my mind. I have to believe that there is some level of deprivation or abuse that would contribute to unhappiness, but evidently within an extremely broad range of what we would refer to as normal, it doesn’t matter very much.
“One of the great ironies of our quest to become happier is that so many of us focus on changing the circumstances of our lives in the misguided hope that those changes will deliver happiness. In an attempt to allay unhappiness, a recent college graduate may choose a high-paying job in a distant city, a middle-aged divorcee may undergo beautifying cosmetic surgery, or a retired couple may buy a condominium with a view. Unfortunately, all these individuals will likely become only temporarily happier. An impressive body of research now shows that trying to be happy by changing our life situations will ultimately not work.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky
While I intellectually accept the strong scientific evidence, it just seems so counter-intuitive that the effect of changes in circumstances could be that weak. It seems that if my income doubles or if I moved to a beautiful beach house, I would be happier. It seems clear to my intuitive self that if I was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down, I would be unhappy. Maybe so, but the evidence is clear that in those cases and others most everyone adapts and returns to their basic happiness set point relatively quickly. You may disagree, but I’ve been convinced by the evidence.
Still, I’m not sure I have completely internalized that belief. Have you? Somewhere deep down inside my feeling self, I still am having those “if only” thoughts. If only this or that were the case then things would be better. Maybe that’s just human nature. I don’t really know. It’s so damn hard sometimes to follow your own advice.
This article may have seemed negative, but that was not my intent. It’s extremely important that we know what not to do. It’s critical to understand what does not work. The path to happiness is becoming much clearer and it is no longer just a subject for speculation by philosophers. Science is showing us the way. You may consider that presumptuous, but I believe it to be true.
Does all this mean we shouldn’t try to improve our circumstances? No it doesn’t. However, we better be prepared for what we are getting when we succeed in doing so. It’s not likely to be happiness unless there is some deeper meaning to what you are doing. But in that case, what brings you happiness then is not your circumstances. It is your actions, attitudes, and values.
I’m much happier than I was a year ago and it is the result of simply changing the way I think. It came from the inside. I can say that over and over and you can agree with it over and over, but unless you really internalize and accept the fact that your circumstances don’t matter much, you are never going to find the happiness you desperately seek.
There is nothing “missing” in your circumstances.
“You overlook what is already ‘here’ as you chase after ‘there’; you miss the ‘sacred now’ as you ponder your ‘next step’; you forget to be grateful for what ‘is’ as you prey after ‘more’. You search, struggle, and strive, but you never arrive because you can’t get past the thought that something is missing.” — Robert Holden
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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