The things that you think will make you happy won’t make you happy

by Jack on May 2010

We all want happiness. We all have a picture in our minds of what we can do in order to become and/or stay happy. We are all mostly wrong about this.

“Stuff”

Most of us feel a rush of pleasure when we buy something new – a piece of clothing, an electronic gadget, or some other consumer toy. This feeling can be especially powerful when we purchase something really significant, like a car or a place to live.

However, the principle of hedonic adaptation means that new things in our lives lose their luster very quickly. That powerful sports car that was such a pleasure to drive for the first couple of months, becomes a functional old machine to take us from home, to work, to the supermarket, and back. That flat screen television that blew our minds the first time we watched a football game on it (“I could see every blade of grass!“) becomes pretty ordinary when we look at it from eight to midnight every night for the next year. That great view from our apartment that we couldn’t stop staring at for the first couple of days, becomes pretty familiar after the 250th day of living there (strangely, however, the rent or mortgage remains the same :)).

So we grow accustomed to the new things in our lives, and they don’t seem so exciting when they aren’t new any more. Not very profound, right? No big deal? Actually, it is a very big deal, depending on how we react to this phenomenon.

There are essentially two ways that we can react to this understanding.

The first (which I strongly discourage) is to get on the so-called hedonic treadmill, and to rapidly replace the things in our lives so as to keep everything we own as brand new as possible, subject to our income and credit limits. This is the path of the extreme consumer, who derives the most pleasure in life from having the newest of everything.

The second way is to recognize that material things are just tools that we can use to enhance our lives, and to treat them as such. A car is a useful tool that performs certain tasks for us, and we can use the same one for five or ten years, instead of just one or two. We treat a television, computer, or other consumer gadget in the same way – use it as a tool, but don’t get addicted to that exciting rush of new toy adrenaline.

Obviously, I encourage the second approach. This doesn’t mean that we can’t derive pleasure from the things we own. On the contrary, knowing that we aren’t planning to replace our “stuff” means that we can appreciate and enjoy it all the more, over a longer period of time.

For example, I’m typing this article on a three-year old computer that has served me well. I’ve operated it for hundreds of hours, and I am very grateful for the utility it has given me. It meets my current needs. While I look at newer machines with better features, and recognize the potential benefits of upgrading, to do so is simply not a priority for me now. I feel fortunate that I am not living on the hedonic treadmill.

We don’t have to renounce our material wishes, take vows of poverty, and move to caves. At the same time, by putting material things in their place – as our inanimate servants, to be picked up, used, and put down when we are finished with them – we can reassert a position of power over our “stuff”. We can recognize that seeking happiness, salvation, and meaning in our possessions will inevitably fail.

Experiences

Recent research suggests that spending money on interesting experiences helps to generate deeper and more lasting happiness than spending money on “stuff”.

Experiences are ephemeral and leave only memories, whereas things stay around, and invite comparison, which is known to reduce our happiness. It’s easy to compare our new mobile phone to the better one that our friend bought, or to the same model at half the price six months later, and to feel disappointed about it. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to quantitatively compare our trip to Costa Rica to our friend’s trip to Italy in a meaningful way – they are intrinsically different experiences.

Additionally, experiences tend to involve social connections to other people, which research also shows to be an important factor in increased happiness.

A somewhat “spiritual” explanation of the observed superiority of experiences over things, in terms of producing happiness per dollar spent, is as follows: we have been taught by the Buddha and other enlightened masters that attachment to transient things in the world of form will inevitably create suffering in our lives. However, it’s less obvious that the material things we acquire are illusory – because they persist and stay with us for a time. Therefore, they give the false appearance of permanence, and thus begin to teach their “owner” the wrong things. On the other hand, experiences come and go, and turn into memories, and it’s much harder for us to become as strongly attached to them as we do to our possessions.

In other words, experiences are simply more aligned with the true nature of the world we live in, which is a world of constant change and ephemerality. Conversely, our material things lie to us and promise permanence where none exists.

Of course, it’s important for us to recognize the essential transience of our experiences too, and to avoid clinging too strongly to our memories of past experiences. Living in our memories – in the past – is clinging just as surely as attaching to the material things in our lives. 🙂

Inner purpose vs. outer purpose

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we nevertheless continue to believe that the things we crave will contribute to lasting happiness.

But what if we could create that state of happiness and well being without having those things? What if we could take simple actions right now that would create an inner state of peace and well-being? Most likely, we wouldn’t feel the need to chase after so many things.

When our inner purpose is not satisfied, then we may start to take the outer purpose is very seriously indeed. In this case, we will perceive that the outer purpose – that is, the temporary game in the ephemeral world of form – is all there is. We may therefore feel like we need to succeed in our outer purpose, in order to feel happiness, because we do not feel fulfilled through our inner purpose. This feeling, unexamined, is typically a fast road to the hedonic treadmill, where we paper over inner emptiness with outer success.

However, when we live in alignment with our inner purpose, then the outer purpose is a game that we can play for fun. We can simply enjoy the game and not take “winning” or “losing” personally, because we are fulfilled from our inner purpose, and recognize the transience of the game itself.

This is one of the key reasons why identifying our inner purpose is so important.

So what will actually make us happy?

Apart from identifying and living in alignment with our inner purpose, what practical actions can we take to actually help us feel happier day by day? Based on the summarized results of a research paper [1] from James Montier, an investment expert and behavioral psychologist, I can make the following suggestions:

  1. Exercise, connect with friends, have sex, sleep, and be grateful. A lot. Seriously, do all of these things as much as you can! (although perhaps not all at the same time :))
  2. Find work that you love and are good at, or are able to become good at. (This will almost certainly be aligned in some way with your inner purpose.)
  3. Live in and enjoy the moment, and make nothing a means to an end. (A regular practice of meditation can you help do this.)
  4. Take responsibility for your life, and set achievable goals.
  5. Don’t worry too much about getting rich – more income and wealth don’t greatly increase your happiness level, once you have reached a basic level of comfort appropriate to the community around you.

These may sound somewhat like clichés, but profound truths often do. While simple, this list of habits is a true blueprint for better living. And practicing these habits to the best of our abilities can help us to grow happier over time.

[1] the full paper is found here

--


If you enjoyed reading this article...

1. Please get my premium personal development tips here, featuring special content not published on the blog.

2. Please follow the thirtytwothousanddays RSS feed here for up-to-date, practical, and inspiring resources that will put you on the fast track to personal growth and happiness.

3. Please follow me on Twitter here.

4. Please share this article with a friend, or anyone else you think could use a little extra peace and happiness today! 🙂 Share/Bookmark

Thank you!

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew May 21, 2010 at 12:11

I love point number 1. I might write it out and put it on my wall or something ^^

Reply

Jack May 21, 2010 at 12:28

Thanks Andrew! – I thought it was a reasonable condensation of the “specific actions” that we could practice, that I could identify from Montier’s paper. 🙂

Reply

Richard May 25, 2010 at 08:10

Really interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Lots to think about 😀

Reply

Sarah February 19, 2012 at 06:32

Hi,
Your words are relevant for a pretty normal life in which the only predicament is its sheer boredom. What about when life gets so unbearable? when you have lost what you thought was the most important thing in your life and you desperately try to find peace! not only for being happy but for being survived!
I don’t mean to discourage you, actually what you are doing is very nice :-). I used to be so cool and optimistic about anything , but now I feel like a fool who can not decide what to do with her life. Maybe it’s a passing stage! I’m trying so hard to get well that’s why I joined your blog!
Sorry for my bitter words…
Anyway, I’m in Iran ( the opposite side of the world) and I’m planning to join some spiritual communities in here but taking part in them is not an easy task. I think most of the approaches to spirituality have some shared core. Since I’m not an easy believer I prefer to stick to the shared features! I used to be a totally atheist, but recently I need something to give me some inner peace which I can’t find in religions. Actually I’m trying anything that promises peace and happiness, so I joined this blog! 😀

Reply

Jack February 20, 2012 at 13:50

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your comment and for signing up! What you describe actually something that I have spent a while trying to figure out – when things are ‘OK’, it’s easier to be spiritual and balanced, but “when things fall apart” that is when your spiritual practice and habits are really put to the test. (When things fall apart is actually the title of a book of Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödron.)

What are we to make of terrible things happening and how do we integrate the reality of them into our lives without becoming bitter or cynical? I am sure most Buddhist or mindfulness teachers would remind us of the impermanence of things, and to let go of our attachment to those impermanent things. Of course, that answer takes five seconds to speak and possibly a lifetime (or perhaps multiple lifetimes) to master. Not easy, but a worthy path to follow, is how I look at it.

Thanks again for reading!

Reply

Sarah February 21, 2012 at 03:38

Dear Jack,
Your words are really inspiring maybe that’s because you believe in what you say! By the way, thanks for your comment cuz you could have ignored it. I’m reading lots of books these days due to my vulnerable situation and I came to a conclusion: I laugh a lot and make people laugh too and may be I seem so happy from the outside but I’m a little owl inside which tries so hard to be wise! I’ve always tried to be realistic but now I think all these unwanted happenings in my life is resulted of my being realistic!
I’m looking forward to receive more from this blog 🙂

Reply

Jack February 28, 2012 at 22:13

Thanks Sarah! I appreciate your kind words and hope that you will continue reading – both my blog and other books, whatever helps you best in your own situation.

Reply

mbt women&s habari casual sandal August 16, 2015 at 00:15
mbt tembea women shoes in white October 17, 2015 at 21:16

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post:

Share/Bookmark