Picture this: It’s the year 10,000 B.C. The sun is just rising.
You wake up to the sounds of rustling nearby. A few people sharpen their spears as they discuss the upcoming hunt. After downing a few gulps of water and some dried meat, you collect your supplies in a bag for the day.
You go out hiking with a few close relatives and friends to a berry patch. As you pick the ripest berries and place them in your basket, you overhear a funny story that your cousin shares about a conversation that morning. Laughter erupts.
The day carries on, dragging the sun along the sky. Beads of sweat accumulate on your forehead while your basket grows heavier. Finally, you hear a call from a fellow forager. It’s time to head back.
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When you arrive at the cave, you see a fire has been set up. As the winds pick up and the sun rests on the horizon, you huddle close by the fire. While the evening meal is prepared, you listen and share stories on the latest hunt.
A dinner of roasted mammoth, berries, and leeks is served. Surrounded by your family and friends, you talk about the upcoming journey south as winter approaches and share survival strategies.
Eventually, night closes in. The fire gives way to glowing embers. After another tiring yet satisfying day, you curl up in your corner in the cave and drift asleep.
At what point would the concept of happiness enter your head? Were we happier a few millennia ago than we are in the present day?
We Should Be Happier Today, But We’re Not
By contrast, we should be happier today. We have TVs, metal devices that transport us from one place to another and access to clean water and food from all over the world. When we learn about diseases and medical treatments from the past, we cringe at the thought of plagues, bloodletting, and leeches, thankful that we have things so much better today.
But if things are so much better now, are we much happier than we were then?
The other day, I was involved in a discussion on what it means to be happy. There were a variety of responses on the topic. People said things such as:
- “If I could get whatever I wanted, I would be happy.”
- “Happiness is about having a balance of work, family, friends, and health.”
- “Mindset is the key to happiness.”
All of these explanations make sense on the surface. It seems that happiness is centered on getting what we want, having a positive mental state, or both. And yet, while all these ideas sound great in theory, the reality is starkly different.
- There are some people with great jobs that “should” be happy, but aren’t.
- If the recipe to happiness is having a great balance of work, family, and health, why do people with all this feel bored and dissatisfied?
- Mindset is important, to be sure. But if happiness is simply a choice, like an on/off switch in the room, why can’t people make themselves happy?
The concept of happiness involves more than simply thinking your way towards it. And as society continues to evolve, things only get more complicated. Happiness, in the midst of all this, seems to move farther away.
Why is that? Why is it that, despite the fact we have more conveniences, technology, and options than ever before, so many of us are unhappy or even depressed?
Enter the Hedonic Treadmill
There’s a concept called the hedonic treadmill. It states that humans have a tendency to revert to a baseline level of happiness despite the positive or negative events that occur in their lives.
Let’s look at this concept on a large scale. In society, advancements are made as time progresses. Electronic devices get smaller, machines become more productive, and we become more efficient as we discover new techniques and enhanced methodologies. Yet, when it comes to happiness, those improvements are also a double-edged sword.
After a while, we get used to those levels of technology, healthcare, and productivity. We adapt. When conditions go up, so do our expectations. Unfortunately, those increased expectations leave us dissatisfied and wanting more.
In our personal lives, we also run a hedonic treadmill to nowhere. We want things, and when we get them, we experience a small spike in excitement. But before long, we return to our baseline happiness level. Like a hamster turning a wheel, we’re perpetually fixed in a never-ending cycle.
A study was performed that looked at the happiness levels of two very different groups of people: recent lottery winners and accident victims that were left paraplegic. They were also compared to a control group consisting of an ordinary sample of people. While we might expect the lottery winners to be incredibly happy and the victims to be devastated, the results showed something else.
Lottery winners rated the pleasure of everyday activities, such as hearing a joke, eating breakfast, or reading a magazine, as no higher than the control group. Accident victims, on the other hand, weren’t as unhappy as one might expect. If anything, they rated slightly higher than lottery winners in the pleasure they felt from mundane activities.
Although the lottery winners rated higher in present happiness than accident victims, the victims’ happiness levels were still higher than the midpoint of the happiness scale. The study also predicted that the effects of any significant event, whether positive or negative, would wear off with time. If anything, winning the lottery created a contrast effect in which nothing could ever measure up, making everything else from then on less enjoyable.
In what is known as affective forecasting, we like to predict how we’ll feel about something in the future. Unfortunately, our predictions are wildly wrong. We’re generally terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
We believe attaining something will give us lasting happiness, when others who get what we wanted are no happier in the long run. Or, we think we want one thing if put in a certain situation, but when we’re actually there, we want something completely different.
When you combine our inability to recognize what we really want and tendency to adapt, it’s no surprise we’re never quite satisfied.
Seeking Happiness No Matter the Conditions
Happiness is more than simply the circumstances we’re in. No matter our conditions, we tend to acclimatize to just about anything if given enough time.
On one hand, getting used to our circumstances can be a positive. Something unfortunate happens, we’re temporarily devastated, but then we gradually revert back to life as usual. On the other hand, that same tendency can leave us dissatisfied. While we might feel on top of the world after reaching a milestone, our initial excitement wanes and we’re left wanting more.
So how can we reach happiness, regardless of our current state and situation? Here are three ways:
1. Redefine happiness
Happiness is associated with broad smiles, arms raised in celebration, and a general feeling of euphoria. When a positive outcome occurs, such as winning a competition or finally getting that promotion, you think, “I’m really happy.” After a while, it’s back to the grind. Your happiness disappears.
This is the modern state of happiness. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to change your perception. The problem with thinking about happiness as an emotion is that it’s a temporary state. It doesn’t last. Instead, think of happiness as a way of life, a way of living.
For example, happiness isn’t about painting a masterpiece. Happiness is about painting in the first place. Happiness isn’t about receiving recognition for good deeds. Happiness is about helping others in the first place.
When you shift the way you see happiness, you also shift your perception of everyday life. Happiness isn’t about reaching the end goal because happiness is the end goal.
2. Seek new experiences
They say money can buy happiness. Well, sort of.
Research has shown that when given a choice, you’re better off buying experiences rather than objects. Objects provide that rush of excitement for only a brief period. Then we adapt. The object, no matter how unique, how shiny, how lavish, eventually loses its luster.
Experiences, however, are temporary by nature. So, you soak up those moments and make the most of it because you know it won’t last (leaving only fond memories behind). Also, experiences are difficult to quantify in terms of which is better. You can’t definitively say that a trip to Brazil was superior to a weekend camping outdoors.
Each experience is different and novel, providing greater satisfaction in the long run than adding another decorative item to your home.
3. Connect with people
The great irony with today’s communication devices is that in some aspects, it’s become more difficult to connect with people. While we savor the convenience of being able to send an email or a text, we forgo that face-to-face interaction that would have been necessary in the past.
Sometimes, it even feels preferable to hide behind a screen rather than talk to a real, live person. We’ve come to accept our lives of solitude, isolated from others. But tribes have their strength.
Back in our ancestors’ days, people worked together, ate together, and lived together. While staying in groups was necessary for survival, there was also a sense of assurance in knowing we could rely on others for help and that they were facing the same joys, trials, and tribulations.
Today, we still rely on networks to survive. We communicate with others to exchange ideas, share knowledge, and support one another in achieving goals.
Joining a community or calling up a friend might be just what you need to set yourself on a new path. Signing up for a new experience can lead you to meet interesting people. When you invite serendipity into your life, you increase the chance for opportunities to emerge.
It’s Not That Our Ancestors Were Happier, It’s That Expectations Have Changed
Think about it. If people truly were much happier in prehistoric times, then there wouldn’t be an urge to keep progressing. Things would have stayed put, just the way they always have been. If people were happy with how things were, why would change be needed?
Just as our long-ago ancestors grumbled when the water source was further away than at the last camping spot, we grumble today when the internet is down or even a little slower than usual. These are two very different situations, but they also parallel one another. After all, the problem is one and the same: we’re not quite satisfied with the current situation, so sooner or later we have to do something to ignite change.
While changes usually bring improvements, a host of new problems rise up as well. Sure, things may be objectively better, but our expectations go up too. In the end, we don’t feel much better. We’re forever on the treadmill.
If that’s the case, then it’s up to us to change the way we approach our circumstances. Are you embracing the present (as opposed to reliving the past or daydreaming about the future)? Are you creating experiences for yourself? Do you put your electronic device down long enough to interact with the world around you?
When you start taking responsibility for your actions, you start taking responsibility for your happiness.