On chasing happiness (and becoming content)

A version of this article was originally published on openDemocracy and can be found here

Stephen Dunn’s 1988 poem, “Happiness”, begins;

A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying,

quicksand in the marshes


When sociologists look back at our generation, they will view happiness as the defining cultural issue of our time. Ask a person on the street what the purpose of life is and they will tell you it’s to be happy. Our governments monitor our levels of happiness, our universities fund departments to research the area and the world’s largest companies – including Google – employ “happiness gurus” to proselytise their employees. We trade smiling emojis on social networks, walk past billboards encouraging us to “#choosehappiness” and spend over one billion dollars on self-help books each year. 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”. Happiness is invariably described as an individualistic endeavour to be achieved through self-help, self-care or materialistic selfishness.

But most bizarre about our cultural obsession with happiness is that it isn’t working. Sixty years of human progress and huge increases in GDP have barely touched the life satisfaction scores of higher-income countries. The United States’ General Social Survey, for example, 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.

The reason for this, according to Michael Plant, a researcher at the University of Oxford, is a concept known as 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 supported 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.


In Ancient Greece, the concept of happiness was described as “eudaimonia”. The Greeks believed eudaimonia resulted from being treated favourably by the Gods. Given the Greeks didn’t believe the Gods could care for non-humans, they deemed eudaimonia to be a uniquely human experience.

Still today, we rarely think of animals as experiencing happiness in the way people do. Despite evolution forming the framework by which scientists approach human physiology, it is rarely used to understand human experience. Psychologists have long theorised that mental illnesses such as depression may have their origins in evolutionary psychology, but little has been written about its joyful cousin, happiness. When happiness is approached through the lens of evolutionary psychology however, the concept of hedonic adaptation begins to make more sense.

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 a nebulous but utopian vision of happiness. Yet the evidence shows we can’t, and evolution is the reason why. Rather than an individualistic commodity which can be achieved, 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. The ideal of constant euphoria marketed by the happiness industry is impossible because 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, hedonic adaptation leaves us forever chasing greater happiness, and forever crafting a future in search of it. Most human behaviours, both throughout evolution and in contemporary society, are in some way motivated by the pursuit of happiness. The transience of happiness is completely unremarkable in this sense; evolution cares only for our survival, not our experience of surviving.

What is most striking about the evolutionary mechanism of hedonic adaptation is how skilfully it has been co-opted by the powerful in society. The promise of greater happiness is what our economy depends on, and what provides companies with industrious employees. Governments promote home ownership, ensuring individuals live with mortgages and debt, almost guaranteeing an obedient workforce. Even social traditions – such as the institution of marriage – have their roots in the illusion of utopian happiness, although they have recently been criticised for upholding patriarchal attitudes. In a social Darwinist world, it is the most ruthless that take advantage of the evolutionary myth of utopian happiness.


Before making a diagnosis, a psychiatrist always considers 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 could not be more different. Rather than asking whether individuals are comfortable with their own melancholy, we are crusaded at with indiscriminate campaigns which tell us such feelings are unhealthy, unnecessary and undesirable.

Last year a group of psychologists at the University of Melbourne 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 one hundred participants to document how they felt in a daily diary for a month, as well as how much social pressure they experienced which urged them not to feel down. Interestingly, the researchers identified a temporal relationship between the two; a greater 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, they wondered, to monitor the effect it had? The researchers separated participants into two groups; one would undertake a series of tasks in a “happy room”, decorated with motivational posters and positive imagery, while the other group undertook a series of tasks in a plainly designed room. Compared with the other group, the “happy room” group were three times more likely to ruminate over the tasks they failed, which was associated with a higher rate of depressive symptoms.

This research is far from conclusive, but should come with a stark warning. Our cultural obsession with happiness risks transforming our entire society and media landscape into a place intolerable to melancholy, where we are made to feel like our lives are failing if we aren’t happy all of the time. Meanwhile, the happiness industry sells us a biological lie – that a constant state of happiness is achievable – which coincidentally achieves nothing but addiction to the happiness industry itself.


Stephen Dunn’s “Happiness” continues;

and all

the roads leading to a castle

that doesn’t exist.


We often think of our lives as going somewhere. The structures we are taught from an early age – in which we graduate from one class to the next, and then high school to university – provide us with a framework with which we approach all areas of our lives. We progress from rental to home ownership, from dating to marriage, from work to retirement. Yet with each achievement, hedonic adaptation returns us to the beginning, and we are still left yearning for an 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 the flawed nature with which we conceptualise human existence;

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 academic 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,” Oxford’s Michael Plant says. “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 to almost completely ignore it, encouraging participants to enjoy the present regardless of whether it can be classified as true happiness. 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 we become permanently dissatisfied. 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. Joyful experiences would 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 different. Literature, the novelist George R.R. Martin says, allows us to live vicariously, to experience the thrill of a life imagined by somebody else. The same is true for other art forms. Painting, sculpture, film and music all communicate the human experience on some level.

In our own lives, the challenge may not be to become better architects, artists or musicians – constructing our lives differently and changing the “external facts” will not deliver contentment, the evidence suggests. The answer may instead be to become better inhabitants, spectators and listeners.

If Watts is right and life is best understood as a piece of music, we’ve certainly been treated to a fantastic orchestra playing a beautiful piece. The biggest mistake would surely be to chase it away in the hope of one spectacular note at the end.


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