Don’t be the person who is waiting for this, that, or the other thing to happen before she can be happy.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness
It is a hard-fought lesson that tries me daily. Slowly I struggle to surrender this toxic idea – I need validation, achievement, or justification to be happy.
“I will be happy when I finish this semester.”
“I will be happy when I lose 10 pounds.”
“I will be happy when I find a girlfriend/boyfriend.”
“I will be happy when I change jobs.”
“I will be happy when I have x dollars.”
This pernicious belief carries the following premise.
Changing our circumstances will change our happiness.
In terms of extremes, this is true. If someone rises from abject poverty to a comfortable, livable wage, then a change in circumstance strongly correlates with increased happiness. It’s hard to feel maximum happiness and gratitude while stressing about putting food on the table and a roof over our heads.
But once we cross that “livable wage” threshold, then increases in income fail to produce corresponding, lasting well-being. The hedonic growth bourne of poverty relief evolves into a hedonic treadmill. Once we can satisfy our basic needs, we quickly adapt to further changes in our lives.
Sure, we feel great joy when we get a new TV, a new relationship, or pay raise. But given one year’s time, a new normal takes over. We no longer feel the boost in happiness because we simply adapt to our new circumstances. The new relationship or our rising bank account simply fades into the background framework of “daily life.”
If we are waiting for some change in circumstance to bring us happiness, then we are waiting too long. Moreover, it passivizes our emotional life. We cannot be happy because some external event has not come to pass. Happiness can be found here, now, today. Nothing can stop us.
Certain circumstances may obscure our path to happiness. I am not saying we should be blindly positive and joyful in the face of trauma and tragedy. But even in the face of such challenges, we can take heart in the power of the hedonic treadmill. The emerging study of post-traumatic growth suggests that that negative events often sink our happiness levels only temporarily – just like positive events only raise it temporarily. Ultimately, our happiness returns to a day-to-day baseline as weeks and months pass.
That baseline derives from mostly genetic factors. But we can also move the baseline with our own thought processes and mindsets.
Turn to gratitude.
Take a walk.
Savor the smallest of pleasures.
Reach out to an old friend.
Keep up with friends and family.
The present is all we have. Don’t handicap your own happiness. Choose tranquility. Choose gratitude. Choose happiness