Happiness is a Choice

There appears to be a synergistic relationship between happiness and accomplishment whereby not only does success contribute to happiness but happier individuals tend to experience greater achievement across life domains such as social and romantic relationships, occupational performance, and physical health.   So while successful people tend to be happier, happiness begets success.  Interestingly, despite the widespread belief that wealth will bring greater happiness, there is no relationship between happiness and material goods, once our basic needs for food and shelter have been met.  This may be due in part to the phenomenon known as “hedonic adaptation” whereby we quickly adapt to good things such as material possessions and rapidly take them for granted.  Studies of major lottery winners show that although they experience a boost in their short term experience of happiness, over time, they revert to their baseline levels of contentment.


Happiness can be defined as the intersection between pleasure and meaning.  Someone who is happy, experiences healthy doses of positive emotions in the present but also engages in activities they view as having purpose and significance. To be happy, you must experience positive emotions from activities such as a delicious meal, a hug from a small child, a beautiful sunset, etc., but this is insufficient in and of itself.  You must also strive to acquire experiences that align with your own personal principles and passions.  The right combination and quantity of pleasurable and meaningful activities will intensify the experience of both.


In an effort to lead a gratifying life, we often make misjudgments as to what it takes to accomplish this as exemplified by psychologist Tal Ben Shahar’s three archetypes of thoughts and behaviors which can lead to unhappiness. 


“Rat-racers” are focused on reaching their future goal (i.e. getting good grades, being promoted, finding the perfect spouse, buying a new car, etc.) rather than their present experience.  They enjoy the successful completion of their goal rather than the journey to achieve it.  They often experience temporary relief upon meeting their goal, which they mistake for happiness.  Our culture often reinforces the notion of rat-racing to happiness as we are a results-oriented society


“Hedonists” seek out numerous enjoyable experiences in the present (drinking, eating, sex, relaxing) and avoid painful activities without considering future consequences.  Life becomes a series of obtaining meaningless pleasures without a greater purpose or a struggle to reach one’s peak performance.  Over time, the joy of these indulgences diminish and the individual becomes restless and dissatisfied.


“Nihilists” believe that their fate is to be unhappy in the present and future and that there is nothing they can do to change this.  They believe they have no control over their lives and experience despair.


Exercise #1:  Think about a time in your life when you were extremely happy.  What positive moments did you experience?  What overall purpose were you striving towards?  What are you currently doing that combines pleasure with future benefit?


Exercise #2: At some point in our lives, we have all been rat-racers, hedonists, and nihilists.  Write down at what stage in your life you were experiencing each of these mind-sets and what circumstances set you up for these periods?  What behaviors, emotions, and thoughts went along with each mind-set?  Would you have done anything differently in retrospect?   What were the positives and negatives that you experienced as a result of each of these mind-sets?