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What’s It Going to Take to Make You Happy?

What’s It Going to Take to Make You Happy?

Happiness

    I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. What does it take to be a happy person? Obviously the answer is going to be different for each person, but what worries me is that, as far as I can tell, most people don’t even ask – and those that do don’t have a very good answer.

    Ask someone what would make them happy, and their answer is likely to be pretty vague. “A good career”,” they might say. Or, “Family.” “A strong relationship with my partner,” they might add after a moment’s reflection.

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    There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course, but there’s not much meat to them as answers. They don’t give us much to chew on – which is to say, they’re not really actionable.

    And I think that’s because we don’t give much thought to the question. Maybe we’re a little suspicious of the very concept of “being happy”. After all, our grandparents/parents/[insert fabled ancestors here] came to this country with nothing and scraped and toiled to build a better life for themselves – they didn’t sit around thinking about whether or not they were happy. They were miserable and they liked it!

    That’s the American Way, right? More and more, it’s the Modern Way, hardly bound to the US borders. Work hard, hunker down, tighten your belt, and make a better life.

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    There’s no dignity in happiness, not in this worldview anyway. Happiness is frivolous, fleeting, ephemeral. Dignity is found in the grave and serious, not the frolicking and joyful.

    There’s another reason I think we aren’t willing to face the question of what makes us happy: we’re afraid that the answer will prove to be something out of our grasp. Maybe you need a million dollars to be happy, and you only have $3.62. Maybe you need a better job than you’re capable of holding, or a bigger house than you can afford, or a prettier wife or more handsome husband, or better-behaved children. Maybe you need to be smarter, better-looking, more outgoing, taller, healthier, more disciplined, thinner… someone else.

    I don’t buy it. There are unhappy people in all walks of life. If it were brains, there wouldn’t be unhappy smart people – and there are. If it were money, there wouldn’t be unhappy rich people – and boy are there! If it were looks, there wouldn’t be unhappy beautiful people – and Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t have taken her own life.

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    And vice versa – there are unhappy dumb people, poor people, and ugly people as well. Just as there are happy rich people, happy poor people, happy dumb people, happy smart people, happy beautiful people, happy ugly people – happy people of every stripe.

    What makes them so special?

    I think the answer has to be self-knowledge – facing the question of what it will take to be happy head on. It’s obviously not something external to us that “makes” us happy; we make our own happiness. But it’s not so simple as just deciding to be happy. We make our happiness by determining what it will take, according to our own individual taste and character, to be happy, and chasing after those things and only those things.

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    Maybe you need to be rich to be happy – that’s the kind of person you are. Or maybe you just need to be comfortable, to not have to worry. Or, quite possibly, you need the edge of poverty to come really alive – stranger things have happened! You can’t know if you’re not willing – or not able – to face yourself and figure out what money means to you. Not whether rich people are shallow or profound, whether poor people are lazy or victimized by a social system that needs poverty to secure cheap labor – but what money means to you.

    Or maybe you need a different job. But what job? Maybe you need to move – but to where? Maybe you need to get healthier – but how? In what way?

    The trick here is to move beyond empty platitudes and hollow stereotypes and really look at our own lives. That’s where happiness starts to take root.

    Your assignment – and mine, too – is to figure all this out, to sit down with a pad and paper and start writing out our answer to the question: what’s it going to take to make me happy? Be specific – what exactly do you want from life? How is each thing on your list supposed to help you create happiness in your life? Most important, are you sure these are your answers, and not society’s, not your friends’, not your parents’? It’s so easy to internalize everyone else’s talk about what makes people happy – but the proof’s in the pudding: are they happy? If not, what are you doing listening to them.

    Sit down, write your list, and tuck it away somewhere safe. Then go out and do the things on your list, and let me know how that works out for you. Let’s see if we can’t all figure this out for ourselves, ok?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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