Accepting that you feel happy enough, as opposed to constantly pursuing an idea of what happiness might be, is the route many now choose to greater well-being. Indeed, this is the key idea behind how to escape the happiness trap. Remember that old REM hit, Shiny Happy People?
In it, the lyrics encouraged you to put “it in your heart” where “tomorrow” and “gold and silver shine”. OK, let's not set too much store by a pop song, but it illustrates something important about modern culture: happiness seems to be shiny, attractive and – like gold and silver – material. Now, a jangly pop anthem may not be the best route to understanding what happiness is, but it does suggest the way many people still think about it.
However, the pursuit of happiness – like the pursuit of anything material – can often lead us in the wrong direction. This is what today's psychologists refer to as the happiness trap. Let's have a look at what it is exactly, how you can identify the extent to which you might have fallen into it and – perhaps most importantly of all – the five main ways you can escape it.
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, happiness involves activity and exhibiting virtue, but the word he chose to describe it was 'eudaimonia'. Often translated as 'happiness', this term is probably better described as 'human flourishing'. We seem quite removed from that sentiment when you consider how contemporary mass culture depicts happiness.
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Think of all the happy messages the mainstream media bombards us with to begin with. Indeed, ask yourself how many times a day that you might hear that you can be happy – will be happy, even – if only you choose these clothes, that form of transportation or these beauty products.
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There again, the pursuit of happiness might be marketed as being concurrent with the pursuit of other goals. For example, you may have heard you'll be happy if you pursue your youth – with an anti-wrinkle cream, of course. Or that you'll be happy if you pursue greater wealth by choosing one investment product over another.
“The pursuit of happiness can lead us in the wrong direction. This is what today's psychologists refer to as the happiness trap.”
Eudaimonia has little to do with any of that. Over the ages, spiritual leaders have taught us to abandon the relationship between happiness and material wealth (indeed, money can't buy happiness). Bear in mind that it's not so much that material aggrandisement won't bring you happiness, rather than the detriment it can cause to your perception of happiness. Although the current generation of Westerners are, by and large, richer than ever before the variation of how people perceive their level of happiness is high, to say the least.
Feeling unhappy or sad is perfectly natural and we all go through mental states like this from time to time. However, a general malaise in your sense of happiness may reveal that you are, indeed, stuck in the happiness trap.
If you think your personal happiness ties in with the images you might see on TV or in lifestyle magazines, then that's another sure sign. Equally, if you're constantly comparing the level of happiness you feel with that which you perceive in your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues, then this may also indicate your entrapment of a false perception of happiness.
Flash back: relive old memories through happy photos © Ingram Image
Identifying and accepting the state of being happy enough is the key to getting out of the happiness trap. If you feel happy enough, then you won't feel the need to carry on pursuing the false idols of materialism or of keeping up with the Jones'.
However, deciding to feel happy enough may be easier said than done given our materialistic culture. Indeed, a 2003 psychological study by Schooler, Airey and Loewenstein suggested that pursuing happiness as a goal was doomed to failure anyway.
“If you think your personal happiness ties in with the images you might see on TV or in lifestyle magazines, that's a sign of being stuck in the happiness trap.”
Thankfully, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and others offer some cognitive and behavioural tips, you can follow to offer you the best chance of avoiding that empty sensation of not feeling happy enough. So, here are five key ways you can employ to help you escape the happiness trap.
With so much that contributes to modern life pointing you towards the happiness trap, it's a good (and simple) idea to set aside time to recall moments of gratitude. By doing this regularly, you're much better positioned to see past the short-term nature of such messages and to keep an eye on what really contributes to your happiness.
For instance, keep a gratitude journal where you count your blessings such as the love of people close to you or your general health. In addition, writing letters of gratitude can help to reorientate your perspective on what really counts. There's something about the mental activity that goes on during the act of writing that helps to rebalance our cognitive processes and application of this can shape your feelings surrounding happiness.
“Escape the happiness trap by setting aside time to recall moments of gratitude. Keep an eye on what really contributes to your happiness.”
As mentioned, writing can have a beneficial effect on the way we think about a range of circumstances, including the way we feel about happiness. However, it's not the only positive mental strategy that you can use in a self-regulatory manner.
The happiness trap: evolution of the human mind © YouTube/Dr. Russ Harris
Positive thinking about oneself can come in other reflective forms. Take a look back through old photos of heart-warming and cheerful life events. Or you might prefer to talk about your happiest and unhappiest moments in life with a loved one. Another possibility is to have a discussion about your life goals for the future with your partner or a trusted friend. By focusing positivity in this way, you naturally engage less with shorter term aspirations and material objectives.
Studies have shown that practising altruism can help you to feel more satisfied and help you to find happiness. Helping you to understand what is good about your life, altruistic acts are also of benefit to their recipient. Simply making the decision to be kinder and more understanding in your everyday interactions is a good first step.
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You might consider doing something practical, too, such as donating your blood. By routinely committing to random acts of kindness or trying to make a loved one happy, you'll end up feeling more empowered about how happy you feel and less reliant on what other people think about you.
Give and get back: altruistic acts spark happiness
Refocussing on your most important values is another key step in accepting the level of happiness you feel. Think of it like restating your marriage vows – if you ever made them, that is – as a means of getting back to basics.
By reaffirming the true person that you are, it becomes possible to shake off sometimes years of misguided happiness that has become more and more reliant on a false idea of perfection – one that is modelled on an 'ideal' life as depicted in modern culture so much. Take a step back to focus on what makes you tick and reaffirm your commitment to it.
By taking the time to savour positive experiences in life, rather than rushing on hedonistically to the next chance of happiness, you're more likely to enjoy the moment.
Think of a greedy diner who, enjoying their food, gulps it all down rapidly only to feel disappointed quickly afterwards, compared with someone who savours every mouthful to the maximum. Both will consume the same food but gain very different experiences from their meal. So, slow down. See the whole picture. Focus on the positivity of any given situation in order to feel happier in yourself.
Modern life and the pursuit of happiness makes it easy for humans to get stuck in the happiness trap. And, in this era of social media, it's harder to escape comparing your life, experiences and possessions with that of your friends or even complete strangers! But by following our cognitive and behavioural tips you can reframe your thoughts and activities to start to become more satisfied with what you have in life, and – more importantly – who you are. ●
Main image: Ingram Image
Ed Gould is a UK-based journalist and freelance writer. He's also a practitioner of Reiki.
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