If you’re like most people, you’ve probably thought, “I’ll be happy when…” and then filled in the end of that sentence with some future situation, like, “when I can set my own hours at work,” “when I pay off these student loans,” or “when I can afford that new sports car.” And while it may seem totally reasonable to believe that happiness will follow the attainment of some future event, it actually doesn’t work that way. It turns out we—as a species—are pretty awful at being able to predict the things that will make us happy. What’s worse is that we think we’re good at it. Just ask Harvard psychologist, happiness expert, and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert. He believes that happiness is relative.
So, what makes us think we know what we want, when we don’t?
According to Gilbert, this occurs because we’re misunderstanding a fundamental aspect of happiness. He says that “our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing.” In other words, we can create happiness—and misery—regardless of our external circumstances. This “synthesized happiness” is just as real as what we like to think of as “natural happiness” (i.e., the emotion that arises as a result of getting what we think we want). What’s the takeaway here?
Happiness (and the lack thereof) is all in our heads.
This explains why, even after we reach the milestone that we thought would bring us everlasting joy, we find another milestone to set our sights on, and then another one, and then another one. According Shawn Achor, another psychologist and happiness expert, “Every time your brain has a success, you just change the goal post of what success looks like. You got a good job, now you have to get a better job. You hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.” Good thing there’s a better way to go about this. Instead of living in a perpetual state of sitting, waiting, wishing—Jack Johnson style—to find external things to make ourselves happy, we can tap into our internal capacity to synthesize happiness right now.
We can synthesize happiness no matter what is going on around us.
All we have to do is use what Gilbert refers to as our “experience simulators”—our ability to imagine entire situations in our mind’s eye before ever experiencing them in real life. It’s this innate virtual reality mechanism that allows us to select the situations we wish to focus our attention on and cull from them all the positive emotions we can.
After all, which feels better to think about: what you’re lacking or what you have more than enough of? To see for yourself, try this: calm your mind and think of something you really, really, really want but don’t have—something that’s obviously absent from your life right now, or something you might have placed in the I’ll-be-happy-when pile. Now, stay there for just another moment. How do you feel? Excited? Happy? Eager? Probably not. Tense, anxious, and needy? That sounds more like it. Now, shake it off and switch to thinking about something you do have—your snuggly cat, your strong body, your great friends, a good Internet connection to read this wonderful blog post—whatever you want. Now, doesn’t that feel better? It should.
By keeping our attention on the good things in our life—as opposed to what’s lacking from our experience—we actually boost our feelings of happiness (and we already have seen all the great things happiness can do for health and well-being). Plus, given enough repetitions, we actually retrain our brain, so we habitually spot the good in life—without effort.
So, what can you do today to start focusing more on the positives?
Simply choose at least one of the following activities from Shawn Achor’s Happiness Challenge, and complete it daily for the next three weeks:
- Write down three new things you appreciate each day.
- Spend a few minutes writing in detail about one good thing you experienced that day. (Hint: This one’s great for improving happiness at work.)
- Exercise for ten minutes in a way that you enjoy.
- Meditate for two minutes by quieting your mind and focusing on your breathing.
- Perform one random act of kindness. (This can be as small as sending a thank-you email to a friend or colleague.)
That’s it: Complete at least one of the above activities for the next 21 days, and you’ll no longer need to tie your happiness to some future, far-off success. You can boost it today—all from within.