By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
We all want to be happy. We purchase new cars, go on expensive vacations, and score tickets to the most sought-after shows or sporting events, all with the hope that these choices will bring us happiness.
And yet, so often, things don’t work out as expected. Sometimes we don’t get what we hoped for. Other times we do get what we want, but it doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction.
Why is happiness so fleeting? Remember how great it felt the last time you got a new car? Do you still feel the same elation about it today? Probably not. Psychologists have long noted the human tendency to psychologically adapt to new circumstances. Something that initially makes you feel happy soon comes to feel like the norm. The sense of happiness fades, and an urge to acquire the next bigger or better thing takes hold.
This can make the pursuit of happiness feel like walking on a treadmill, where you have to keep working to stay in the same place. This cycle has been called the “hedonic treadmill.” For example, you were extremely happy to buy a house. The euphoria begins to fade as you see how much work it needs. Upgrading the kitchen feels good, but then the bathroom looks dated. The pleasure of accomplishing one task fades quickly as the desire for the next improvement arises.
Lottery winners, a year later, were no happier than a control group of people who didn’t win. People who were paralyzed in accidents were not as unhappy as you might think; they rated their pleasure in everyday activities as high as the lottery winners! And after relationship breakups and other discouraging events, people weren’t as upset as they expected, recovering sooner than they would have predicted.
Certain negative changes (divorce, death of a spouse, or unemployment) led to more enduring declines in satisfaction, and even years later people had not totally recovered. In studies of more ordinary negative circumstances (a typical “bad” or “good” day rather than a life-changing event), feeling lousy one day tended to carry over into the next, but the positive feelings after a good day did not.
Man has been studying “The Pursuit of Happiness” for centuries. Modern science calls it the field of “positive psychology,” the study of ways to foster happiness and emotional wellness. Initially the field of mental health focused on the pursuit of special pleasures or highly engaging activities, which can deliver joy, amusement, or even a sense of triumph.
But ultimately, psychologists found this approach to be unsatisfactory because this sort of happiness depends on fleeting experiences. Instead, researchers found it was more fruitful to concentrate on ways people can cultivate satisfaction, contentment, and well-being, components of a more enduring type of happiness. (Source: Harvard Health Publishing, “Special Health Report: Positive Psychology”)
Interestingly, the shift away from focusing on transient pleasures has revealed that people who experience a wide range of emotions — including negative ones — develop fewer psychological disorders than those with a more limited range of feelings. Contrary to what you might expect, trying to resist painful emotions actually increases psychological suffering.
Paradoxically, by opening to pain, people come to suffer less, since it turns out that resisting the experience of the moment is at the heart of psychological distress. So positive psychology is not about avoiding pain — it’s about opening to what is happening here and now, cultivating and savoring the good in your life, and connecting more deeply to others.
Some of the findings of positive psychology echo advice heard from wise elders and religious teachers across cultures and centuries. For example, the practice of mindfulness — paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations on a moment-to-moment basis, without judgment — has roots in Buddhism and other wisdom traditions.
This article is the first of a two-part series on happiness. The second article will discuss what modern science says about “How to Get Happy.” The remainder of this first article will focus on things that research shows won’t make you happy. Surprisingly, even with decades of research at our disposal, many of us continue to aspire to things that have no prospect of bringing us real meaning or joy. Here are the top 3: (Source: www.hbr.org/2022/06/3-things-that-wont-make-you-happy)
For thousands of years, almost every major religion and philosophic tradition has preached the foolishness and destructiveness of the love of money. For example, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) Still, so many of us continue to prioritize MONEY as the number one pursuit in our lives.
Can money buy happiness? Modern research shows that money was found to relieve suffering. But alone, it doesn’t lead to happiness. For those who face hunger, homelessness, lack of health care and other dire hardships, money can be life-saving. But once a person’s needs are met, more money rarely leads to greater happiness.
In the early 1970s, economist Richard Easterlin addressed this question when he introduced the “happiness-income paradox.” His research showed that within a given country, happiness tracks closely with income — but only up to the point at which basic needs are met. His research showed the effect of income on happiness plateaus at around $75,000.
More recent research from Matthew Killingsworth, now a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that money has a modest impact on happiness at any income level. Still, above $80,000 a year, dollar increases have a diminishing effect. As a result, wealthier people need a bigger raise to get the same boost in happiness.
Moreover, too much money can lead to increased loneliness and anxiety. Money often complicates family dynamics and relationships. Viewed wrongly, money can make us paranoid about the motives of others, and lead to feelings of jealousy, envy, or insecurity — particularly if we begin to measure ourselves by it. Someone will always have more money, and money can be lost just as easily it can be gained.
Life after winning the lottery may not stay glamorous forever. Whether they win $500 million or $1 million, about 70% of lotto winners lose or spend all that money in five years or less.
Finally, money can tempt us into believing that wealth is a proper measure of someone’s worth, when, of course, it is not. What money can’t do is provide for the most meaningful experiences in life — friendship, flow, a sense of purpose, and love.
The admiration of others — approval, applause — has always been tempting. This is particularly true for teens and young people, whose brains are wired to seek the approval of others in ways that make them more vulnerable to social media. We humans have an innate desire to be liked or to belong, and we often fall prey to the belief that being liked on a larger stage will lead us to being more pleased with our lives. But that’s not the case.
There are so many stories of famous people — celebrities, politicians, entrepreneurs — who achieve stratospheric success only to fall prey to drug abuse, depression, and grief. These stories can serve as a reminder: the pursuit of the approval of others more often leads to devastation than real happiness.
In the age of social media, this problem has become more acute. Millions of people seek the dopamine hit of “likes” and views on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, or other platforms, believing that more social media friends and attention will mean a greater sense of worth. But often, the opposite is the case. Emerging evidence shows that social media use and happiness are inversely correlated.
The rise of social media generally has been directly linked to increases in depression and anxiety. In short, social media’s positives (e.g., connecting with friends) are dramatically outweighed by its negatives (e.g., comparison, envy, anxiety, self-doubt, superficiality). Pursuing attention on the Internet, rather than leading to lasting fulfillment, can provoke loneliness, anxiety, superficiality, and depression.
It’s important to distinguish between the more superficial types of approval gained from fame and the genuine fulfillment available through deep and meaningful relationships. One of the primary determinants of a person’s fulfillment in life is the depth and breadth of their meaningful relationships. Service to others — whether visiting a home for the elderly or working in a soup kitchen — is a sure-fire way to improve your life.
Ample research indicates that accumulating material possessions — much like accumulating money — doesn’t improve life satisfaction. Not only will “stuff” not make you happy, but it can also actually lead to deeper feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and emptiness. Also, like money, no matter how much stuff we have, someone else always has more.
If you scroll Instagram or TikTok, you may have seen a popular series of videos in your feed asking people about the cost of their clothes, their cars, or their homes, and how they got them. The message underlying these videos seems to be: When we have a status-worthy jacket, car, or mansion, we’ll be fulfilled.
The very act of status-seeking is an anxiety-producing external game rather than a means of internal growth. The novelty of any material thing, whether a new car or a new bowling ball, eventually wears off and the need to replace it grows. So, to truly be happy, we must learn that the latest, greatest new gadget (toy) will not bring us lasting happiness.
In conclusion, according to scientific research, do not wait for things to get better to be happy. Life will always be complicated. If you wait for situations to turn right, you may run out of time. The next article will discuss what science says will help you (and me) to be happy now, i.e., the kind of person who embraces each and every single moment. And, when you do, you are bound to live life at its best!
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.