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  • Brendan Stec

Happiness: It's Always a Work in Progress

Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!"

"Of course it is," said the Queen, "what would you have it?"

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

– Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

Doesn't chasing happiness sometimes cause us to feel like Alice? We push and push for more but never quite feel permanently happy with what we have? Well, as we'll see, happiness is never a completed check box or a fulfilled goal, like getting into business school or winning the Super Bowl. It's a work-in-progress, a race we're challenged to run every day.


There is a lot of content on happiness. Top 10 articles, podcasts, social media posts and other "happiness how-to's" dominate the Internet. There are important, well-researched books: The Happiness Hypothesis, Stumbling on Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The How of Happiness, 10% Happier, The Happiness Advantage, and The Art of Happiness. There is advice from parents, friends, co-workers, graduation speakers, and therapists. And there is even a happiness equation, originally proposed by Penn psychology professor Martin Seligman:

H = S + C + V

Happiness = Biological set point (S) + Conditions of your life (C) + Voluntary activities (V)

For such a simple, worthwhile goal, happiness seems pretty damn complicated!

That's because these resources, as valuable and as accurate as they may be, lead us to think about happiness the wrong way. Providing equations and techniques, they suggest happiness is a destination, a permanently achievable state of mind, an equilibrium that just requires a delicate balance of certain variables. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to optimize for these variables, difficult to control in their own right, while we careen from day to day, solving problems and earning a living, celebrating the small victories, and figuring out what we'd hope to achieve in the world. The Earth perpetually shifts beneath our feet, tossing us new challenges while we can only adapt and respond. Getting the exact conditions right for perfect, lasting happiness, as we continually struggle and push, is not only pretty damn complicated, it's impossible.

There is another perspective on happiness that is more helpful for us to adopt. This perspective is that happiness is not a permanent, achievable destination but rather a continual work-in-progress. We continually encounter problems, we are challenged to resolve them, and we sometimes enjoy a flicker of happiness if we solve them before more problems inevitably surface. Ok, so life is an endless series of problems and we're always fighting to overcome them, to end our suffering. Thanks for the groundbreaking insight, Buddha. So what? What's so useful about having this perspective on happiness? Or on life?

Because it applies directly to two things you probably think about a lot, maybe all day long. The two things you may worry about when they'll happen or if they ever will.

1) Your biggest fears.

2) Your wildest dreams.

Guess what: happiness is a work-in-progress for another important reason. It's a reason built into us biologically, which pushes us to strive, fight, and succeed in a competitive world driven by the force of evolution:

You will adapt to most of the things that make you both unhappy and happy, even your biggest fears, even your wildest dreams.

That's it. Your biggest fears: losing your job, losing a limb, losing a loved-one, failing spectacularly on broadcast television. Your wildest dreams: making a billion dollars, having a child, ending climate change, moving to a safer neighborhood. If any of them came true, they would impact your happiness, of course, but not forever, because you, like everyone else, are wired from evolution to always adapt to changing environments and to adjust your expectations accordingly.

Happiness can only be a work-in-progress because we humans live by what Jonathan Haidt calls The Adaptation Principle. To illustrate this idea, let's discuss a research study that compared two groups of people: one group that was blessed with one of their wildest dreams, and one group that encountered one their biggest fears. The study compared individuals who won the lottery and individuals who were paralyzed and lost the ability to walk. The result: the lottery winners and paraplegics "returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness" within a year. (1)

The Adaptation Principle: we may aspire to certain goals or worry about certain problems, but in the long-run, we adapt, we adjust our expectations, we hope for more after a string of successes, and we're happy with less when tragedy strikes.

We can play an insidious game. We can pretend happiness is a destination, finally achieved IF I get married, IF I get a raise, IF I move into a better neighborhood, and so forth. Or we can remember The Adaptation Principle and accept it is merely a continual work-in-progress.

Now, while the Adaptation Principle is true, implying external factors influence our happiness a lot less than we'd expect, it does NOT say external factors don't matter at all. It doesn't say nothing worth is striving for since in the long-run our happiness can't be improved. That's because there are certain external conditions we never fully adapt to, so it is certainly worthwhile to prioritize them.

Here are a few examples:

1) Commuting: It doesn't matter if we've had to commute an hour on the Schuylkill Expressway every day for 30 years. Our bodies never adapt to the stresses and uncertainties of a long commute. We'd all be happier – permanently – with a much shorter daily commute.

2) Noise: Your neighbor practices the kettledrums every night at 10:45 PM, and the walls of your 5th floor walk-up are very thin. Every night you try to sleep but the noise is just too annoying. Unfortunately, we never adapt to loud noise, and we'd be happier in environments where we can control our auditory landscape. Avoid living next to an 8-lane highway.

3) Relationships: This is the big one. Robert Waldinger's famous study at Harvard has tracked the lives of thousands of individuals over 80 years, concluding that "close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives." By contrast, chronic interpersonal conflicts, with spouses, friends, or co-workers, continually eat away at our happiness because we never adapt to them. Prioritize relationships, because they have the potential to form our best and worst experiences.

Buddha emphasized the importance of breaking attachments to people, desires, possessions, and status while progressing towards happiness. He understood the futility of striving for more status, more money, a certain way of living, and a specific, permanent level of happiness. He understood the Adaptation Principle, where we adapt to many of the problems and successes we encounter while scuttling through a life we desperately try to control.

But he also missed an important point, that happiness is not in just our own heads, an internal state-of-mind that ignores the external world and the relationships, stresses, and conflicts it holds. As we've seen, certain outside conditions do contribute a lasting impact to our happiness and are worth striving to improve, because we never do fully adapt to them.

It's crucial to still think of happiness as a work-in-progress. We will adapt to most of our fears and dreams, and to the special ones in which we won't, we still must push a little bit each day to make sure they contribute positively. It's the insidious game of conditional happiness that we should avoid: assuming a move to a different city will solve all of our problems, the new job won't have any of the old setbacks, that happiness is a destination.

Or, as it's put in William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida :

"Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing."



(1) The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (2006) (pp. 84-85)

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