Do you ever find yourself day dreaming, imagining how happy you will be when you get that house on the beach, when you write that last college tuition check, or when you tell your boss you’ve had it and are finally retiring? On that day, you think, I will be happy. That place, that thing, that experience, that will be the thing that brings this all into harmony. The birds will be singing, the sun will be shining, and all my woes will be a thing of the past!
We’re set up to think this way, aren’t we? Since the first time someone asked what you want to be when you grow up, we’ve been encouraged to think about the future as a time when things are going to start happening for us. It becomes something we work toward, and we start thinking about life as a pursuit. I’ll go to college, I’ll get married, I’ll get a good job and a nice house – pursue, pursue, pursue – and on the other side of this rainbow will be my pot of gold. I will set these goals, I will accomplish them and then I’ll be happy.
Well, my fellow goal setters, I’ve got some bad news; accomplishing goals doesn’t actually make us happy, at least not in the long run. For all the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice put into achieving our goals, the results often don’t payoff the way we’d hoped.
Imagine our happiness like our blood sugar level. Achieving a goal is akin to eating something sweet; it causes our levels to spike bringing with it a temporary rush of positive emotion but eventually – and far more quickly than we think – our systems digest it and we return to normal. There’s a name for this; it’s called hedonic adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation states that humans tend to revert back to a baseline level of happiness even after major positive or negative experiences. When life suddenly gets better or worse, our expectations of life adapt as well. The first day you get up and look out your window of your beach house, it’s great. The second day, you know what to expect but the novelty of the crystal blue water hasn’t worn off yet. By day 58, you’re noticing the smudges on your window rather than the landscape. The same dose of happiness doesn’t yield the same rush and before you know it, your degree of happiness dips back down to about the same level as before you had an address on Ocean Drive.
Your particular happiness norm, or happiness set point, is unique to you. It’s determined by a combination of genetics, behavior and experiences. Positive and negative experiences may move that level higher or lower at any given time, but we ultimately return to equilibrium.
The original research on hedonic adaptation showed that our happiness set point was static, meaning there was little we could do to change our level of happiness through life. More recent research has challenged that idea. While it’s still believed that 50% of our happiness set point is determined by genetics, the other half can be influenced by significant life events and changes to our behavior and attitude. The way we think about goals can have an impact on moving our happiness levels higher over time.
Don’t Prioritize the Destination over the Journey
If we believe achieving our goals will put us into a permanent state of bliss, it’s easy to justify making sacrifices to get there. We may keep working at a job we hate if we think we’re only a few years, or heck a few decades, away from retirement utopia. When we let go of that notion, suddenly grinding out our days in relative misery doesn’t make as much sense. This isn’t a prescription to YOLO; we’ve got to save and accommodate some amount of delayed gratification. The challenge is finding ways to enjoy the process of working toward goals so that the journey and the destination bring you joy.
Let Go of Financial Benchmarks
The correlation between higher income and additional happiness drops off after $75,000 a year of earnings. After that, we don’t get that much added joy simply from making more. If you are focused too intently on making a certain amount of money or reaching a certain level of wealth, that may be driven by a need for belonging or a fear of not having enough. Tending to those emotions will yield a higher return on happiness than it would to add a comma to your net worth.
Make PERMA-nent changes.
We can look to positive psychology for tips to increase our happiness set point. Martin Segilman’s PERMA theory identifies five areas we can nurture well-being.
P – Positive emotions. Goals can be good if they help us experience positive emotions like excitement, satisfaction, pride, awe, hope and optimism. Set a goal to do something that excites you, or see a place that would make your jaw drop. Schedule a vacation if it keeps you hopeful and optimistic during the humdrum days.
E – Engagement. If you’re a yogi like me, the concept of flow will be familiar to you. It’s a state of mind you achieve when you are immersed in the present moment, focused on something challenging, but possible. What activities give you the ability to be blissfully present while challenging yourself in some way? Don’t have one? Set a goal to find it.
R – Relationships. In every study on this topic, being social and maintaining positive relationships increases happiness. Anything you do to nurture relationships is good but if you’re struggling for an idea, share a goal you have with others. Bonus – this increases your odds of achieving it!
M – Meaning. Understanding why we do things and how they are part of a bigger picture breeds a sense of fulfillment. Set aside time to help others or to examine and align the values behind your actions.
A – Accomplishments. When you achieve a goal, don’t move on immediately to the next one. Consider the personal strengths it took to achieve and the obstacles you overcame. Reflect on your successes.
Happiness isn’t waiting for us on the other side of our goals. The sooner we adapt to that idea, the happier we’ll be.