Are you wasting your time trying to turn happiness into something like a goal and pursuing it as a thing you’d achieve someday? Are you playing against a paradox that says a desire for happiness may actually prevent you from achieving it?
What answers did Pinky Patel find to those questions?
To Pursue Happiness On A Piano
One late night, Pinky Patel read a post that said piano players are happier than the rest of us. And not just so, their happiness levels were up to 30 per cent higher than the people who didn’t play the instrument.
As it happened, Pinky had been in one of her worst blues for the whole of last week. She was desperate to pull out of it and make herself happier. The research she came across seemed to have come at the right time.
So, she decided to buy an electronica keyboard, since she couldn’t afford a real piano or taking classes. For learning the basics, there was always YouTube.
The next evening on her way from office, she bought a 64-note digital piano at a sensible price. At home, as she began playing, she discovered it was much more difficult than what she had guessed. But she loved herself for having bought it — it was for her happiness.
A month passed. She worried she still couldn’t remember the right sequence of notes a minute into a song. And her fingers and wrists ached all the time. But she persisted. More days went, but she played on, calling her inner grit to action. She kept tapping those keys for two hours a day until the calendar turned a year.
On that morning, as she looked into the mirror with a toothbrush in her mouth, her face grimaced. She had a grating realization: she wasn’t any more happy than when she started out.
Though her playing was better, it was still a chore. She could play around four songs full without always missing a note.
But she wasn’t happier — neither with her playing, nor with her life.
Chasing The Wrong Research
There is a research that shows the brains of piano players are different from everyone else’s. But there is not any research that we know of that proves pianists are thirty per cent happier than us. But even if the hypothetical research we started out with was right, what Pinky took it for was wrong.
What was wrong was Pinky Patel’s belief? That every piano in the world had the magical power to confer happiness upon any person who played it. That any one who would play the piano could be happy.
The truth lay buried a little further and deeper. And it didn’t come with the piano.
There are two reasons why Pinky was wrong. First, the obvious, no research applies to all of us who feature in the current humanity.
Anyone can tell you that holidays do raise your happiness levels. There was a recent research which questioned 17,000 people from 17 countries. The report, published as Travel is The Secret to True Happiness, highlighted the following:
- 77 per cent book a holiday to cheer themselves up when they’re in need of a happiness boost.
- 50 per cent of people think holidays are more vital to their happiness than landing a dream job.
- 49 per cent say it brings them more positive feelings than their own wedding day.
And still, you would find a few crabby people sitting aside on your beach holiday, cribbing about the crowd, the clams, and the litter. And claiming how much happier they were taking peaceful naps in their sleepy town.
Second, and this is the crux here, the ‘hedonic paradox.’
The Hedonic Paradox
It was first pointed out by the 19th-century British philosopher Henry Sidgwick that we can’t attain happiness by aiming at happiness. This is the ‘hedonic paradox’.
The hedonic paradox says happiness doesn’t come with the pursuit of happiness. That is, if you go out to do a thing because it will bring you happiness, it usually doesn’t bring you happiness. The pursuit of happiness goes in vain.
The paradox points out that happiness is rather a by-product of the choices we make. Happiness isn’t something that we can achieve by setting a target of it and starting to aim at the bull’s eye. Happiness is a secondary output of the usual business of life.
So, if you want to take up piano, take it up because you would love to play it. The chances are far greater that it would make you happier. If it’s found ever that piano players are happier than the rest of us, then it would be because they want to play the piano for the sake of it.
What Pinky did was take up piano not because she wanted to, or loved to, but because it would bring her happiness. That happiness goal was the wrong goal.
Think and you might find a few instances when you went out to do a thing because of the happiness it will bring. But it turned out that it was this very thing that got in your way of ultimate happiness.
- Ever went to a party on a friend’s insistence that it will lift your mood, to find yourself standing lost and lonely in a crowd of strangers with alien interests?
- Did it happen that you went out with a friend on a Saturday evening to serve food to a group of sad and homeless people, and came back with a strange peace in your heart?
Next time anything like that happens, remind yourself it’s ‘paradox of hedonism’ that’s happening.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Psychologists show us a darker version of the whole shindig of pursuing happiness. They assure that even if you were to find happiness after chasing and reaching a goal, you will slide back to your earlier level of happiness. It doesn’t matter if your goal was happiness or anything else, your newfound happiness won’t last.
Even if you get yourself everything you want, you won’t ever be able to sustain your happiness at a certain level forever. The best you can manage is intermittent blips in your happiness graph, interrupted by many dips. Here comes the concept of hedonic adaptation or hedonic treadmill.
In the late 1990s, it was psychologist Michael Eysenck, another British, who gave the modern shape to this concept — the “hedonic treadmill theory.” This compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who must keep running to stay at the same place. This treadmill theory says that humans maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives. And this level holds steady despite all their ‘running’ through the positive and negative events of their lives.
In 2003, Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener found that though a negative event can have a greater impact on one’s psychological state and happiness than a positive event, people return to their baseline level of wellbeing quite quick — after divorce, losing a spouse, birth of a child, and females losing their job.
In 2014, Wildeman, Turney, Schnittker found that once people are released from prison, they bounce back to their previous level of happiness.
Research further says that not only chasing happiness ultimately fails to deliver any happiness at all, in fact, it might even make you unhappy. In a series of studies led by psychologist Iris Mauss, the more value people placed on happiness, the less happy they became. Mauss also found that wanting to be happy can make you more lonely.
“The fact that we are chasing after happiness as the ideal state is exactly what causes us misery,” says Anjhula Singh Bais, a doctorate of international psychology. Interestingly, Anjhula is also famous in her other profession as a supermodel, and has walked the ramps at “fashion weeks” in New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India.
Another Mill, From Philosophy
Another 19th-century philosopher, yet another Brit, John Stuart Mill reached the same conclusion as Henry Sidgwick.
A little backstory. Mill may have never become the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century had he not suffered a bout of nervous breakdown and severe depression in 1826. In this phase, he “seemed to have nothing left to live for.”
Yet, this phase triggered Mill to rethink his entire philosophical outlook which he had built on his father James Mill and his mentor Jeremy Bentham.
Luckily, among other things, Mill found Wordsworth’s poetry to soothe his mind. As he grew out of his gloom, he began to dismantle Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism, and rework it to find a fresh approach to the moral questions on ethics and happiness.
In his Autobiography, he wrote:
I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now think that this end is only to be attained by not making it the direct end.
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.
Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
Happiness as it turns out, in Mill’s words, can only “be attained by not making it the direct end.” It’s rather a positive fallout of the “art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.”
Got a few minutes? Then catch this super-helpful post on happiness tips from positive psychology: How To Be Happier: Tips From Science
Actually, the problem is with the expectation that reaching our happiness goal will bring us happiness forever. That doesn’t happen. And when we find that out, we end up being more unhappy than when we started. Then, how do we go back?
Chris Guillebeau, author of The Happiness of Pursuit, says,
How do you go back? In many ways, you don’t. You can’t.
It’s the relentless quest for happiness that is the cause of our unhappiness. We are far more likely to be happy while working to achieve something great than when keeping our happiness-focus set on that achievement.
So, don’t make happiness a goal. Instead, pursue something that you would love to do. Start something that you can carry on doing without losing any interest.
So, what did Pinky Patel do for her happiness?
Well, she started a free class for the small kids in her neighborhood, and spent her evenings laughing and smiling with those tiny souls.
If you meet her today, she would ask you to take special heed of these words of Eleanor Roosevelt, author of You Learn By Living:
Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.
Caroline Winterer is Professor of American History and Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities at Stanford, where she is also Director of the Stanford Humanities Center. She wrote the book American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016). Listen to her TEDx talk:
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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