REFLECTIONS

Endless pursuit to smile and be happy

The lack of an answer to eternal happiness won’t stop us from looking for it

In Summary

• Scientists call it the hedonic treadmill, whereby a high doesn't last or impress as much

A resident watches as houses burn in a fire that broke out at the Kijiji slums in the Southlands estate of Nairobi, January 28, 2018
A resident watches as houses burn in a fire that broke out at the Kijiji slums in the Southlands estate of Nairobi, January 28, 2018
Image: REUTERS

Have you ever found yourself looking at the people around you while you’re sitting in traffic or in a restaurant and wondered, what are they up to? I have. Mostly because I’m weird but in a nonthreatening way, and also because sometimes I get paid to look at people and figure out what they’re up to, what they’re about, what they’re after.

The thing I’ve noticed from my years of people-watching is that there are a myriad of things people are up to, and it’s almost countless the number of things they’re after. Underpinning all these innumerable up-to(s) and things people are after is one thing: the pursuit of happiness ever after.

To be smiling and happy is a deep-seated human desire. We search for happiness, sift through this rubble we call life looking for it, but a sad feature about life is that even if you do find happy, it doesn’t seem to like sticking around for long.

It’s a familiar story. We dream about and predict that a thing is going to make us happy, that when we get it we’re going to feel happy forever. And so we reach for that one thing we’re sure is the key to our happiness but when we get it, it doesn’t come with happiness forever like we thought it would.

Have you ever wondered why that is? I have. So I looked, not at people this time, but for answers.

The first answer is that our minds, instincts, and motivations lie to us about what makes us happy. We misjudge or rather we make forecasting errors about the kinds of things that will make us happy if we get them. We think more money will make us happy, or a promotion, fame, a nice house or a partner to share your life with, but psychologists have found that we overestimate the impact any of these things will have on our happiness. Plainly put, our instincts and motivations are wrong when it comes to what we think will make us happy.

The reason for this is in the second answer I found. Scientists call it the hedonic treadmill. This is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive events or life changes.

According to this theory, as a person makes more money (for example), expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. In other words, all the good things that make us happy, once we get them, stop being good over time. You just get used to them — be it money, a prestigious job title, that life partner.

And so you’re kind of like on a treadmill, chasing the next happiness high, not realising that even when you get that next high, it’s not going to last for as long as you think it will, nor is it going to be as good as you believe it will.

In the course of researching and writing this article, I didn’t find the answer to everlasting happiness. That’s probably because there isn’t one. I have a feeling, though, that it won’t stop us from looking for it.