When I was studying for my final high-school exams I had Post-It note on my desk which read “India.” Amidst the misery of practice essays and assignments, the note was a vow that once I was done, I would travel. It was the dream of independence, of discovery and a promise that one day I would be happy when….
A few years later, when I was buried in the wretchedness of my thesis for my post-graduate journalism studies, I had another Post-It note on my computer screen which read “ABC.” I would be happy when I landed my dream job in broadcast TV.
Over the years my happiness goal posts have continued to move. I’ll be happy when I get a promotion… I’ll be happy when I’ve saved a deposit for a house… I’ll be happy when I’m married… when I’m a mother… when I’ve made my film… written my book….
Of course I’m oversimplifying things, but you’re probably getting the gist that I’ve woken up to an internal mantra that plays during times of discontent; “I’ll be happy when…” and it’s become apparent that my quest for “happiness” is unreachable; at least, the modern-day version of happiness is; the one that is sold to me on the back busses as an ever-lasting feeling of “good” that is embodied in a yellow smiley face emoji.
This insight; that I’m destined to be forever chasing happiness rainbows, came while I was reading a book by evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright in which he makes the case that I will never achieve long lasting happiness because Mother Nature doesn’t want me to. (You can read my book review here.) Simply explained, Wright argues that gratification was designed to evaporate leaving dissatisfaction in its place as a kind of self-care, survival-of-the-species motivational force.
Think about it this way, if my African-savannah roaming ancestors were enduringly satisfied after eating a meal, they would have soon died in a state of contented starvation. This may have been nice for them, but not so helpful for the higher objective of procreation, raising young and successfully passing on genes to the next generation. So instead of granting enduring satiation, evolutionary forces gave my forerunners a kind of tug-of-war relationship to food. They ate, felt good, and then after a while, felt hungry and discontented, which motivated them to find food, and so on and so on.
I guess the Rolling Stones really were onto something when they sang “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Wright’s happiness take-down ties in with a concept in social psychology called the “Hedonic Treadmill.” Like all social science, there’s nuance in the research, but generally, the concept suggests that despite the highs and lows we may experience in our lives, most of us have a happiness baseline to which we are destined to return. This is why the poor buggers who win the lottery ultimately end up no happier than if they hadn’t been blessed by their financial stroke of luck.
I know all this sounds rather dismal. Indeed, some argue that the pursuit of greater happiness is entirely futile and I confess that when I was first mulling it through, a deep sense of melancholy came over me. I started to wonder what – if lasting happiness is unattainable – was the point of… well… it all?
But as I contemplated the slipperiness of my happiness, I also began paying attention the bi-products of my search for it. My quest led me to do just one more practice essay at school, to volunteer for just one more internship at university, to dig just a little deeper when I was a news reporter and to take the frightening leap of leaving mainstream journalism to become an independent filmmaker. My search also led me to marry the most wonderful man in the world and to experience the bone-deep terror, exhaustion, joy and delight of raising a family.
In my almost 38-years on this planet, the bi-product of my ceaseless pursuit of happiness so far – the good, the bad and the gut-wrenching – has all been rather fantastic and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
So I’m now thinking perhaps that it’s not so much happiness I should be pursuing, but rather the pursuit of the pursuit of happiness – or the happiness of pursuit. I suspect therein lies the meaning and purpose of it all. Maybe that would make a nice Post-It note on my desktop.