For years, most of us here in the West have attached our happiness to getting the things that we want. We strive to be healthier and wealthier and to achieve our personal and career goals. Each new milestone we reach seems to reproduce the phenomenon of craving; we can always earn more money, have a more prestigious job title, or live in a better house or neighborhood.
Despite all our striving, we never seem to reach the point of complete satisfaction. Any exhilaration we experience over finally acquiring the things we once wanted so desperately seems to fade as time passes.
The “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation” is a term used to describe a theory on happiness devised by Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell. The theory suggests that positive and negative events have a limited effect on an individual’s long-term happiness. Negative and positive events may temporarily decrease or increase an individual’s happiness in the short term, but eventually, all humans return to a “baseline” state of happiness that is predetermined by genetics and other factors. There are some notable exceptions, such as when people become addicted to substances and need more of the substance to maintain the same “high,” or when people become traumatized by particularly adverse events. The point is that in most cases, the issue is less the events themselves, and more the individuals’ tendency or ability to adapt to the circumstances.
There are two other factors to consider. Firstly, after having our desires repeatedly thwarted, some of us fade into a kind of learned helplessness. We become numb and apathetic, choosing not to pursue the things we want for fear of disappointment. Others in our lives can often confuse this state of paralysis with laziness, which only makes us feel worse about our lives and choices.
Secondly, so many of us do not know what we want in the first place. For some of us, it isn’t simply that we return to a baseline state after the novelty of certain events has passed. Sometimes, getting what we want is instead accompanied by incredible emptiness. It’s as if achieving what we thought we wanted only serves as a painful reminder of how far we are from peace and meaning in our lives.
I recently started the final semester at my college. Before that, I had been on Winter Break for over a month. This should have given me plenty of time to blog and write fiction or poetry, but instead, when I wasn’t engaged in holiday activities, I found myself reading philosophy books and desperately journaling in an effort to maintain my own sanity. Of course, there were other things I did, but I’m proud to say I was able to read the entirety of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and most of “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca.
I would not now call myself a Stoic, but I will say that Stoic philosophy comforted me in what was in some ways a dark season. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from 161 CE to 180 CE. He was one of—if not the most—powerful men in the world. Yet it was strangely relatable to read his writing about how difficult it sometimes was for him to get out of bed in the morning. In response to this, he would contrast himself with the birds and bees and all the other creatures who went about “doing what nature demanded of them.”
He wrote, “You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.” Marcus Aurelius believed that the most important thing was to live a virtuous life and to live in harmony with other human beings. He, like other Stoics, believed that there was an almost divine order to things and that whether we are dragged along or follow willfully, “Nature” would have her way with us. Therefore, we should use our rationality—our greatest gift—to live our lives in concordance with Nature, striving to do well but accepting difficult circumstances without excess emotionality or complaint. We are instructed to adjust our expectations rather than try to change other people.
While I hesitate to believe that things are divinely ordered, I believe that it can be incredibly valuable to heed the Stoic advice to separate what is within our locus of control from what isn’t. It is easily arguable that we become less happy when we try to control people and situations when we can’t. Stoics believed that our thoughts and actions are all that remain within our control and that we should recognize that we are all subject to the whims of Fate. Our circumstances can change without warning, but we should try to maintain an internal center of gravity that keeps us grounded in uncertain times. The Stoic secret to “getting what you want” seems to sound suspiciously much like “wanting what you’ve got.”
While I have suggested earlier in the article that outside events don’t make or break us—while outlining a few exceptions—there are a few scenarios that I have neglected to mention. A 2010 study revealed that money canmake us happier, but only up to a point. Once we have our basic needs taken care of, money doesn’t directly add to our happiness. A more recent study, however, posits that earning more can increase our happiness—even beyond previously established cut-offs—especially if we value financial security. Money gives us options that we may not otherwise have, such as the ability to safely ride out a period of unemployment. It can also be quite valuable if it is used to purchase experiences rather than accumulate material goods. Also, enjoying the work we do can be a big factor in our overall happiness.
However, the most important factor when it comes to happiness is perhaps the most neglected: having a sense of community and good social relationships. An 80-year longitudinal study from Harvard University discovered that people with healthy relationships lived longer and experienced better physical and mental health. This is likely because investing in relationships can add meaning to our lives and help us to deal with the ups and downs of life. The Harvard study, among others, has shown that loneliness can shorten our lives. Loneliness is defined as a feeling of aloneness, regardless of the amount of social interaction an individual maintains.
I wrote earlier about goals. While it can be important to set goals and reach them, there are other more crucial factors when it comes to happiness. Even when it comes to setting goals, it is important to keep in mind that setting overly strict goals can lead to hyperfocus and an unwillingness to adapt to change. Extrinsic motivation—that is, motivation associated with external pressure to perform—has been demonstrated to be less effective in helping us to find creative solutions than intrinsic motivation, which involves us seeking to perform well because of our own values.
In summary, it seems that we often don’t know what we want. We chase external rewards and markers of success, without paying attention to the things that add meaning to our lives. In addition to my regular Stoic reading, I’ve been reading “Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine” by Derren Brown. The book leans heavily on Stoic principles but pulls lessons from multiple authors and schools of philosophy. I would recommend it as reading for anyone who is feeling stuck in life.
Early in the book, Brown references Daniel Kahneman’s idea of the “Remembering Self vs. the Experiencing Self” as expressed by Kahneman in this TED talk. According to Kahneman, we all have dual selves. One is the “Experiencing Self,” who is always concerned with what is pleasurable—or painful—in the moment. This runs the full gamut from exciting vacations to undesirable surgical procedures. The “Remembering Self” on the other hand, is more concerned with the story we tell ourselves about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future. The “Remembering Self” is the meaning-making part of ourselves. It is the part of us that reflects on how satisfied we are with our lives in general, and it is less concerned about what happens moment-to-moment than about the key moments that stand out. It decides what direction we are going to steer our lives.
Kahneman argues that we often confuse happiness with well-being. What makes us happy in the present doesn’t always lead to us being satisfied with our lives, and vice versa. In other words, we can have our immediate wants fulfilled but still not have a good overall opinion of our lives. Which self we choose to value can have a tremendous impact on our quality of life. Kahneman seems to support the idea that the stories we tell ourselves about our wants and desires matter even more than the wants and desires themselves. He suggests that our circumstances can change, but saving those exceptions I’ve written about earlier, the story we tell ourselves about those events matters more than the events.
In the end, we must each decide what is important for us in our own lives. However, based on empirical research, it seems that choosing to take actions that provide long-term benefit, such as building relationships or having meaningful experiences, is more satisfying than chasing wealth or achievements for their own sake. It is also important that we live in accordance with our own values, whatever they may be. A big part of getting the life that we want is both knowing what we want and wanting the “right” things. Additionally, much of our satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—with life comes from the way we choose to interpret our experiences. It is true that traumatic experiences can hinder us, but we still have the opportunity to take actions that help us to heal from them.
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8 responses to “On Wanting”
I think longterm happiness is difficult to achieve when we concentrate on material things. Relationships, memories etc are way more likely to keep us happy long term. Great post.
Yes, material things bring that burst of joy that doesn’t last forever. Of course, if you’re living in total poverty that negatively affects your happiness, but once you have more than enough it can only improve your happiness so much. Thank you for your comment!
Yes, that’s exactly right. My pleasure.
There are so many good points in your article. Everyone is different and each individual has their own way of making them happy. Mostly in the short-term though. My disability has been a constant learning experience and I had to figure out life all over again. I was 32 when I became disabled and I’m 51 now. Over the last 4 or 5 years, my priorities and my life changed. What I wanted and what I want to do changed. Overall, we evolve and learn as we go.
Thank you so much for your insightful comment! It is so true that we have the opportunity to learn and grow as we go along. Unexpected events can change life for us, but we still get to define ourselves.
We are always learning even if we don’t realize it. Time keeps going. Your post can teach a lot.