How to change our default setting for happiness?
We can become genuinely happier on a default level.
Today, the potential to achieve our dreams, whatever they may be, is well within our grasp. Careers have opened up. Students don’t just dream about being astronauts and lawyers, they can work towards it. Adults can change careers or even go back to complete their education. There is easy access to resources.
There is so much hope for success, yet depression and suicide rates are on the rise.
What’s going wrong? Why aren’t we happy?
Research indicates that a lot is wrong with the way we think about goals and this is somewhat because of our education system, which is all about doing everything for the result.
When we have the outcome as a goal — we could either succeed or fail. If we meet the outcome, we succeed; we get a temporary bump of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, and feel happy for a short period. On the other hand, if we fail to meet the outcome, the sting of failure stays with us for a very long time. This is because, from an evolutionary perspective, we put more emphasis on the bad over the good.
We obsess over the past and worry about the future. So, even in our search for happiness and success, we divert our attention to things that serve to only undermine our progress. All the great teachers of self-mastery emphasize one essential understanding –
‘The past cannot be retrieved and the future is a construct. All that truly exists is this moment.’
When we are not present in the ‘now’, we are either stuck in the past or lost in the future, and neither of these are helpful. Psychologists, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University say:
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The Japanese have a concept based on the power of now, ‘Ichigo Ichie’. It means that what we are experiencing right now will never happen again. Inculcating the idea helps us slow down and remember that every moment we spend in the world, with our children and loved ones, with our friends, or simply with ourselves, is infinitely valuable and deserves our full attention. It teaches us that we need to enjoy the present; that if we are concerned about the past or the future — we will miss this very unique unrepeatable moment.
I think my first realisation of the importance of the present was in the backyard of my house in Australia when I was 10. I stepped out to a beautiful sunny day; blue skies, flowers in bloom, and my attention on a colourful butterfly. Transfixed — that moment was all that existed. That was the first time a young me would experience spiritual intuition; knowing that I was connected to something larger than myself — the Universe. Ever since then I have become, in Ichigo language, “a hunter of special moments”. A hunter of the feeling that I am a part of something larger, what Nicola Tesla and others call ‘the source’, out there in the universe.
When we live in the past, we are either reminiscing or regretting and in the future, we are planning or worrying. Ichigo Ichie teaches us how to find happiness by living fully in the present. This is something we need to embrace and teach our children in this age of constant distraction and instant gratification. A sense of awe, presence, and bliss can be found in the daily moments if we stay in the now. The more we can remind ourselves to live in the moment, the greater the state of happiness we will find ourselves in.
In psychology, this concept is known as the hedonic adaptation or hedonic treadmill, which is the observed tendency of humans to maintain a relatively set level of happiness. In fact, most psychology research shows that we have a ‘set point’ for happiness — a default setting. So, after the initial high or low of an experience, we come back to our set-level of happiness. Big changes like winning the lottery don’t impact that set point as much as we imagine, just as a catastrophic event would not. But if we keep marinating our thoughts while we are experiencing something nice, we can gradually increase our set-point. We can become genuinely happier on a default level.
What do we need to do to increase our default setting for happiness?
Be more conscious of our present. We’re often caught up in worries about the past and future.
The past we keep thinking about is often negative and it contributes to our unhappiness, anger, guilt, and hate. Interestingly enough, most people who harbour feelings of anger, resentment, regret, and unhappiness are not actually experiencing any negative event or situation presently. However, their minds are conjuring up stories and replaying the past, and that is the source of the unpleasant feelings.
Sure, thinking about the future in a way that serves us is beneficial. Unfortunately, many people do not recognise and stop the transition of planning and hope for the future into worries about the future. They imagine worst-case scenarios and dwell on them before they even happen. Constant worry, fear, and anxiety cannot help prevent the future from happening. As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
So, in essence, the solution to unhappiness and anxiety is to be present, which we know as being mindful, conscious, and aware. By focusing our minds on the present moment, instead of the past or the future, we are living in the current moment, which can be magical and liberating.
Harvard researcher Killingsworth says, “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness.” He says, “Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to be here now.
These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
Mindfulness has been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, more positive affect, less negative affect, and a greater sense of autonomy and competence. So, we should be mindful to allow experiences to be experienced and savoured, rather than always trying to capture them.
Furthermore, various research shows that as you try to capture a moment with your camera, it may prevent you from remembering the very events you are trying to capture. Trying to use media to preserve moments prevents you from fully experiencing it in the first place!
We need to go from focussing on the outcome to focusing on the process. Doing it this way will help us achieve more success and joy. When we focus on outcomes, the things we normally love doing become chores. When we focus on the process and stay only in the present moment, we condition ourselves to derive intrinsic value out of what we are doing.
Bryan Cranston (the actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad) described the change that helped him go from being an average actor to an extraordinary one as the time when he shifted to placing more value on the process rather than the outcome. He says this is when he found joy and success. A lot of successful people reiterate that when they moved away from a focus on the outcome to a focus on the process, they not only found more success, but they also felt more joy. So, if you want to stay happy, stay in the moment — stay present.