When I grow up I want to be a...
When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not answer teacher or ballerina or neurosurgeon. "A snail," I would say. Snails get to have their homes on their backs wherever they go. Snails get to live close to the earth, sliding along at their own pace. For the last 3 decades, I have been trying to find my way back to my true nature.
False beliefs about what would make me happy (a different body, academic accolades, a cleaner kitchen) repeatedly derail me from my true snail nature. Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky and her team at UC Riverside have demonstrated through psychological science that I am not alone. Three common happiness myths lead us astray.
Myth 1: Happiness is something that is going to happen in the future.
We get caught up in the belief that at some point in the future, when we get through school, when we get a job, when our relationship with our partner improves, when we retire...we will be happy. Yet, the the First Noble Truth (dukkha) reminds us that life is dissatisfying. Mindfulness teaches us that our only chance for happiness is sitting in right now. Once we reach the future there is inevitably a new future we are trying to achieve. Thus, savoring the good in this moment, as Dr. Rick Hanson states, rewires our brain to be happy right now. Dirty kitchen and all.
Myth 2: We need something outside ourselves to make us happy.
We seek out hedonic pleasure through money, relationships and status. Although these material things may increase our happiness for a while we have a happiness set point that we tend to return to. This is called hedonic adaptation. Much like the 4th chocolate never tastes as good as the first one, we adapt to positive changes in our lives.
- Two years of winning the lottery, lottery winners return to the same level of happiness that they were prior to winning
- The first two years of marriage we see an increase in happiness, but after that happiness goes back to baseline. Romantic/passionate love, over time, becomes more companionate love
- Above a family income of $75K per year, there is little to no correlation between how much money you make and how happy you are. In fact, some of the sacrifices to make more money such as a longer commute, less time with your family, work stress, may decrease your happiness
- Over time satisfaction with investing in the material item goes down, where as happiness increases with investing in an experience
The river is famous to the fish...
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Myth 3: Happiness means we wont experience pain or discomfort.
Often times our behavior is under control of our reptilian and limbic brain as opposed to our higher level frontal lobe. This brain system directs us to take a left turn any time we feel threatened, or may experience discomfort. The problem is that if we keep taking left turns on our path to a meaningful life...
You get the point. As Dr. Steve Hayes states, values and pain are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. Anything that is meaningful to me in my life--my kids, my relationship with my partner, my practice, my asparagus patch, also brings me pain and discomfort. In order to be happy, we must be willing to experience loss, fear, sadness, and many other difficult emotions.
An alternative route to happiness according to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):
And get moving in a direction that matters.
(Even if it's at a snail's pace.)