Monday, August 11, 2014

Happiness is temporary unless you work at it

In social media, a very popular method of conveying a message is the meme. A meme consists of a picture, maybe a composite of more than one picture, with text overlaid. I a few weeks ago, saw this meme. It said:

"Happiness isn't about getting what you want all the time. It's about loving what you have and being grateful for it."

Here is one example of the above sentence in a meme:



There is very real evidence to support this fact, some of it is subjective and some of it is easy to observe in others. First, let's go way back, sort of. Anyone here remember the movie, Jurassic Park? One of the observations made in the movie is that dinosaurs don't notice you're there if you freeze. The theory is that their eyes are sensitive to motion and if you move, they think you're alive and therefore, food. So hold still for a moment and you live to see another day, at least in that movie.

This is probably true of any predator. But looking at the evolution of mammals, we can see that there is a clear evolution of mammals from reptiles around 320 million years ago. It is worth noting that humans have something called the "R-Complex", a part of the human brain thought to be the reptilian brain kept from the evolution of one line of dinosaurs to mammals.

To put it simply, humans, like reptiles, are sensitive to changes in their environments. While it is not clear that reptiles can be "happy" like humans, they notice changes in their environment, like movement, changes in lighting and changes in composition. If you move furniture in a room that is familiar to someone else, if the change is subtle, the change might not be noticed. But if you make a large change, such as moving a couch from one side of the room to another, you may create a pleasant surprise for others.

But after awhile, despite our pleasure experienced with the new arrangement, we get "used to it". As we get older, we might even become "set in our ways", rarely if ever moving our furniture.

This pattern of behavior isn't confined to furniture. You get a new TV that seems novel for awhile and a few weeks later, you're used to it. You get a new phone and you get used to it. Get a new car? You get used to that, too. New home? That becomes very familiar once you start doing maintenance. Everything in life becomes familiar and when it becomes familiar, no longer does it give us the pleasure or excitement of something new.

Take a look at print advertising and you will see happy, smiling people, just adoring that new product. I remember seeing a cell phone ad with a woman smiling with glee at the new phone in her hand. Honestly, I've never been that happy about a new phone. I've been pleased, no doubt, but gleeful?

Kids are a wonderful example of how we get used to things. Months ago, we got this new toy for our daughter, Emily. The first day she played with that toy, she could hardly bear to go to sleep that night without more time to play with that new toy. It was quite a show of drama to see how she insisted on playing with that toy the first day. Today? She hardly notices that toy, unless one of the parents plays with that toy, too. But the attachment that she had to that toy is no longer there.

Our economy is built in large part on the notion that we can keep buying a succession of novel do-dads and gadgets to keep us happy. Every commercial on TV is built on the assumption that if we have this new product, that we will be happy. But no matter what we buy, where we live, what we own, we get "used to it".

Because of the way our brains are built, there is simply no way to buy enough to be happy all the time. Sure, you can have a higher standard of living through prudent purchases, but you will not get high and stay high for long. Some possessions like a house, a car or a bed, can bring a greater sense of comfort and stability, but they don't bring happiness. If you've ever had buyers remorse, you know what I'm talking about.

Someone once suggested the following to me, long ago: "Imagine your life on a heart monitor in a hospital. The line goes up and it goes down when your heart beats. Life is like that. But when that line goes flat, you're dead."

No matter our possessions, our status, our location, or the people in our lives, no matter how wondrous the gifts we have received, we might still find ourselves sitting on the floor after 30 minutes of unwrapping our gifts on Christmas morning only to say, "Is that it?"

Happiness is not caused by money, external circumstances, or a new possession or even a new relationship. It is a decision we make moment to moment. We have to constantly ask ourselves to be happy with what we have now. To find what we are grateful for right now. To find contentment in the room where we are, right now. This is the real work of living and it requires determined effort and introspection, for the unexamined life is not worth living.

To do anything else is to miss the point of life.
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