How We've Been Sold a Lie About Happiness

How We've Been Sold a Lie About Happiness

The wrong way round

One of society’s dominant myths is that we derive happiness from success. Society trains us to be good at production and then brainwashes us to be (often even better) at consumption. Pass your exams, get a degree, get a job, buy nice stuff, get a better job, buy more nice stuff. This is how to be happy, so the myth goes.  

This myth has served society well. Indeed, the modern consumer- and market-driven is entirely reliant on near-universal adherence to this model. It is highly effective as the grease in the engine of the global economy. It is unfortunate, then, that for individuals, it is a flawed model for achieving happiness at a personal level.

The first issue is that we place happiness and success in the wrong order. What we don’t often hear is that we are far more likely to be successful if we are happy in the first place. A whole host of research has demonstrated that positive people are successful people, or they are, at least, much more likely to be successful than negative people. A meta-analysis published in 2005, analysing results from 225 studies covering 275,000 people, concluded that happy individuals are more likely to be successful in marriage, friendship, income, work performance, as well as more healthy1.

Instead of training us to pursue success as the bee-all and end-all, society would do better by training us how to engender our own positivity. Not only would we be happier but most of us would be more successful to boot.

Can you buy happpiness?

The happiness-through-success model directs us constantly to the future. We spend our lives dissatisfied with what we have and we’re constantly looking ahead to a potential future scenario onto which we attach hopes of success, happiness and fulfillment. If only I earned £30K…£50K…£100K…£200K I’d be happy, we often think. But how much success is enough to be happy? The problem with defining happiness as a by-product of success is that the goalposts never stand still. The risk is we spend a lifetime projecting into the future for a goal we never quite reach.

Underpinning this is the definition of success – and indeed of happiness - as material success. We pursue money for its own ends and seek happiness in the accumulation and consumption of material goods. What society fails to teach us is that chasing happiness through money is a fool’s errand. This is for the simple reason that we are never satisfied with what we have for long, no matter how much we have.

This is due, in part, to the evolution of our in-built reward systems, the purpose of which is to reinforce positive behaviour. When something great happens a chemical, dopamine, is released in the brain, giving us a sensation of excitement. This may happen when you discover you’re receiving a promotion at work or when you buy new house or a fancy new outfit. But the feeling of excitement always dissipates because we adapt to what we have. The new salary or house or outfit becomes the new baseline and to get excited we need something more.  And so it goes on. Lasting happiness cannot be found solely through the aggregation of positive sensations for the simple reason that nothing is ever enough.

Our inherently competitive nature tends to reinforce this. We evaluate our income by comparing ourselves to others, partly because we like to know that our employers value us. Studies have shown that people are more willing to accept a lower salary that is equal to that of their peers than a higher salary that is less than that of their peers. The problem is there is always someone better paid, or with a nicer car or a bigger house. Once again, this can lead to a never-ending spiral of accumulation without satiation. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with wanting a new TV or another dress. But it would be a mistake to expect fulfillment or lasting happiness to be a result.

Such is society’s emphasis on success and wealth accumulation as our primary objectives that it has restricted our understanding of what happiness means. At its broadest, we think of it as defined by our external life circumstances, such as our careers, our relationships and our lifestyles. These are fundamental drivers of our happiness, although, for the reasons outlined above, it is a mistake to seek happiness largely through the material aspects of lifestyle. At its narrowest, we see happiness simply as the aggregation of positive sensations.

It's all in the mind

What we tend to ignore is a crucial piece of the jigsaw – namely the working of our own mind.

Secular society is not very good at looking after our inner worlds. In fact, most of us will only ever learn anything about how the mind works either by chance or by actively seeking such information. We tend to pay no attention to how our minds work until the point there is something obviously wrong. ‘Mental health’ as a concept carries only negative connotations, for instance. School teaches us nothing on the subject and, until the recent surge of interest in mindfulness, you would have been unlikely to see or read much about it in the media.

All of which is surprising when one considers the obvious fact that life is, and can only ever be, a subjective experience. You may respond to a sunny day by commenting on how beautiful it is, while the person next you will complain that it’s too hot. Our mindset influences our experience to a far greater extent than the external ‘reality’ does. No amount of riches will result in happiness if your mind is stuck in a negative state, burdened by anxiety or stress.

This is probably why the rate of suicide among Chinese billionaires, at the most recent count, was double that of the overall population (2008-10). It is not our material wealth that defines our happiness but how positive our mindset is. As the French Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard has defined it, happiness is ‘a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things.’



1 The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?, Lyubomirsky, King and Diener, 2005.  Psychological Bulletin 2005, Vol. 131, No. 6, 803– 855
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky
 Image copyright Robert Kneschke
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