Phillip Brickman and Donald Campbell first coined the term ‘hedonic treadmill’ in 1971. They were describing that sense of “I’ll be happy when …. I get that car… that promotion… that bag…. that house… I can do a headstand…”
You see, the things we think will make us happy, do offer a brief elevation in mood, but that is short lived. The initial dopamine hit from ‘achieving’ your goal wears off once you become accustomed to this new ‘thing’ and your happiness returns to its natural baseline. Even lottery winners show no long-term difference in happiness compared to non-winners. We adapt to the life we have.
Our thoughts are seductive though, and our brain is a master of problem solving and gap analysis. When we believe that we should be happier, our brain measures that gap between where we are now and where we want to be and comes up with a list of potential solutions to bridge that gap (new car, new job etc). The problem with applying this ‘doing’ brain to emotions is that they can’t be pinned down and made tangible. Feelings are by definition transitory and fleeting and we feel and express a whole tapestry of emotions every day. You can’t ‘get to’ a feeling, you can only ever live through it like walking through wind or rain or sunshine.
With mindfulness, we can improve our overall perception of happiness (or baseline happiness if you will) by stopping trying to ‘do’ the happiness. Here are 3 tips to ‘living’ happiness instead.
The more that we allow our mind to measure the gap between our existing state and where we want to be, the less happy we feel. Although it feels counter intuitive, we actually feel happier overall when we allow ourselves to feel all of the emotions; even those that we may consider less worthy, such as fear or shame or sadness. When we resist these emotions, we tend to get stuck in them, as what we resist, persists (Carl Yung). If we allow ourselves to feel into and be with these emotions, they will dissipate like mist. Not always instantly but in an appropriate amount of time. Jeff Foster says it beautifully in the poem below.
Once we’ve accepted that our emotions will come and go, we can start to be more present with our happiness when it’s here. It was Rick Hanson who said the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences. We have to stay with a positive experience for at least 10 seconds (vs. 0.1 seconds for a negative experience) for it to have an impact on our overall mood. Think of it as the difference between walking quickly to a destination on a sunny day and barely noticing the sun’s warmth; and lying out in the sun and feeling its warmth radiate deep down to our bones. Can you do the same with happiness? Allowing it to seep deep down into the core of your being when you notice and feel it.
Feelings will come and go and we won’t be happy all the time. When we try to hold onto happiness too tightly or make it stay, we’re back to creating more unhappiness for ourselves by comparing the gap between what we want and where we are. Think of it like holding a butterfly in your hand. If the butterfly lands on your hand, its wonderful to sit and appreciate its beauty by allowing it to rest gently there. Holding it in your awareness before it flies away again. If you try to hold onto the butterfly or prevent it from leaving, you’ll only crush and destroy the very thing you were appreciating.
Happiness is something that you are and not something you can do. Allowing yourself to be present with happiness when it’s here and accepting when its not, is the mindful way to increasing your overall happiness and contentment. See what happens when you stop trying and start feeling.