Even happiness research struggles to get us to the good life.
As a psychologist, I hear the same words over and over when I ask folks what has brought them to counseling—”I just want to be happy.” But as we know, happiness is an ever-shifting target.
If I can just find the right person and get married, then I will be happy…if I could get that new house or new car or new boat or new job… if I could just get pregnant and have a baby… if I could have another baby…if I could quit my job and stay home with my kids… if we could move closer to family and have help… if I could lose 15 pounds…if I could travel more…if we could afford to retire…
When we get those things, we are happy, until we’re not. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which the efficacy of a new pleasure wears off over time. The more feel-good stuff we do or have, the more we need to achieve the same level of happiness. It’s like the tolerance that develops over time in addiction, so we need three glasses of wine to get the same good feeling only one glass used to produce.
We know we want to be happy, but researchers have a hard time defining what that really means. There’s a whole field called positive psychology that, in part, explores how we become happy. Positive psychology examines positive subjective experiences (pleasure, happiness), positive traits (strengths, interests), and the positive institutions (churches, schools, communities) that support them.
Martin Seligman, often considered the founder of positive psychology, posited in his theory of authentic happiness that we make choices we think will make us feel good in the future (i.e. “I’m going to marry him because he will make me happy” or “I’m going to pay for this Disney vacation because we will have so much fun”). According to authentic happiness theory, our goal in life is to feel good, and we make choices accordingly.
But do we?
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