Happiness 101

This semester, I’m taking a class called The Good Life. We read ancient philosophers’ ideas of what makes a good life and bring those ideas to the present day. Generally, most of us don’t take time each week to reflect on our happiness, and this class provides an opportunity to do just that. There’s no one definitive answer for how to be happy, but the class presents ideas for us to consider.

One of these ideas is the adaptation principle. We’re very inaccurate when predicting our future emotions, both in duration and intensity. In reality humans are very adaptable, and when a situation changes, we quickly return to our baseline happiness. For example, you may think that you’d be much happier after winning the lottery and much unhappier after becoming paralyzed. While this is true directly following the event, there are studies that show that after a year, both lottery winners and paraplegics have returned to their base level of happiness.

Another misconception we have is the idea that “I will be happy if/when…” The progress principle explains that that’s not necessarily true. We set goals for ourselves like getting into a good university or getting a promoted at work, but once we achieve these goals the happiness is very short-lived. It’s the process of reaching the goals that bring us happiness.

There’s also the idea of natural happiness vs. synthetic happiness. We have natural happiness when we get something we want, and we make synthetic happiness when we don’t get what we want. We believe that synthetic happiness isn’t as good, but it’s just as real and enduring.

You can see the power of synthetic happiness from a study at Harvard University. Students were given the opportunity to print two photographs in a dark room, but they could only keep one. One group of students was told that they had to decide immediately and couldn’t change their minds. The other group was told that if they decided they didn’t like their choice, they’d have a few days to switch it. The students that were stuck with their photo were happier with their choice than those who could change their minds. This result is due to synthetic happiness because they justified their choice instead of questioning whether or not they picked the right one.


A common thread throughout these ideas is that happiness lies in changing our perceptions, not our circumstances. Meditation and cognitive therapy are both concrete solutions to changing your perceptions. They both focus on recognizing negative thoughts and changing automatic thought patterns. But does this actually work? If you’ve spilled coffee on yourself at the beginning of a long workday, just telling yourself that it’s not a big deal isn’t going to magically snap you out of your bad mood. However, when you’re constantly making an effort to adjust your negative thoughts, it does start to make a difference eventually. Both meditation and cognitive therapy take a lot of effort, but they do actually rewire your brain and make you happier.

While none of these ideas are definitive answers on how to live a good life, they offer interesting things to think about when reflecting on your own life and happiness. If you’re interested in learning more about the various theories on happiness, read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

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