Once upon a time, an old farmer lived in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him well-to-do because he owned a horse, which he used for many years to work his crops. One day his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors gathered to commiserate with him. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically, “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors rejoiced. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors visited the farmer to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” said the farmer. The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer replied.
This insightful story is from the most recent book I read, Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t-What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The farmer is wise in the fact that he doesn’t presume an outcome to be positive or negative. This is extremely insightful because we are more times the “neighbors” who are quick to congratulate or commiserate. How can be go through life and know whether future events will bring happiness or dismay? We are not fortune tellers, but we can learn from those who have gone before us and experienced similar events first hand. Let’s go through some key life events and figure out what will and will not make us happy.
I will be happy when I find Mr/Mrs. Right-When you begin a relationship with a partner, who you see as your perfect match, the passion can be described as unworldly. Everyday is magical, sex is incredible, conversations endless, and compliments bountiful. This of course fades with time; fast forward into a busy marriage and you may find yourself bored of your partner and wondering why you even got married. This is called hedonic adaptation which is the process of us getting use to things overtime. This occurs in relationships because we remain with the same partner who presents us similar stimulus on a daily basis. How can we fight hedonic adaptation and keep our relationships strong and happy? Change up the stimulus: try a new sex position, go to a new restaurant, give out a compliment, write a note, spend a weekend apart, etc. Give your relationship a buffet of stimuli to maximize the variety.
I will be happy when I obtain (fill in the blank)-In our consumer culture we are told that obtaining a certain amount of money, status, or power will bring us happiness. Money can buy happiness but only to a certain degree. Once we have food, shelter, heat, and safety (including health insurance) we derive minimal happiness from additional monetary funds. The additional money we earn frequently used to increase our luxuries which we become accustomed to overtime through hedonic adaptation. For example, my wife and I bought a house; in the first month we were on cloud nine but we soon got use to our surroundings and our happiness returned to normal levels. This happiness myth also applies to obtaining titles or promotions. The initial feelings we have after achieving new status is soon adapted to and often times replaced by unhappiness related to new stresses and unforeseen responsibilities.
I can’t be happy when the test results come back positive-Our predictions of the future are very inaccurate because we tend to only focus on the positives when we desire something and the negatives when we don’t want something. For example, when I think about going on my vacation I imagine the sun and relaxation but not the stressful travel and overpriced services. Conversely, when I think about having cancer I imagine vomiting from chemo but not celebrating holidays or listening to good music. We have a strong psychological immune system that tempers negative situations and allows us to be more optimistic than we thought possible. Adults who became blind were reported to have the same happiness after one year compared to when they weren’t blind. Time heals all things and terrible events are not so terrible because life is made up of many small happy events: having dinner with friends, seeing a full moon, reading a good book, etc. If the test result is positive, know that your post-tragedy happiness will in short be similar to your pre-tragedy happiness.
As you can see, happiness comes in many different forms and what we think will make us happy or unhappy is not always the case. To foster the most happiness we need to be conscious of the small things that bring us pleasure. I love yoga, coffee, conversations, reading, and tv shows; deliberate appreciation of these things makes my baseline happiness high. If those things that make me happy start to not make me happy then I take a break and come back to them-this is done to ameliorate hedonic apadtation. Lifelong happiness can be obtained if we understand our adaptability to both the positive and negative outcomes in life-when thinking about present and future events say to yourself “May be.”