Happiness! It's the ultimate goal, isn't it?
If only you could be a little happier, life would be better. The notion is so deeply engrained in our culture, it's hard to imagine otherwise. The "pursuit of happiness" has hung over our heads since the Declaration of Independence. It's spurred an entire industry of books and apps and life-improvement plans.
"We have this culture of cheerfulness in America," says Todd Kashdan psychologist and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side. The happiness-chase has permeated the workplace too with companies hiring happiness consultants, creating happiness initiatives and appointing chief happiness officers—all with the objective of teaching people how to live a happier life.
The problem? "What this literature, these consultants and this mega-billion dollar industry ignore is that we don’t have a dial in our brains," Kashdan says. "We can't simply focus on being happier and increase our happiness."
Of course we all deserve happiness, but it's not always possible. Chasing after happiness like some ultimate goal and having it constantly elude you can be downright demoralizing.
Each of our brains is wired in its own unique way, which means there's a genetic and a neuropsychological base to elements of personality, says psychologist Brian Little whose latest book Me, Myself, and Us explores the science of personality.
Think of our individual happiness as a kind of treadmill we find ourselves on. While we each experience highs and lows, we tend to always return to this relatively stable level of happiness, what psychologists call the "hedonic treadmill," or "hedonic adaptation." This means everyone has a set point or constant level at which their happiness is maintained, regardless of what's happening in life. For each person, that stable point might be a bit different.
Some people are hardwired for happiness while others are not, says Little. Those who identify as stable extroverts, for instance, tend to be the happiest people, whereas neurotic introverts tend to generally be less happy. That doesn't mean stable extroverts are living better lives, of course. "To say extroverts are happier doesn't tell you a hell of a lot," says Little. "It cheapens our notion of the quality of lives to focus only on happiness."
When we're feeling positive and things are going well, we tend to be more passive. "Why shake things up?" we might think. But there's a danger to this. "When we are happy … we are very superficial in our thinking," says Kashdan.
Research has shown that negative emotions can actually help motivate you. Australian social psychologist Joe Forgas has studied the effects of sadness versus happiness on our cognition and interactions with others and found that mild negative feelings – as opposed to a sense of happiness — improve memory and judgment, increase motivation, and make us better communicators. "When you are happy, you don’t rock the boat," says Kashdan. "When we are slightly sad or somber, we are much more analytical in our thinking and more detailed and concrete in our communication. … That little bit of unhappiness motivates you."
There's a distinction, says Little, between the pursuit of happiness and what he calls "the happiness of pursuit." Over decades of research, Little has developed an analytical tool he calls Personal Project Analysis that centers on personal goals and projects as an indicator of well-being. Rather than focusing on people's emotional states, his research suggests that focusing on personal projects is a better measure of one's quality of life. "When people are asked to reflect upon their lives, it's ones appraisals of personal projects that seem to be the best predictor of a life well-lived," he says.
Personal projects can vary drastically for each person. They can be anything from spending time with your kids to writing your novel to losing ten pounds to chasing after someone you want to date. They are the goals and pursuits you prioritize and fill your time with. Focusing on personal projects rather than traits or emotions is useful in gauging our own well-being because we have greater agency over our personal projects. "Mere happiness is strongly linked to genetically linked traits like extrovertedness and neuroticism," says Little. "You can't do much about them, whereas you can push your projects."
Let's say a personal project of yours is to lose 10 pounds. You've made this a goal many times over the years and never reached it. Failing time and again starts to feel depressing and demoralizing. That's why defining one's well-being in terms of these personal projects is so useful. Perhaps a project like losing weight can be reframed so that it's more meaningful in your life. Instead of trying to lose ten pounds, maybe your goal is to be physically active everyday, to eat more fresh vegetables or to spend more time outdoors with friends and family – something that might be more meaningful in your life. "You can have meaningless projects that are hardly worth explication," says Little. "Some of them can be just miserable."
In studying people's relationships to their personal projects, Little has found that it's not simply what we identify as our projects that matters, but our perception of them. Little asks people not just to list their projects, but to reflect on them. How meaningful are they to you? How connected to others do these projects make you feel? Do they give rise to positive or negative emotions?
Reframing the question of happiness to focus on one's personal projects is a way to better understand what contributes to your well-being and what doesn't. "It's not just what you are doing, it's what you think you are doing as well," says Little. We can have many meaningful projects in our lives that we handle in a completely chaotic way or we can be really organized about a lot of projects that bring no meaning or human connection into our lives.
List your personal projects and think about how they can be better incorporated into your life. That might mean communicating more openly with people about what those projects are so that they respect your priorities and boundaries. It might mean trying to be more organized about the things that matter most—setting aside scheduled time for projects rather than approaching them haphazardly. It might mean scrapping a project that doesn't add anything positive to your life.
"One of the dimensions we assess in projects is to what extent is this consistent with the core values in your life?" says Little. "These are the kinds of questions that adopting a projects approach allows us to ask."
Try this: Answer the question, "How is it going?" Don't just shrug off an answer. Really think about it.
What is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think about your traits or emotions – I'm happy, I'm lazy, I'm tired, I'm sad. Or do you think about your personal projects and how they factor into your life?
"Some people are so caught up in looking at their projects in just one way. It's all: 'Am I a success? Am I not a success?' You get caught into a cul-de-sac where you just go round and round," says Little. "A life well lived involves projects that are meaningful, manageable, and connected with others … The projects that you pursue are more important than the state you want to reach."