Are you on the happiness treadmill?  Deferring happiness until you mark those essays, write those reports, or, highly topical, survive the term? If so, you’re not likely to end up all that happy, no matter how much #selfcare you’re scheduling into your weekend.  Here’s why.

The myth of I’ll be happy when… 

The belief behind “I’ll be happy when…” is that you need to defer your happiness, put it on hold until you achieve, or do, or get, something specific.  It might be any of the above teacher examples or it might be a big life event, like getting married or buying your first home. Until you get there, happiness is on hold.  This approach makes it less likely you are going to be happy because it misunderstands what it means to be happy.    

Shawn Achor’s happiness research has shown that people aren’t happy because they accomplish certain career or life goals, rather they achieve these successes because they’re happy.  His work illustrates that we’ve got it backwards, happiness leads to success, not the other way around. So why has the pursuit of happiness become a goal in itself? Our desire for happiness has been turned into a marketable commodity – read this book, go to this workshop, buy this, look like this, eat here, holiday there – and then you’ll be happy.  All of these happiness quick fixes feed into the misapprehension that ‘getting’ something or somewhere will make you happy.     

Let’s take the example of “I’ll be happy when…it’s the end of term.”  There’s a lot to do, you’re tired, but you need to get all of this done and then, when it’s the holidays, you’ll be happy. It looks like a sensible strategy, you’ve got an end goal in mind, getting to that goal motivates you to get on with all of the jobs that need doing because in x days it’ll all be over and you can relax.  You’ll be happy for six glorious, bliss-filled weeks. But will you? And is perpetual happiness even a desirable goal?

The science of happiness

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Happy Brain, doesn’t think so.  He says that happiness shouldn’t be the default state in the human brain because if we’re constantly happy, we won’t do much.  He believes we need happiness as a motivator to make us do stuff and help us get through life. So while using a goal oriented approach to being happy has some merit, it’s only one part of the happiness jigsaw.    

In The How of Happiness psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky writes about the principle of hedonic adaptation.  This occurs when we achieve our goals, or get the things we wish for. The initial sense of satisfaction, joy or pride that comes with the accomplishment or event, definitely creates a temporary mood boost, but the key word is temporary.  We adjust very quickly to our new circumstances, we’ve got what we wanted, but it’s not enough. We start fixating on the next goal, because happiness is out there and we need to keep chasing it. Welcome to the happiness treadmill.    

The pursuit of happiness

Have you read Brave New World?  In the dystopian society that Aldous Huxley creates in the novel, happiness is used as a weapon, a way to keep people pacified because happy people don’t rebel.  In the book people are encouraged to enjoy themselves as much as possible: lots of shopping, lots of food, lots of sex. Anything that might cause fear, sadness, anxiety or discomfort has been banished from society.  If something does go wrong, people take soma – a happiness inducing drug with no side effects that gives them a break from reality.    

Like any good satire, Huxley’s tale makes us think.  By describing a world obsessed with enjoyment, where there is no room for suffering, he challenges us to assess our own priorities.  Burnett holds that in order to be truly happy we need the full range of emotions and experiences. He argues that in order to fully appreciate the good in our lives we need to also know what it’s like to feel a bit miserable.  Nataly Kogan, author of Happier, agrees.  She shares how when she allowed herself to feel the full range of emotions, including the ones she would typically have categorised as “negative,” she was able to forge a gentler, yet more enduring, path toward happiness.  So don’t feel bad about not being happy all of the time – it doesn’t mean you’ve failed at happiness! 

Happiness comes from in-between

We are all flawed, imperfect, talented, uptight, kind, cynical, funny human beings.  We will have good days and bad days, and that’s fine. The key to happiness is being happy now, in the present moment, even if everything in your life isn’t just how you want it to be.  Let go of striving, let go of perfection.    

Being a happy teacher isn’t about putting off happiness, or smiling all the time, or meeting every deadline, acing every observation or having the best classroom displays. Feeling happy is fleeting, it occurs in the moment.  Enjoy it while it lasts, embrace it, but remember, genuine and sustainable happiness comes from having an overall sense that you enjoy your job, that you can handle its daily challenges, that you have good relationships with your colleagues and your students and that what you do matters, really matters. 

“Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realisation that we can.”

Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, (2010)

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