We're getting "happy" wrong: why we need a more sustainable model of happiness

You’re hunkered down in the living room watching the 10 p.m. news, waiting for the announcer to pick the winning numbers. Earlier that day, you were picking up a few things at the corner store when, out of nowhere, felt the urge to buy a lottery ticket. You’re not much of a gambler, but it just felt right. You felt lucky.

The time has come, and you notice your palms are sticky and warm, and your heart is fluttering. The numbers appear on the screen one by one, and you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. You win? You win! Everything you’ve always wanted is at your fingertips: A million dollars and a lifetime of happiness.

But the high of being a millionaire fades, almost as quickly as the balance of your bank account fades. Fast forward to half a year later: The oversized, fake check is buried under dirty laundry. The winnings, which were heavily taxed to begin with, are mostly spent.

Sure, you purchased a boat, a lake house, and a few flashy sports cars. You did that home renovation you’ve been talking about for years, and you finally paid off your student loans. But you can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to acquire. You almost feel like stopping by the corner store again to try your chances at tonight’s numbers. You have to ask yourself:

Are you happy?

The myth of happiness

There’s a reason that, even amidst abundance, the feeling of happiness doesn’t last too long: because we’re getting happiness wrong. It’s easy to think that accumulating riches or attaining career goals will add to our contentment. “Once I reach this milestone,” we tell ourselves, “Then I’ll finally be happy.”

The problem is, this kind of happiness is a myth. It’s like a revolving door. Once we attain one thing, it loses its luster, and we’re hungry for the next thing. And on and on.

The lottery example is compelling because money represents a culturally-elevated ideal. But there’s actually scientific evidence that people who “make it” aren’t any happier than people in circumstances we see as “dire.”

In 1978, a group of researchers from two universities studied recent lottery winners alongside significantly paralyzed accident victims. When the researchers analyzed interviews they held with both groups, they uncovered something surprising:

The paraplegics and quadriplegics reported gaining more pleasure in everyday activities than the lottery winners.

There could be a number of reasons why this is — maybe the individuals injured in accidents were more thankful to be alive — but one theory stands out. Researchers attribute the lottery winners’ lack of pleasure to something they call “the hedonic treadmill,” or our tendency to adapt to the things we thought would satisfy us.

The idea is, after we get what we want, we automatically establish a new baseline for success or happiness: 

“. . .gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged,” the study authors write

“Thus . . . these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.”

Pursuing subjective ideals of happiness can be like climbing a stair-stepper to nowhere. We wear ourselves out chasing what we think will improve our lives — and to what end?

We need a new yardstick

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Our shared tendency to set new baselines for happiness isn’t the only issue impacting us. The measuring stick we’re using to define happiness isn’t accurate, which skews our view of where we are in life.

According to Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business and author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, many of us use arbitrary measurements to define our happiness and fulfillment, basing our own happiness on cultural ideals like success and wealth, or worse, on the perceived success and wealth of other people.

When I started Jotform, it seemed like there was a new tech company exploding into existence every day. I made the conscious choice not to accept VC funding — to this day, Jotform is a 100 percent bootstrapped company.

But that means for us, growth didn’t happen overnight. It would have been easy for me to measure my own happiness based on all the other startups rising to “success.” Instead, I chose my own metric for success: working hard and building a product I was proud of. A product that would improve people’s lives.

Instead of chasing ideals that will continually fail to result in sustainable happiness, Raghunathan recommends a more objective yardstick, a new perspective on happiness that’s based on what we actually want.

Here’s the new yardstick: Become aware of what you’re good at and what you like doing, then go do it.

Instead of basing your self-worth or contentment on how much you’ve achieved or how others perceive you, focus on what drives you as a person. What’s the work that makes you feel alive? What’s something you’re just naturally good at?

Opting out of the rat race in favor of these objective, personal metrics might seem obvious. But you will probably notice that when you stop allowing external factors to define how you feel, you’ll experience a lot more stability.

Not only will you be less miserable in life if you find something you actually like to do. You’ll also perform better. Studies show that when you’re interested in something, you’ll be better at it — which is a nice byproduct of actually enjoying your life.

I like how Raghunathan sums it up:

“When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct.”

Embrace the process

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The good news is, a more sustainable model of happiness is attainable if we will just flip our focus from fleeting, external factors to internal ones.

The harder news is, it’s not always easy to get there. Remember: Happiness doesn’t come overnight, or it wouldn’t be real happiness. It would be a winning lottery ticket (and we all know how that goes).

Real, authentic happiness is a journey, not a destination. And that means there will likely be as many bad days as good ones. But the bad days, the times we don’t get what we want, play an important role in creating the life most of us want to live.

My own career journey has had its share of hard days and roadblocks: software bugs, unhappy customers, tight budgets. Getting to where we are today — a leading tech company adding more than 50k users each month — required patience. But because I did my best to keep my eyes on my own, objective pursuit, I grew. And so did my company.

I love how writer Zat Rana frames it: 

“My happiness isn’t a product of me getting what I want. It’s the byproduct of the different challenges I have proactively overcome to earn what I want. It’s the expectations I have met or readjusted over time.”

Roadblocks like the occasional failure or bad day might mean deviating from the feeling of “being happy,” but in the long-term, they contribute to a more authentic version of happiness by allowing us to grow in character.

And when we grow in character — when we learn to overcome in the face of adversity — we’ll get an even sweeter deal: becoming the versions of ourselves we want to be as we chase after the things we want to do.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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