The Spectrum of Happiness

As it relates to happiness, from a 10,000-foot view you either are, you aren’t, or you’re somewhere in transit – that’s so oversimplified it’s comical, but stick with me. As a visual learner, I try to imagine models that can represent abstract and challenging concepts such as happiness. Over time, I’ve come to envision happiness as a spectrum that can be further broken down into individual ranges for each of the three basic associated states (happy, neutral, unhappy) and their varying degrees. Somewhere on this spectrum falls your individual equilibrium. This is your default mental/emotional state. Upon initial consideration, one might believe that it must fall within the neutral range, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you can put yourself in a position where you default to a certain level of happiness, it’s incredibly advantageous to every aspect of your life. Obviously happiness is defined at the individual level and unique to each person, so it’s up to you to determine what it’s going to take. There will always be fluctuations and a regression toward the mean, but the trick is to establish your individual mean firmly within the range of happiness.

Hiking the "W Circuit" in Torres del Paine - February 2014.

Delirious while hiking the “W Circuit” in Torres del Paine – February 2014.

Realigning your individual equilibrium is important because if you’re consistently functioning at a level of happiness, any positive events in your life are just an added bonus, and any attempts to undermine this are only a temporary distraction. There are a number of factors that play a key role in getting to this point. With happiness being inherent to the individual, the first step is being able to see past distractions and think independently. Any situation where you’re discouraged from forming individual thoughts is going to act in opposition to this. As you begin to think for yourself and critically examine the surrounding world, you’re able to assume greater responsibility for your own happiness and better assess any barriers. Simply put, you need to reach a point where you’re able to offer an honest assessment of yourself then demonstrate the courage to pursue more of the things you like and less of those you don’t.

There are countless distractions as we move towards this, but perhaps none bigger than our consumerist culture. When we forgo critical thinking, it’s easy to be misled into believing that having more things is the key to happiness. Any rational, independent thinker usually steps back and sees society’s current level of consumption as egregious. Not only that, but also realizes there’s a point of diminishing return when it comes to material goods. Once you begin amassing possessions it becomes more of a burden and a drain on your time than anything else. Perhaps diminishing return is completely foreign to us because we’ve long forgotten the concept of moderation. These are the economics of happiness.

No amount of material goods will offer a shortcut to the happiness end of the spectrum. New things might generate a brief surge in happiness, but it’s never sustainable. The vast majority of new items serve only as temporary distractions. For those who spend a lifetime amassing possessions, happiness often remains an elusive, distant concept. Living a life imprisoned to the confines of a consumer will never be a substitute for the experiences in life that can generate a more authentic, lasting happiness.

For the past couple years, I’ve considered buying a new car. Not because I needed one– mine was fine aside from the occasional maintenance– but because I thought it would be nice to have something newer. However, every time I took a step back, I always came to the same conclusion. I was already completely happy. A new car wouldn’t have any lasting impact on that whatsoever. It might make me slightly, and I mean slightly, happier for a week or so then it would be old news. At the end of the day, I was already operating entirely on the happiness end of the spectrum.

As it turns out, my car came to less than spectacular end a few months ago and I ended up getting a new car. Big surprise, it was nice for a few days, now I don’t even think about it. If you get to the point where you’re convinced that you need a new car (insert any other new item here) because you think you’re incapable of being happy without it, that’s when you’ve dug yourself a hole. You’re bound to be let down because it will only temporarily fill this void. Once the novelty has worn off, it starts all over, and you begin looking for that next purchase to distract you.

“If we don’t feel grateful with what we already have, what makes us think we will be happy with more?” -Unknown

Experiences trump possessions every day of the week. Certain material goods might make you slightly happier for a brief period, but those who navigate their way to a consistent state of happiness recognize their impermanence. If you’ve already put in the time to determine what it takes for you to find happiness in your daily life, you’re less prone to make irrational decisions and seek a quick fix from new possessions.

Less is more when it comes to things. More is more when it comes to experiences. There are universal emotions that we associate with happiness, but the one consistency is that it always generates a great sense of fulfillment. Nothing is more fulfilling (and lasting) than a new experience and creating something for yourself. I encourage you to spend your time and money traveling, taking a class, learning a new skill, making something with your own hands, pursuing greater knowledge, visiting friends or family, building genuine relationships; this is where lasting happiness is found.

Most of us live in privileged situations where happiness is within our direct control. This hasn’t always been the case. Since the rise of civilization, paths were often predetermined from the moment we entered this world. While some of these challenges certainly still exist, today we have a much better opportunity to write our own personal history. All it requires is that we take the time to discover what’s most fulfilling to each of us as individuals. It’s a simple choice of pursuing more of the things we love and less of those we don’t. If you make a conscious decision to spend what time you do have on the happiness end of the spectrum, you’ll give more back to this world than most could ever dream of.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

15 replies

  1. I love this. I wrote an article the other day about something similar. My point was that the greatest epidemic of Americanism is loneliness and the food for loneliness’s appetite is consumerism which in turn leads to more loneliness. It’s a nasty cycle.

    I wish we could sit down and get coffee haha. I think our conversations would be amazing.

  2. Agreeing 101% here. Alex.

    With the recent Holiday shenanigans, I’ve had time to catch up with family and friends I very rarely see (because of distance or schedule). What I appreciated most during this time was when smart phones were voluntarily set aside and real conversations took place. The food was great, the wine was excellent but it was the immaterial that stuck with me the most – the memory of why we were laughing, why we were thoughtful, why were happy.

    Great post! 🙂

    • Great point! It’s amazing how fulfilling good conversation and engaging with the people around you is. I agree about the smart phones. My happiest moments over the holidays were moments when cell phones were away, the tv was off and everyone was just happy with the company. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and read! Glad we share a similar perspective.

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