Einstein said it best when he noted, “It’s all relative.” It’s heartwarming when my new puppy finally figures out the paper training, and it’s a relief when a son or daughter pulls grades out of the cellar and into respectable B or C territory. And we’re glad when the boss provides a five percent raise. A ten percent raise sends us out for champagne! The same is true with respect to other aspects of incremental positive change, too. The doctor says to lose weight, so we make an effort for a while and take off a few pounds. The accomplishment feels good and it feels even better to have the doctor provide a little professional approval. In these situations we “feel happy.” But the question is, how long does that last?
The answer is: not very long. For most of us, and I certainly include myself in this, the great feeling of accomplishment or delight does not remain forever. In fact, when I’m honest about it, I sometimes slip into nearly instant discontent about some OTHER thing that needs improvement! That’s not all bad, however. To be delighted that the pile of dishes in the sink have now been washed and put away is good, but the joy should not remain so long that laundry collects for weeks and the grass is never mowed. That is not what is meant by lasting happiness. As humans we often hope to come to the point where we have “arrived,” and we can feel completely content with everything. It seems like that would bring great happiness, but those who study human emotion would disagree with that assessment.
First, to consider Einstein once more, our happiness really is quite relative. When improvement is achieved in some area, we pretty quickly adapt to that better state and begin looking for more good things, whether it is a raise in pay, or more improvement in the kid’s grades. We are seldom going to be satisfied to the point where we don’t want “just a little more”. Further, we’ve all known people who can’t seem to get enough of pleasurable things—food, drink, sex, drugs, nightlife, travel—they can’t enjoy what they’ve got because they are already on the hunt for their next excitement or enjoyment. The fancy term for this is “being on the hedonic treadmill” relating, as it does, to the fact that no matter how frequently good things happen, there is always the desire to chase after more and better pleasures. Looking at such an individual’s life from the outside, it may appear to be full of happiness. We sometimes look at the lives of movie stars and rock idols thinking that they’ve got it all, and yet, behind closed doors, they may be feeling just as lonely, dissatisfied or unfulfilled as someone who has none of those trappings.
The second point to consider about this type of happiness is that we believe it brings contentment or satisfaction, and of course, it does to some degree for all of us. Here’s what I’ve noticed about contentment, however: I can take the big picture, or long-haul perspective on life and find great contentment in my friendships, my professional accomplishments or my family relationships. That won’t serve to bring me contentment or satisfaction with the autumn leaves that lay a foot deep on my front lawn. Raking them, getting those leaves into bags and over to the community garden for composting will bring satisfaction though. That is, until the next morning, or the morning after the next storm, when I will need to do it all again in order to achieve the same degree of “happiness” about the state of affairs in my yard.
In my office, I struggle to come up with new ways to describe this phenomenon to people hoping to once-and-for-all “be happy” or “find satisfaction in life”. One individual I met swore up and down that he’d be happy for the rest of his life if his boss just once greeted him with a smile in the morning. I’ve heard people say that raising a child who puts clothes into the hamper will bring lasting satisfaction, or even that getting a deluxe kitchen upgrade will do it. It’s hard to break the news sometimes, but I have to tell them that these are not the things that bring lasting happiness, even though they may be really good.
Sometimes I have to blurt out the hard truth that those moments of supreme achievement and intense joy are delightful only because they happen so infrequently. If they were to become more continuous, as humans we’d adapt to them, and no longer find them to be so exciting, surprising or wonderful. As much as I’d like to say, “oh, do this and this and this, and you’ll feel that intensity of joy every minute of every day,” I can’t do it. It wouldn’t be true, and I don’t think anybody would believe me anyway.
Satisfaction and contentment are big picture emotions, and they come from attending to and acting upon a lot of small moments that need a little bit of work or attention, like the ongoing process of parenting that develops a sense of responsibility in a growing child. These small moments of attention aren’t necessarily exciting or intensely joyous, and often can be fairly laborious and challenging. For example, take the leaves out on my lawn. I’ll go out and create some satisfaction from raking them today. I’ll feel content with my efforts and satisfied that the exercise I’m getting is as important as the uncluttered view of the grass. And in a few days, I’ll experience a little dissatisfaction about the situation with the leaves, and that will motivate another round of effort on my part, which will be satisfying, I’m sure. And, after every leaf has drifted down and been cleared away, with the rake and the garden cart moved to the garage, I will be able to see that moss needs to be eradicated from the lawn. Or that the flowerbeds have grown weedy, or a hedge needs trimming… I’m content just to recognize that It’s all a process.