Happiness is a By-Product Not a Goal
It probably won’t come as a shock to you that since the beginning of 2020, our levels of happiness have taken a significant nose dive, alongside increased levels of anxiety, and a decrease in life satisfaction. As heavy-handed restrictions and deliberate ‘fear mongering’ have restricted human interaction, we have been increasingly shepherded and allured towards the convenience and instant gratification of digital technology. This is proving to be a completely inadequate substitute for the happiness we derive through interacting with each other as part of a meaningful life. We can’t hack, swipe, or scroll our way to happiness, and at a time when it is being assaulted from all sides, we need to pay homage to the ageless evolutionary wisdom that contributes to robust happiness and well-being.
Happiness is a by-product of the effort and endevour we invest into a meaningful life. We cultivate meaning in our lives by being in service to others, pursuing our passions, building relationships, belonging to a community, working towards goals etc. We experience happiness and satisfaction as a result of the challenges we overcome and the progress we make within a meaningful life. These feelings of positive affect provide us with a greater happiness than the fleeting hits of dopamine that we are becoming insidiously hooked on through our smart phones and other technological conveniences. An increasing trend that I am witnessing in my work as an Osteopath in Beaconsfield, is patients telling me that they feel too reliant on their devices, less engaged with the meaningful aspects of their lives, and less happy as a result.
Happiness is all too often sought after as an endpoint. ‘I’ll be happy when I’ve made x amount of money, I’ll be happy when I lose x amount of weight, I’ll be happy when I’ve got x, etc. When we perceive our happiness as a destination at the end of the rainbow, we miss the real joy and satisfaction involved in the journey. There is an abundance of satisfaction, appreciation and gratitude to be experienced with every pound of weight lost, every pound of money gained, and every tiny step of progress towards our meaningful goals.
Happiness is a Journey, Not a Destination.
Technology is encouraging us to bypass the real-life processes that cultivate quality happiness, in favour of instant gratification. The tech induced hits of dopamine that we are becoming hooked on, are hijacking our brain’s reward system and robbing us of our resilience, motivation and ‘staying power’. I often witness this in my work as an Osteopath in Beaconsfield. When patients come to me for treatment, most of the time they want to be fixed without needing to invest effort or actively engage in their recovery. Effective treatment is always a partnership between the practitioner and the patient, and in most cases it is what the patient does beyond their treatment that improves recovery. Unfortunately, most patients struggle to stick to their process of self-care and thus struggle to experience the wellness they deserve.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves because digital technology is literally taking advantage of our primal survival instincts. We are hard-wired to choose the path of least resistance, and be more instinctively lazy than exertional. As hunter gatherers, energy preservation was a priority. We would have rather stolen our food from a predator that has done all the hard work, than spend lots of energy and effort hunting a live animal. Therefore, if we can receive effortless and instant fixes of happiness from our digital devices, it makes sense that we would begin to neglect the more effortful (yet rewarding) happiness derived from investing in a meaningful life.
Junk Food or a Home Cooked Meal?
I like to use the analogy of either preparing a nice meal or ordering a junk food takeaway. It is much easier to order some junk food than make a meal from fresh ingredients, however the freshly made meal is likely to be more nourishing, more rewarding and more satisfying than pressing a few buttons on your phone and consuming some rubbish. Both the process and the result of preparing a nice meal can provide a sense of satisfaction, achievement, and happiness that cannot be rivalled by the momentary hit of pleasure received by eating unhealthy food, that required no effort to obtain. Whether it’s junk food, pornography, social media likes, or followers, we are slowly conditioning our brain’s reward system to become hooked on quick fixes of ‘junk happiness’ that leave us feeling emptier and less satisfied.
We’re all Dopamine Junkies!
Our reward system is a group of structures in the brain that work together to encourage us to repeat rewarding behaviors. When we are exposed to stimuli that is rewarding such as food or sex, the brain responds by releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine. A neuro-transmitter is a chemical that allows the neurons in our brain to communicate with each other. The release of dopamine creates a reward seeking loop that makes us seek and want to repeat pleasurable behaviours.
Even though many of the behaviours that we are now adopting in pursuit of pleasure and happiness are making us unhappier in the long-term, it is very natural and instinctive for us to seek the quickest and most economical way to dopamine-driven feelings of pleasure and happiness. After all, our success as a species has been predicated on achieving as much as possible with as little exertion as possible! Unfortunately, when it comes to achieving wellness, there is no elevator to success, so we must take the stairs!
Levels of depression are rising year on year, and since 2020 they have more than doubled in comparison to the levels observed before the pandemic. This has been a time when some of our most fundamental happiness building behaviours have been curtailed, and we have been forced into a more isolated and digitally driven world. I just wonder if there is a connection between the lack of social and prosocial interaction, increased screen time, and this significant rise in depression? I’d put good money on that being the case!
It has become so easy to indulge ourselves in immediate hits of shallow pleasure, that we are losing the familiarity, resilience and staying power involved in the effort of cultivating quality happiness. The type of happiness that provides our lives with a crucial sense of purpose and meaning. Processes such as building relationships, learning new skills, being creative, bonding with natural environments, and being in service to others, can never be substituted with digital hits of dopamine and instant gratification. In comparison, they are devoid of the meaning and sense of purpose that comes with the struggle and effort inherent in the process. It doesn’t take a genius to intuitively know what is going to feel better; happiness that is derived through the process of struggle, challenge and personal development, or happiness that is derived through effortless hedonism?
The Good Old Days
I personally believe that many of us (late baby boomers and generation X) are lucky to have lived most of our formative years in a world prior to the onslaught of digital technology. Although we look back now and wonder how we managed without the convenience of our digital devices, we can now appreciate how our relatively digital-free upbringings exposed us to daily processes that conditioned us with some of the fundamental characteristics that contribute to happiness. Without the convenience and distraction of our digital devices I believe we required more effort and skill to communicate, and in maintaining our friendships and social groups.
I remember writing letters, earning ten pence to go to a phone booth to call a friend, being committed and patient to wait for friends who I’d arranged to meet, asking strangers for help, memorizing places, directions and phone numbers, and resolving disagreements and arguments face to face within social groups, etc. These are a few examples of the processes that gave my young teenage life meaning, a sense of purpose, greater confidence and resilience. These are also the formative experiences that are being bypassed by the convenience of technology, which is eroding our intimacy and communication skills.
We now live in a culture where we trade precious time interacting with each other in person, for time spent swiping across our screens! This is reflected in the rising phenomena of virtual distance, which is described as the psychological and emotional detachment that occurs as a result of people spending more time interacting through their phones than with each other. Next time you’re out in a busy public place just notice how many groups, couples and families that are physically together but socially worlds apart and locked into their phones! The scourge of virtual distance is making us less trusting of each other, less helpful towards each other, and less happy!
The ‘Low Hanging Fruit’ of Happiness
Research suggests that approximately 50% of our happiness is genetic, which leaves a lot of room to improve our happiness through intentional activity. The most effective and essential of these activities are rooted in our evolutionary wisdom, and need to be drastically reprioritized. The warp-speed digital culture that we have been ambushed by is alluring us away from the processes that truly nourish our happiness. It is also eroding our resilience and motivation. It’s time for us to firstly acknowledge unhappiness if it is present, and then look at key areas of our lifestyle to see where our happiness cup may need refilling. I regard the following ideas as the ‘low hanging fruit’ of happiness, that we can begin to nourish ourselves with immediately.
No Man is an Island
We are social creatures that once relied on community for survival, so no matter how independent we may think we are, we have been conditioned through evolution to feel safer, more purposeful, more content, and ultimately happier when we cultivate strong relationships and feel woven into the tapestry of a community.
It’s important for us to have people in our lives that we feel comfortable being genuine and vulnerable with. We need people that we feel we can trust and rely on. It’s also hugely important that we reciprocate this and deepen our sense of purpose in life by helping people wherever we have the opportunity.
If our relationships need reinforcing, then it is both purposeful and quality time that is spent investing in this process. The quality of our relationships would have once been a matter of survival, so no matter how meaningless or mundane your interactions may seem, know that the impact on those you are with may be profound , and that the next interaction is not promised!
One of the common characteristics of healthy ageing in the Blue Zones (areas around the world with high concentrations of healthy centenarians) is strong community. Not the type of community that only identifies itself during a crisis; the type of community that holds us accountable, provides a strong sense of belonging, gives our lives meaning, and prioritizes the active pursuit of well-being amongst its members and across its generations.
Be a Lifelong Student
Keep learning, whenever and wherever possible. It is evolutionarily instinctive for us to want to get the greatest return for the least effort, but the work involved in achieving something meaningful is where the by-product of happiness lies! Unfortunately, we have been cleverly convinced into believing that we can consume, buy and hack our way to happiness, but unfortunately this happiness is fragile in comparison to doing ‘the work’. As a mature student I remember that I couldn’t wait to finish my osteopathic studies and be out in the world reaping the benefits of my new profession. However, the four year long struggle and achievement of becoming an Osteopath gave me a different and more profound quality of happiness compared to my subsequent years of practice as an Osteopath in Beaconsfield, Qatar, Guernsey and London.
I thoroughly enjoy my professional life as an Osteopath. It is an extension of my personal life and feels deeply meaningful. However, before I began studying to become an Osteopath, I had little confidence in my ability to complete four years of intense full-time academia. Because of this enormous personal challenge, the happiness payback of overcoming this challenge has been deeply impactful and long lasting.
To honour the principle of lifelong learning, I deliberately put myself into situations that challenge me to keep learning, such as practicing martial arts, learning the guitar and working alongside more skilled and experienced osteopaths. In short, I’m mobilising my growth mindset. A growth mindset is simply the belief that our ability to achieve something can be improved through dedication and application. A person with a growth mindset believes that good results require effort and repetition. They are more likely to be excited and engaged in the challenge and process of achieving their results, knowing that they will learn and develop through sticking to the journey and mastering the challenge.
Fire up your growth mindset by committing to learning a new skill that engages both mind and body. Activities such as playing an instrument, practicing a martial art, learning yoga or tai chi. If they don’t float your boat, maybe try being creative- make, draw, write or build something like a model, piece of furniture, a poem, a song, painting, blog etc.
Be in the Now
By bringing more focus and attention to whatever we are doing, we can experience any process with a greater sense of enjoyment and engagement. Mindfulness can boost our mood, concentration, creativity, reduce anxiety and even pain! The growing addiction to our mobile distraction devices is contributing to the normalization of multi-tasking. Looking at our phones when we’re eating, driving, socializing, etc. I regard multi-tasking as a metaphor for doing more than one thing poorly!
Create the Context for a Happier Day
Actively practicing gratitude is the perfect way to cultivate a genuine sense of appreciation and happiness for what is, at that moment. Gratitude is defined as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful. It represents a general state of appreciation and thankfulness. Research indicates a clear association between gratitude and feelings of greater overall wellbeing. Individual experiences of gratitude and appreciation have been shown to improve mood and down-regulate the stress response, by promoting parasympathetic activity of the nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ arm of the autonomic nervous system)
Unfortunately, our negativity bias and ego can represent formidable barriers to happiness. Like a moth to a flame, they draw us towards negative and threatening information. In addition, the insatiable ego is never satisfied and always wants more. This directs our attention to what we feel is lacking, what we feel deprived of, and what we believe we are deficient in.
When we first wake up in the morning our minds are most clear and also highly receptive to influence. This is an ideal time to intentionally place our focus on aspects of our lives that we are grateful for. It’ is an easy way to quickly generate positive emotions and also create the context for a happy day. People who express more gratitude, experience more positive emotions and life satisfaction. They also experience less negative emotions, depression and anxiety.
Try to focus on some of the most basic and fundamental aspects of life that you are grateful for, such as the privilege of being able to wake up, having a roof over your head, food in your cupboards, good health etc. Also, express gratitude for experiences, situations and people that present challenges to you. This may help you cope better with stress, and strengthen resilience during difficult times. It’s also important to focus our gratitude on ourselves. We can be our own harshest critic, so by being self-compassionate and expressing gratitude for our daily achievements, we can quieten the insatiable ego and inner-critic.
Doing our best can look different every day. One day we may dominate life, the next day, just getting out of bed may feel like a monumental achievement!
Sadness is our Signpost
We live in a time where our happiness is being stress tested from all angles. It is our responsibility to actively engage in the ageless bonding and meaningful behaviours that cultivate feelings of positive affect, rather than passively waiting for the world to make us feel happier. It is our responsibility to change our reality! Our happiness shouldn’t be a goal, it will be a natural by-product of engaging in the meaningful processes and experiences of life. By taking hedonistic shortcuts, we end up experiencing fleeting and shallow moments of satisfaction, that gradually erode our resilience and motivation to engage in the activities that enrich our lives. At best, our digital distraction devices may help us briefly escape from unhappiness. Instead of medicating, projecting, briefly escaping, and putting up with unhappiness, we should embrace it as a signpost back to our humanity, interconnectedness and evolutionary wisdom.
For more personalised advice on how to create robust wellness contact me to see how I can help