It is said that happiness lasts about fifteen minutes. Sooner or later either some news will arrive to spoil it or a niggling thought will surface to change it. Even when we are happy, we worry about what might take our happiness away. Happiness is not stationary. It is always moving. No matter what we get or achieve, happiness from external events will be short-lived. Successful people who have achieved their goal report immediately focusing on the next one. It is human nature to always be looking for the next big thing. There is nothing wrong with that. Life would be dull if we had nothing to look forward to, so the question is, how can we change our set point and get happiness to last?
In a classic study conducted by the Southern Methodist University, three groups were given a writing task. One was asked to spend a few minutes over four days describing their ideal future, another had to describe their plans for the day and the third was asked to relate a traumatic event. The results revealed that the happiest group, even three months later, were those who described intense happiness in the future; they reported longer periods of contentedness during the day. Although talking about trauma felt cathartic at the time, it did not have any long-lasting effect on happiness itself. The key with discussing trauma seems to be to release the feelings and replace them with positive thoughts that the trauma is dealt with, that wisdom has been gained through the experience. Simply replaying it in our minds will reproduce the feelings of despair the original event provoked.
Feeling unhappy is more often than not a result of thinking about past unhappiness or imagining a bleak future. When asked what makes them unhappy a group of people replied :
• Remembering loved ones they had lost through death or separation
• Recalling feelings of hope that were dashed
• Remembering a moment of intense shame or defeat
• Worrying about loneliness
• Feeling unloved, unwanted, rejected
• Dissatisfaction with work and relationships
Dwelling on these things causes a drop in serotonin, which affects mood, creating a vicious circle of sadness. Action is needed to reverse mood, and force of will to play an upbeat piece of music for example, when we feel a sad melody would better match our state of mind. Medical conditions that cause depression such as thyroid imbalances may be originally caused by stress, and stress is a result of our perception of our circumstances.
Counting our blessings may seem a twee response to an apparently desperate status quo. Humans have a tendency to focus on the negative however, in a misguided attempt to avoid denial. But we can be aware of an issue without allowing it to alter our perception of life. Whatever problems we face, there are always others who have it worse; there is always something to feel thankful for.
Homes for the elderly are full of people still fretting after all these years. Let us not die worrying about the future.
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