Temporary Happiness: Why We Can’t Always Be Happy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does reaching your goals only cause temporary happiness? Why can’t we always be happy?

We often feel hollow and unfulfilled after achieving what we want. This is because happiness is temporary and if the happiness of achieving one thing lasted forever, then we’d never strive towards more goals. There are some things we can do to help us feel more fulfilled though.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of temporary happiness.

Adjusting Your Happiness

A cornerstone of Buddhist belief, and that of many other Eastern religious traditions, is that striving for status and possessions causes only temporary happiness and will leave you spiritually unfulfilled and, ultimately, joyless.

These faiths encourage breaking all emotional attachments to things and refraining from trying to attain what you don’t have. The striving, according to this view, is the root of human unhappiness.

And it’s true that we often feel hollow and unfulfilled even after we get temporary happiness from the things that we want (or, at least, we think we want). But the self-denying philosophy of Buddhism gets some things wrong about human psychology. It turns out that some things are worth striving for. The key is not to eliminate desire; it’s to start desiring the right things.

The Temporary Happiness of Achievement

Before we delve into what we should be striving for, it’s worthwhile to explore why so many of the things we do strive for leave us feeling unfulfilled. We often experience only brief, temporary happiness when we achieve some long-held goal like landing a promotion, getting a new car, or getting good grades. Soon after, we feel the unquenchable urge to reach the next milestone. Why are we never fully satisfied?

The answer is actually rooted in evolution and neurochemistry. Our brains evolved to respond to immediate pleasures like food or sex (which both advance species success) with jolts of dopamine, which serve as a reinforcement mechanism. But the effects of any reinforcement mechanism are immediate and short-lived. We wouldn’t have advanced very far as a species if every baby step we took toward a goal were rewarded by a permanent period of elation—we would be content never reaching the goal! The pleasure, instead, comes from the baby steps you take along the way. This is known as the progress principle.

Accepting a New Normal

There is a fundamental truth of human psychology that follows from the progress principle—no single event is likely to permanently alter your affective style, because you’ll just reach a new plateau. This idea is known as the adaptation principle.

In the long run, we are much more sensitive to positive or negative changes relative to our baseline than we are to absolute changes. We can see this in happiness studies comparing lottery winners with people who’ve become paraplegic due to injury or illness.

One might think that the lottery winners exist in a state of constant elation, while the paraplegics are trapped in a state of endless despair. And this is true—for the short period after winning the lottery or losing the use of one’s legs. But, after time, studies show that both groups adapt and settle into a new normal. Lottery winners become used to their new riches and find themselves no longer thrilled by their change in status (and often come to resent it because they are hounded by friends and relatives asking them for money). Meanwhile, paraplegics come to accept their condition and discover that life can have its joys even in their new normal.

You Can’t Buy Happiness

Many people strive for money and social status. But happiness research shows that having a high income or a position of prestige and authority is not well correlated with happiness at all. Rich, white Americans, for example, do not report being any happier than poor, minority Americans, despite the former’s obvious material and social advantages. 

It’s true that, all other things being equal, money is slightly correlated with higher happiness, but with very little marginal value for each dollar once someone has already met a certain financial threshold. Impoverished people do become much happier once they acquire enough money to meet basic needs like food and shelter. But after that, each additional dollar adds very little in the way of happiness.

Strong connections to other people and to something greater than yourself matter more. Being in a good marriage is a series of joyful interactions with your partner, without a big “payoff,” keeping well with the progress principle. It’s no coincidence that good marriages and connections to religious communities are strongly correlated with happiness—topics we’ll explore in greater detail in later chapters.

Temporary Happiness: Why We Can’t Always Be Happy

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  • How your emotions determine how satisfied you are in life
  • Why you need to struggle in order to succeed
  • How to create your own happiness

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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