Ice queens, awkward teenagers, mediocre wizards, and home-schoolers from Kenya struggle to be happy. Last week, through a series of fortunate events — a visiting friend, a visiting son, and two (two!) wins in the ticket lottery — I ended up attending four Broadway shows in four days. Frozen, Dear Evan Hansen, Puffs or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic, and Mean Girls are about the search for happiness. Our arts, economy, and religion are built on the universal longing for happiness.
We do not smile all of the time. What we once found interesting feels like a drag. We fantasize about quitting, moving to Montana, and doing something completely different — like raising ostriches. How hard could it be?
When we see someone moving up, it reminds us that we are not. We liked our job in the beginning, but there are days when we wonder if we have career ADD. The pursuit of happiness is wearing us out.
We are in such a rush that every conversation is a sound bite. Hurrying is admired. Going slow is considered lazy. We are so immersed in the culture of busyness that we do not notice the toll that it takes on our health, work, and family.
We think the goal is to get what we want — and there is always more to want. What kind of economy would we have if we believed that not getting what we want could make us as happy as getting what we want?
In his Ted Talk on happiness, research psychologist Dan Gilbert claims that a year after losing the use of their legs and a year after winning the lottery, lottery winners and those confined to wheel chairs are equally happy. We assume happiness is the result of circumstances, but the research does not support that. Studies suggest that passing a test, losing a romantic partner, and getting a promotion have less impact, intensity, and duration than we expect.
What we have learned about happiness sounds too simple. Trackyourhappiness is a phone app that works like an iPhone therapist. At random moments your phone pings and asks what you are experiencing in that moment. How do you feel right now? Do you have to do what you are doing? To what extent are you being productive? Do you want to do what you are doing? Are you thinking about something other than what you are doing?
Over 35,000 people have made more than a half million responses. The most consistent finding is that when we are trying to go in more than one direction we are less happy. When the 30-second peek at Twitter becomes 10 minutes, we become less happy. When we are not focused on things that matter we complain. Forty-seven percent of the time we are thinking of something other than what we are doing.
Happiness is more in our heads than our circumstances. We know people who have what we want who are unhappy. We know people who have been through the worst that life can give who are happy.
In 1962, the manager of a Liverpool rock band fired the group’s 20-year-old drummer. Pete Best had been playing with the band for two years. Just weeks after Best was kicked out, “Love Me Do” began to climb the charts. Pete Best cried. He worked for a while in a bakery. Then he put together his own group — the Pete Best Band. He toured the world with his brother and three other band members.
Best, 76, and his wife, Kathy, have been married for 49 years. They have two daughters and four grandchildren, whom Best says he “totally spoils.” He describes himself as a family man who is always happy to come home to Liverpool: “I believe it turned out for the best. I enjoy every day twice as much as the day before. I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”
Maybe he is telling the truth. Shakespeare argues, “’Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Not quite. A trip to Paris is better than a colonoscopy, but we have more control over our happiness than we admit.
No matter what problem brings them to him, psychologist Shawn Achor has his new patients write down three new things for which they are grateful every day for 21 days. The research suggests that it inclines our brains to scan the world for the positive.
Queens, teenagers, wizards, and home-schoolers are just a few of the groups that need a more thoughtful perspective. We all need to ask how much better our lives would be if we believed what is clearly true. The happiness that comes when we are grateful is more real than what comes when we get what we thought we wanted.