I recently heard it suggested that the most pervasive addiction in modern America is not any substance or drug in particular, but problems in general. Problems, resulting in ongoing frustration, anger, discontent, and unhappiness, meet so many of our needs that, though we despise them, we tend to cling to them firmly. I have often observed in my social interactions the common ground that we are able to find with strangers and friends alike in our problems. Whether they are external: our neighbor, the government, the weather, or internal: depression, stress, and overwhelm, problems are something we all share. While I could say more about this, and plan to at a later time, I sat down to write with a slightly different intent in mind.
I want to focus on one of the primary reasons I, and others I know, choose to sustain our state of discontent. The purpose discontent serves in my life is as my chief source of motivation. The reasoning goes that as long as I am dissatisfied with my current circumstances, the negative emotions resulting from this focus, fuel a desire to create change. As someone with an insatiable desire for growth, even after I have experienced changes in my circumstances, I must seek out new sources of discontent to provide more inspiration. The consequence of this pattern is that happiness exists only in the future, when my circumstances are different. In addition to this, what often happens is that I find excuses for, or distractions from taking the steps necessary to make changes so that I can maintain my sense of motivation. I hope you can see by now the complete irrationality of this behavior. As an aside, this is certainly not the only irrational behavior that I and most other people regularly engage in.
The primary fear underlying this pattern is, if I allow myself to fully experience happiness in the present, I may grow lazy and no longer feel motivated to change the things in my life than I am dissatisfied with. Harvard Psychologist Shawn Achor has devoted an entire book to this subject. At the outset, he identifies the predominant understanding of happiness. Namely, that if I work hard I will be successful, and if I am successful, I will be happy. The wording of that statement may seem like it refers solely to one’s work or career, but the success I am concerned with relates to all areas of life: ones work, relationships, health, behavior, etc. Put simply, once I get what I want I will be happy. Not only are we poor at predicting what will make us happy (see Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert), this pattern is based on fallacious reasoning. In his book, Shawn Achor draws upon many years of research to prove that the exact opposite is true; success does not lead to happiness, but happiness leads to success.
Though I am currently reading his book, The Happiness Advantage, I have little need for scientific data. All the proof I require I have found in my own experience. Relying on discontent, as leverage to induce change, has not worked out well. It amounts to shaming myself into being better. I have believed that to be happy was to admit defeat, to settle for less than I am capable of, or that others, looking at my current circumstances would think me crazy or stupid for being happy. Achor writes, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change, it is the realization that we can.”
As I wrote in the previous post, when a long applied strategy is not working, it’s irrational not to trade out for a new one. I have thus resolved to try out happiness for a change. At worst, I will be no more successful than I am now, but will feel better on a daily basis. At best, happiness and gratitude and will provide a much better foundation upon which to build a life of quality work, creativity, love, and continual growth. The only downside I can see is that being happy tends to piss people off, as it challenges their volatile love affair with problems. We’ll talk more about that in the near future.
Bailey Patrice & Jonathan David