Some people are miserable gits and in your sanctimonious opinion they have no right to be. These admirably subtle and charismatic angels have socio-economic backgrounds to die for, astonishing career prospects, strong and stable relationships built on firmer foundations than any religion or nation state, blistering degrees of intelligence and wisdom, and four handsome Irish Wolfhounds. Four of them! Meanwhile, you have just come to the realisation that for two thirds of the lecture you were staring blankly into the middle distance, contemplating how formative Shaun the Sheep has been on your world view. You panic. You’re not Will Hunting or a contemporary Bard. What is this equation? Is this even English? How can a word have so many syllables?
You’re lost. You walk to Pret while being serenaded by the prog rock (depending on who you ask) anthem Wish You Were Here; the truth is that you listen to Pink Floyd to mask the insecure realisation that you’re vacuum, absent of even a modicum of culture or inspiration. Since you have the IQ of a mollusc and are embarrassingly impressionable, one line chimes with you so much that you think it was written just for you – the song You’re so Vain would be far more fitting. “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl” – you breeze over the implication of the pronoun “we” and decide you’re in the depths of an existential crisis. In reality you have the depth of puddle and no capacity to feel the raw emotion that produces true art. Then your idol, who provokes so much jealousy, announces that they’re having a crisis too. How dare they? They have it all figured out. You cannot help but blurt out your own woes too.
Unbeknownst to you, your nemesis shares the same opinion, but directed back at you. Your adversary thinks, “How can they complain? They have it all figured out! I’d pay for that brain! Their nuanced understanding of Shaun the Sheep.”
When you were younger, what did you desire? For many of us, it was to be older, wiser, and have more freedom. Yes, such freedom was burdened with responsibilities but at the end of the day you had power over oneself. When 17, for many in the UK, it was driving and, in your late teens, the shift to living at university. But oh how the charm wore off. Do we wake up every day conscious of the fact we drive anywhere we want, use our passport to travel the world, or rock up to a shop and legally buy alcohol? No, we get used to it. But you may say, what about responsibility, the paralysis of choice – how can you decide on anything when there’s so much range; surely, we don’t appreciate our freedoms because we have more to worry about? Working to survive, provide, and retire just to desperately spend what little money you have on Saga holidays out of hatred for the Grandchildren – I jest.
Thankfully, you’ve just won the lottery; you needn’t worry about the complexities of existence, you have what really matters, the master key. That house, Ferrari, or £1,760 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – to each their own – is yours. However, a 1978 study of 22 lottery winners suggested that this won’t make you particularly cheerful. Naturally, the winners were happier, rating their happiness as a 4 on a 1-5 scale. However, the control group averaged a 3.82, only closely behind. The winners also reported deriving less enjoyment from “mundane pleasures”, with some of the subjects ending up unhappier than they had been before.
Though the sample size could be seen to be Wakefield-esque small, further studies did come to similar conclusions. A quick aside, in some instances the upheaval of a lottery win results in fissures in families, people often squandering wealth (70 per cent in the USA who receive a sudden windfall), murder, and suicide. But what about being “quite” wealthy? One Princeton study suggested that, above an income of $75,000 per annum, there is no improvement in emotional wellbeing. Below this threshold, increasing wealth demonstrated a diminishing improvement. Yes, money helps, but only to a degree.
Hedonic Adaptation, or the Hedonic Treadmill, refers to the human tendency of habituation to new circumstances, often reverting to a stable, set point of happiness or unhappiness. The theory is a classic piece of pop psych, but ultimately worth discussing as it is an idea you can apply to day-to-day life. Many live according to the maxim “When I have ‘X’ I will be happy”, such as a new career or material possession. In St Andrews, it may be when a deadline has passed, that final exam, when I get that elusive internship, or when the holidays come and you can flee from the bubble. Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist likened the concept to a treadmill: no matter what you do in the pursuit of happiness, you return to the same spot, yet, at the same time, you still need to work to maintain this level of happiness. The Adaptation originally served to protect and enhance perception by avoiding complacency; yes, the weather might be lovely, but you’re a Palaeolithic human and everything is out there to kill you.
This aspect of the human condition, a biological adaptation to keep us alive, now appears to be a curse. It is suggested that such a set point is a moderately heritable characteristic, with the researcher Sonja Luyubomirsky suggesting that if you drift towards sadness, there is little you can do about it. It’s a sting against your life. Fortunately, it does also allow us to adapt to negative events. The same study on lottery winners looked at accident victims who faced life-changing disabilities; these individuals returned to a level of happiness close to their hedonic set point.
So how do you break from the Hedonic treadmill? Unfortunately, you can’t. Potentially in the future, genetic technology such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) may be used to edit this pain of an inhibition out of our genome; lifelong bliss could be normal, but for now you’re stuck. As much as you reinvent yourself your happiness will wane. Unless you can reinvent yourself ad infinitum, there’s little you can do. Boredom is not a character flaw, it’s a human flaw. So, when you ask how a certain person can be depressed, realise that someone less fortunate than you is positing the exact same question, but about you.
Today we do not measure success as survival. When ambling down Market Street there are few predators which threaten to maul you to death. When you return home, you have access to safe drinking water, something more than 2.1 billion people lack. Since our lives are so simple, with less time devoted to not dying, is there a formula for our happiness.
Firstly, you can break from routine, whether it be changing your commute, breakfast, or something more drastic. Lyumbomirsky also noted that indulging in smaller pleasures can be more effective than bigger luxuries – a short city break as opposed to a grand tour of the continent (American students take heed). Generosity is also a good start. One study where subjects were given a sum of money found that those who spent it on others rather than themselves felt happier. Finally, experiences, not material things, have a longer lasting impact on our happiness. However, these behaviours are ultimately limited, and often dependent on money.
One critical thing you can do is give up the search for happiness entirely. Instead, do as Harvard Lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar suggested: look for meaning. In the second part of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of his observations whilst in a Nazi concentration camp, he outlines his theory of logotherapy. He concluded that our main motivation in life is to find meaning, even in the most miserable of circumstances. Frankl defined the emptiness we feel in our life of routine and boredom as the existential vacuum, something that can be satiated with meaning. Unfortunately, meaning is elusive as it is entirely individual, something you must discover yourself. However, unlike happiness, meaning does not tend to wane and is itself a source of joy. Frankl believed that this meaning can be created through work or a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or through taking a specific attitude.
With meaning one can survive anything. In the crassest novel I used in my UCAS personal statement, Tropic of Cancer, notoriously banned under US obscenity laws in the 1960s, the semi-autobiographical narrator states: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” Henry Miller found meaning in his life.
Stop complaining when someone is unhappy despite having “everything”, because what you see as “everything” may not be meaningful for them. People have their hedonic set point and there is little you can do about it. Enjoy the simple pleasures. Don’t look for happiness, look for meaning.