In the 1990s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman led the positive psychology movement, which placed the study of human happiness squarely at the centre of psychology research and theory. It continued a trend that began in the 1960s with humanistic and existential psychology, which emphasised the importance of reaching one’s innate potential and creating meaning in one’s life, respectively.
Since then, thousands of studies and hundreds of books have been published with the goal of increasing well-being and helping people lead more satisfying lives.
So why aren’t we happier? Why have self-reported measures of happiness stayed stagnant for over 40 years?
Perversely, such efforts to improve happiness could be a futile attempt to swim against the tide, as we may actually be programmed to be dissatisfied most of the time.
You can’t have it all
Part of the problem is that happiness isn’t just one thing. Jennifer Hecht is a philosopher who studies the history of happiness. In her book The Happiness Myth, Hecht proposes that we all experience different types of happiness, but these aren’t necessarily complementary. Some types of happiness may even conflict with one another.
In other words, having too much of one type of happiness may undermine our ability to have enough of others — so it’s impossible for us to simultaneously have all types of happiness in great quantities.
For example, a satisfying life built on a successful career and a good marriage is something that unfolds over a long period of time. It takes a lot of work, and it often requires avoiding hedonistic pleasures like partying or going on spur-of-the-moment trips. It also means you can’t while away too much of your time spending one pleasant lazy day after another in the company of good friends.
On the other hand, keeping your nose to the grindstone demands that you cut back on many of life’s pleasures. Relaxing days and friendships may fall by the wayside. As happiness in one area of life increases, it’ll often decline in another.
A rosy past, a future brimming with potential
This dilemma is further confounded by the way our brains process the experience of happiness. By way of illustration, consider the following examples.
We’ve all started a sentence with the phrase “Won’t it be great when…” (I go to college, fall in love, have kids, etc.). Similarly, we often hear older people start sentences with this phrase “Wasn’t it great when…”
Think about how seldom you hear anyone say, “Isn’t this great, right now?” Surely, our past and future aren’t always better than the present. Yet we continue to think that this is the case.
These are the bricks that wall off harsh reality from the part of our mind that thinks about past and future happiness. Entire religions have been constructed from them. Whether we’re talking about our ancestral Garden of Eden (when things were great!) or the promise of unfathomable future happiness in Heaven, Valhalla, Jannat or Vaikuntha, eternal happiness is always the carrot dangling from the end of the divine stick.
There’s evidence for why our brains operate this way; most of us possess something called the optimistic bias, which is the tendency to think that our future will be better than our present.
Cognitive psychologists have also identified something called the Pollyanna Principle. It means that we process, rehearse and remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information. (An exception to this occurs in depressed individuals who often fixate on past failures and disappointments.)
For most of us, however, the reason that the good old days seem so good is that we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.