The Pursuit of Happiness


The United States Declaration of Independence (penned by Thomas Jefferson back in 1776) starts off by saying “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

However as far as I can tell, pursuing happiness doesn’t actually make us any happier. The things that by all rights should make us happier (a better job, house, relationship, car, holiday, more money) actually don’t.

My favourite example of this came from a bloke I sat next to on an airplane once. He had a business that sold 120 foot yachts. These are seriously expensive toys, replete with swimming pools, helipads, etc.

I asked him who bought 120 foot yachts. The answer he gave was fascinating, and has stuck with me ever since.

Blokes (and it was predominantly blokes) with 80 foot yachts. And I could picture the scene in my head. Someone had finally bought an 80 foot yacht for however many million dollars that it cost, thinking that would be the thing that made him happy. He proudly sails out of the harbour, then some bastard goes past in a 120 foot yacht.

Our friend then thinks that’s the thing I need to make me happy. When I have a 120 foot yacht, then I’ll be happy.

There’s some frightening research into people that win the lottery that was published back in 1978 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and quoted in Forbes (and many other places). Researchers interviewed Illinois State Lottery winners and compared them with non-winners and with people who had suffered a terrible accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic. Each group answered a series of questions aimed at measuring their happiness level.

The study found that the overall happiness levels of lottery winners spiked when they won, but returned to pre-winning levels after just a few months. In terms of overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-winners. The accident victims were slightly less happy, but not by much.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari gives a nice explanation of this in terms of our happiness set point.

People generally have set points for weight and income. With weight people can diet etc., but as soon as they relax they revert to their set point. Likewise with income people have a notion of their self-worth, and their income will stay within a band of that set-point.

Neurobiologists believe the same applies to happiness. Happiness is determined by chemicals in our brain - predominantly dopamine, but also serotonin and oxytocin. And we have set points. So someone with a set point of 6 out of 10 happy might get up to 8 if things are great, but will revert to 6.

They might drop to 4 if something bad happens, but again they will revert to a 6. And it doesn’t matter how good things get, they will never get higher than an 8.

Nothing moves our happiness set point. However in the book there was an asterisk at this point, saying that an effective meditation practice was the only thing they had observed that could actually move our happiness set point up.

A pretty good case for meditating I reckon, and a pretty cool thing to come across after I’ve just spent six weeks in Spain on a meditation retreat.