The happiness industry is worth $11 billion dollars (US market), consists of over 45,000 titles and sees cornerstone motivational speakers such as Anthony Robins with personal wealth estimates of $480 million dollars.
Self help books, motivational speakers and pop psychology exist in a tight little bubble of finding the right people, having the right amount of money, following what we want to do with our life and never looking back as we ride off into the golden sunset.
We’re meant to define our lives in cheery little happiness industry designed and packaged life events.
‘You can never have too much of what makes you happy’ and ‘aim for the stars’ and ‘craft the life you want to lead’ are all designed to make us focus on the outside influences. We’re advised to focus on the good, ignore the bad, and be aware of people ‘dragging us down’.
We craft our perfect roadmap to happiness by delving into the inner workings of someone else’s success, lifting our self esteem and choosing to follow our dreams. The happiness industry thrives on you seeking the knowledge someone else has already acquired and applied to life.
It’s a lovely golden dream. But it isn’t in the least bit factual.
Multiple psychologists have attempted to measure what happiness is and our ability to enjoy life. They’ve sampled, quested and queries us at our best and our worst trying to establish what creates happiness.
Unfortunately, science and psychology is not in agreement with the majority of individuals and self identified ‘self help’ gurus who make the lion share of the money.
The conundrum of what makes a happy person and a happy life is puzzling, fascinating, and a multi-billion dollar happiness industry. Self help has you believing you and your vision board will be drinking cocktails on a private beach by 50 if you work on your self-esteem and ask for what you are entitled to.
You too can learn the secrets, as long as you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to learn how to emulate your incredibly rich inspiration. Yet the guru to devotee rags-to-riches ratio remains firmly locked in your mentor’s favour.
The reason comes down to the myth of happiness being determined by our external circumstances. The flawed premise that someone else’s seminar will somehow fix all your money problems and relationships issues with a couple of well chosen “you can do it” catchphrases prevails.
The truth is a lot closer to home, and probably a lot less attractive an option.
It’s the inside that counts
Unfortunately for the happiness industry, there is not a set roadmap to happiness. And it certainly doesn’t involve a big, showy display.
Dr Albert Ellis potentially gave us the best predictor for what actually creates lasting happiness. His ideals and therapy can be summed up with this psychological insight from Epictetus-
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events.”
The finding from many scientific corners is that hanging your hat on your latest ‘live the life you choose’ book is fundamentally useless if you can’t respond effectively to your own emotionality. And that seeking external success measurements and dealing with life in “I want” rather than “I am” will continuously lead to unhappiness. What matters essentially is your own personal resilience and how you respond to life. How you think about a situation determines just how much of an impact it will have.
On a very basic level, this makes perfect sense. When you put power behind the external influences and situations, you put yourself at the mercy of what others change around you. But when you address how you respond, you are dealing with the things you can influence and control.
If happiness is you accepting you and what you need to deal with, even the biggest storm is likely to be weathered better.
The studies are in- and its bad news for self help and the happiness insutry
Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell (1971) defined the hedonic treadmill, a kind of measurement that states we adjust our mood to suit the prevailing circumstances. The hedonic treadmill raises the idea of a ‘set point’ for our happiness potential. A sort of baseline that sets a level of sorts for the highs and lows we face when greeted with life events and circumstances.
Testers Lykken and Tellegan (1996) took this one step further and proved a genetic link for happiness. Through testing with identical and fraternal twins, they were able to discover a substantial genetic component to how high or low this baseline happiness is, and how much it can fluctuate when greeted with a life event.
Beyond the discovery of a genetic link, the influence of life events has been brought into question.
Ed Diener and Martin Segilman (2002) tested 200 undergraduate students the difference between the top 10% that were “extremely happy” and middle of the range 10% Ok-ish group, and the bottom 10% who were unhappy.
There was no significant difference in the amount of happier life events- better grades, more hot dates or better exam performance- between any of the groupings. The “extremely happy”10% had no greaterluck or opportunity than the other students. They simply responded to them differently. The “extremely happy” group greeted these life events positively and had better personal relationships.
Attitude became the key to longer lasting happiness. Yet beyond the catch cry of ‘think positive’, exactly how deep does the happiness industry delve?
Not nearly as much as researchers or the scientists. And not nearly as much as we need it seems.
Daniel Kahneman and others (2004) mapped the days experienced by 909 working women in relation to mood and activities undertaken. They compared this with information about major life definers such as their job satisfaction and income. The Kahneman study found no real change between any of the women on a moment-by-moment basis. However, the women who had less quality sleep and who had leanings towards depression and/or lower overall life satisfaction were found to have greater negative changes in response given in their moment-by-moment reporting.
The verdict was less sleep and less overall happiness influenced the outcome of the day and in turn set the mood of the individual. The challenges faced were immaterial.
Kahneman and others (2006) then went on to put subsequent flies in the ointment by proving an increase in money does not equate to an increase in happiness. Our belief money will give us happiness was also disproven by Helliwell and Putnam (2004), who proved that once income reaches a level where bills were paid and food supplied, any anticipated increase in joy essentially vanishes.
Where psychologists have proven our happiness is genetically set, that life events play a minimal factor in influencing our mood, and that attitude seems to matter more than money, where does that leave the modern day version of “happy”?
Can there be a roadmap to happiness when happiness itself is so hard to define? How can you sell something under the guide of a happiness industry when the product is so difficult to define?
Acceptance equals happiness
The quintessential message is we can control our happiness quotient, but that the key will not be found in books, having a personal coach or attending a thousand dollar seminar.
Where we excel is the ability to reframe the problems that greet us and managing our expectations, reactions and responses. It’s about changing the way we view ourselves, the world around us, and to a certain extent, what we think the world ‘owes’ us.
If you believe Dr Albert Ellis, apparently the key to lasting happiness lies in acceptance. How we accept ourselves, accept others and accept life, warts and all, is what determines how happy we are.
This does not mean our lot in life is set, or that we cannot influence our future. It simply defines the greatest challenge to our own personal happiness as how we view things, and in turn, how this view influences our response.
And it means that we don’t have to give ourselves such a hard time. Or try so desperately to fathom the completely unfathomable depth of another human’s mind. Nor does it mean we have to take on ‘life designing’ and ‘universe providing’ style thinking that ultimately leaves us disenchanted and disappointed when things don’t follow our carefully purchased roadmap from the happiness industry.
We can take ownership for making smaller steps towards happiness instead of attempting to herd all the pieces and solve all the mysteries.
The roadmap to happiness may not be as simple as turning up the convention centre to unleash your inner warrior. It will not come off the bestseller list anymore than it will come from gluing random acts together in order to make sense of it all.
But it might be achievable, if we can share a little tender loving care with ourselves and other world around us. That by accepting, we can move on to better things, like enjoying life and happiness rather than trying to chase it.