Recently I talked with someone about participating in a “Happiness Group,” a program that’s very research-based and teaches behaviors and thinking patterns that have been shown to increase personal happiness. Her response was illustrative.
“I’ll try it, but what I really want is to meet someone to date!”
That’s exactly what most women would say, I think, if they’re really honest. Because we assume that having the right relationship will make us happy. So why waste time working on making yourself happy when you can just go out and find the right person. Surely happiness will follow, right?
Not really. Research shows that the right relationship can indeed make you feel happier–for about 2 years. After that, you’re going to go back to your baseline level, or what some call your “set point” of happiness. In other words, if you’re usually at 4 on a 10-point happiness rating scale, a good marriage can pop you up to a 6 or 7 for a couple years, but after than you’re headed back to 4. That’s because of our amazing human ability to adapt to any situation–whether it’s good or bad.
Turns out, if you want lasting happiness, you need to make some changes in habitual thoughts or behaviors. And you know how we love change! Not….but it’s easier when you know there’s a tangible outcome, and the process of getting there makes you feel better along the way. For example, practicing optimistic thinking about any situation will probably make you feel better immediately, and when you develop the habit of doing this automatically you’ll feel better more of the time. Or spending more time doing an activity that you get completely absorbed in –what some call “flow experiences” or “being in the zone”– will make you happier in the moment, and will continue as long as you continue to do this intentionally.
It’s true that everything worthwhile takes energy and attention, but guess what? Being unhappy is eating up a lot of energy and attention anyway. You may as well be getting something good from it! And someone needs to be in charge of your happiness. Might as well be you.
Which leads me back to the comment about “I’d rather just find a relationship.” When you’re a happier person, you’re going to find a happier relationship. You’ll be drawn to others who share your positive energy, and you’ll know to stay away from people who are going to be toxic or bring you down. You’ll attract happier people when you’re happier yourself. Otherwise, you may wind up either caretaking or being dominated by someone who says she wants to take care of you but really just wants to control you.
I love immediate rewards too, and it’s wonderful to feel that spark with someone new. But, I’d really rather have a steady flame, and to me that means doing what I need to do for my own happiness instead of waiting for “the right one.”
I always think of that classic question we should all ask ourselves: What’s it like to be involved with someone like me? That has a way of clarifying what I need to do! Like maybe, get happier!