Surprising Insights About Lasting Happiness

We all want to be happy, but happiness can be fleeting. These surprising insights hold the key to lasting happiness.

Happiness Doesn’t Last Long

On Sunday mornings, I work out with my trainer, Emily. This is a pretty recent and very positive development in my life. With her unwavering support and perfectly timed pushes, she’s teaching me, building my strength and my confidence, and helping me reach my goals (Michele Obama arms and 10 push ups). I find myself (surprisingly) looking forward to the creative tortures she designs for me each time. Today’s wrapped up with a grueling round of conditioning: 6 45 second intervals of explosive exercises. At the end, with my heart slamming and breath panting, we fist bumped, and I prepared for my short walk home. My heart continued to pound the whole way, and it took a solid 15 minutes or so for my breath to fully return to normal and for my body to achieve homeostasis. But I’m so glad it did.

Homeostasis is defined as a self-regulating process by which an organism maintains a relatively stable internal environment in the face of external changes. In other words, it’s our body’s ability to return to baseline when things throw it for a loop. It’s the reason my heart rate and breathing slowed this morning. Can you imagine what would happen if our bodies weren’t designed to do this? If our heart rates didn’t settle back down after being elevated by exercise or adrenaline? At this morning’s intensity, I’d be dead within the week!

So homeostasis is a good thing…and it’s one of the reasons lasting happiness is so hard to find. 

It’s Impossible for Happiness to Last

Homeostasis isn’t just a goal for our physiological systems. It applies to our psychological ones as well. That means that when something happens that makes us happy, say we get something we really want like a new item or achievement, the high fades pretty quickly, our brains seek homeostasis, and we return to baseline. This makes happiness elusive. We’re not going to get – and keep – happiness indefinitely, contrary to what a lot of people believe is possible. 

When you stop and really think about it, this is a brilliant design feature from Mother Nature. If happiness were something we could easily get and keep forever, we’d lose our drive. We’d have no reason to strive for anything again and would basically become big lumps of nothing. Thus, happiness, by nature, is fleeting. 

Yet, the title of this post is surprising insights into lasting happiness. And, yes, I do believe lasting happiness is possible. It just requires a complete reengineering of how we think about it.  

What Is Happiness? 

Through a series of luck and good fortune, I ended up being able to attend the TEDxKC event on Friday. If you’re not familiar, this kind of event involves a series TED style talks in which dynamic speakers spread big ideas in 18 minutes or less. It was inspiring and expansive. One of my favorite talks was by Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard School of Business, prolific author, podcast host, and happiness expert. Dr. Brooks spoke about the keys to lasting happiness, and I could not wait to share his insights. 

The first adjustment in our thinking we have to make when it comes to lasting happiness is how we even define what happiness is. Dr. Brooks made the point that happiness is multi-faceted and that it includes so much more than the pursuit of pleasure or the experience of the simple emotion we call “happiness,” both of which so many people equate it to. According to him, there are three components to real happiness: enjoyment, meaning & purpose, and satisfaction. 

Without spoiling his entire talk (it’s well-worth watching when it’s available online), he highlighted a couple paradoxical points. Besides the one we’ve already covered – that we are designed to return to baseline so a perpetually elevated state is biologically impossible – he challenged another widely belief: unhappiness is bad. The cultural myth that we can – and should – be happy at all times is backwards and harmful. It’s not possible, for one, and it diminishes the role of pain in happiness. 

Wait. Isn’t happiness really the absence of pain? No. Pleasure is the absence of pain, and pleasure is just one tiny slice of the happiness pie. Pleasure is a sense of “I like this” in this moment. It factors into the enjoyment aspect of happiness if you think of enjoyment as pleasure + a recognition and appreciation of the moment and a cognitive appraisal that “this is good.” Enjoyment alone, however, is not enough for lasting happiness. We get sated and return to baseline. Think of the first bite of a yummy pie with ice cream compared to the 100th. You get bored of the flavor and bloated with fullness. Enjoyment decreases over time. More is not better, and the constant chase of pleasure will actually end in pain.

That’s why all of the leading thinkers and researchers in the field of happiness, from ancient philosophers to modern scientists, know that lasting happiness includes more than just feeling good in the moment and that pain is unavoidable and, perhaps, even beneficial. 

When we consider meaning and purpose, a foundational contributor to our happiness and wellbeing, we must consider that it often arises from pain or hardship or, flatly put, unhappiness. It is often our struggles that illuminate our path toward purpose. Heartbreak and hardship can provide the impetus for our passion and for work that gives us a sense of meaning. And without that preceding pain, we may not find this important component of happiness. 

Pain, struggle, and unhappiness are integrally interwoven with satisfaction as well. I can tell you that I decidedly did NOT enjoy struggling through pull-ups this morning with Emily. It was physically hard and uncomfortable. Mentally, it made me aware of my current weakness, and I had to fight the urge to give up (not that she would let me). Yet, I endured that displeasure, that discomfort because I know that on the other side of it lies a sense of satisfaction. I know that I will be happy when I can knock out those push ups in the not so distant future. That feeling of pride, worth it-ness, and accomplishment contributes to our happiness and wellbeing, but it demands a measure of unhappiness to get there. 

If we can take these insights into account – embracing the fleeting nature of happiness and its intricate link to unhappiness – we may become freer, especially in the face of inevitable pain and discomfort, knowing that it is an important and recurring stop on the path to lasting happiness, a prerequisite to meaning and satisfaction. We can challenge ourselves to expand and be willing to embrace this dark side knowing that pain and joy are two sides of the same coin. And in doing so, we may just find more happiness overall. 

“The key to happiness is not being rich; it’s doing something arduous and creating something of value and then being able to reflect on the fruits of your labor.”
– Arthur C. Brooks