Recovering The SelfA Journal of Hope and Healing


Bob Rich’s Self-Therapy Guide: The Mirage of Happiness

Bob Rich’s book From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide is therapy in your pocket. Depression, anxiety, and other forms of suffering are all too common in our crazy world. Bob teaches you how to rise from that to “normal,” which is the walking wounded, then far above that, to inner strength enabling you to cope in any situation.

Recovering the Self published the first segment of Bob’s book in a series of posts starting from commentary on staying sane in a crazy world and ending with the quest for meaning via correspondence with young minds. The second segment of Bob’s work begins here with special attention to the meaning of depression, happiness, and resilience as well as the various influences in early and later life that make one vulnerable to depression.

In the previous post, Bob related factors in social and political atmosphere, like population pressure, to the general tendency of falling prey to depression. In the seventh segment of his discussion, he unveils a common cause of unhappiness in a large number of people, namely the mirage of happiness.

Happiness – The Mirage on the Horizon

happy face in clouds

Here is a magic wand for you, loaded with one wish. What will it be? Whatever it is, why did you wish for that?

Most people’s answer is some version of “It’d make me happy.”

Why do you want something to make you happy? Isn’t that a stupid question? Isn’t that what we all want?

The happiness myth is highly damaging, and a major cause of unhappiness.

There are many instances illustrating that the meaning of life can be a variety of other values:

  • Serving God. Mother Teresa spent her life in serving the poor of Calcutta. The martyrs willingly fed the lions in the circus of Rome. Terrifyingly, people willingly use themselves as human bombs, today.
  • Serving Country. People volunteer for likely death or injury, undergo extreme hardship, when their country is in a war they believe to be just.
  • Advancing an Ideal. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela – and their sufferings. Malala was shot in the head because she wouldn’t stop campaigning for girls’ right to an education. There are journalists, and political opponents of dictatorships, in prison right now. Environmental protectors have been assassinated.

Imagine this. Someone you love (child, parent, partner, pet) is in a burning house. I’ll grant your every wish for a year if you refuse to save this person. What will you do? I don’t know anyone who’d make the selfish choice.

Why does striving for happiness cause unhappiness? Because happiness is not a state that can be maintained. People don’t “live happily ever after.” When things are better than usual, you feel happy; when worse, unhappy. Change is the only constant, so happiness and unhappiness also change. This is the experimentally well-supported concept of “hedonic adaptation.”

First, let’s define adaptation. It’s when something initially attracts your attention, but soon fades from consciousness. You walk into a room, and note its smell. Very soon, that awareness is gone. My daughter once lived in a house near a railway line. While visiting her, I recoiled when the house started shaking, and a loud noise drowned out every other sound. “Oh, that’s terrible,” I said when it passed.

“What?” she asked. She hadn’t even noticed the train thundering past.

I am sure that now you can think of many instances of adaptation from your own life.

“Hedonic” means having to do with pleasure. So, “hedonic adaptation” means getting used to a particular level of positive or negative set of circumstances. Because of hedonic adaptation, the benefit of anything positive or negative quickly wears off, returning you to your long-term set point of perceived wellbeing. Win millions of dollars in a lottery, and you’ll be on top of the clouds — for a while. Soon, though, the new normal will be just normal, and your habitual mood returns to what it was before. Or, say you suffer an accident resulting in physical handicaps, pain, perhaps disfigurement. You’ll find that after a while, although the situation is permanent, your long-term mood will be much the same as previously. If you’ve always been a cheerful, positive person, you’ll cope with new your situation in a cheerful, positive way.

As I write, I have a dear friend who is gradually dying from motor neuron disease, losing various bodily functions all too rapidly. She is an inspiration to everyone who knows her, because she is determined to get the best out of however few days are left to her.

Imagine a man whose habitual, long term mood is sadness. He wants to be happy, so buys a car. This works, but the happiness won’t last. The new toy will soon be merely part of the background, and no longer give him a jolt of pleasure. Remembering that buying the car had made him happy, he may now trade it in for an even better one. That works… for a while. In 1971, Brickman and Campbell described this as “a futile and desperate hedonic treadmill.”

Seeking happiness is an addiction. You do something that lifts your mood, but once the effect wears off, you need to repeat the action, exactly like, say, a cocaine addict.

– Dr. Bob Rich

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