Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

It’s all over the news these days. There are hundreds of TED talks on this topic. Researchers are devoting their entire careers to this theme.

I’m talking about the often elusive cultivation of genuine, lasting happiness.

To hopefully not bore you to happy tears, I’m going to take a slightly different angle on this topic while synthesizing some of the hugely important research on this hugely important topic.

I am going to talk about 3 essential elements, or foundational ingredients, that, when combined, can bake us an infinitely expanding cake of delicious happiness potential.

First, a few research-backed assumptions to lay down:

  • Happiness actually has very little to do with our external circumstances but a lot to do with the way we view life and the practices and habits in which we engage on a regular basis. We arrive at this assumption from tons of research on lottery winners, those with disabilities, and from research on the hedonic treadmill and adaptation.
  • But the company we keep does indeed matter. For example, the abusive partner or boss of course influences our health and well-being. And others around us who are happy can indeed help us lean more toward happiness.
  • Our pasts (or at least the ingrained memories of more negative experiences and relationships) influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world. But we can do something about this.

So those were just a few assumptions we will work with as we consider baking our cake of happiness potential. We can consider those assumptions as truths about the oven we are using and the chemistry of what happens when we put different ingredients in the same bowl and throw them in some heat for a designated period of time.

Ok, here are the 3 essential ingredients to help cultivate genuine well-being:

1) We must distinguish hedonic happiness from eudaimonic happiness. Say what??

Hedonic happiness is pleasure (and pain avoidance) based. It’s more short-term and taps into the reward circuitry of the brain. It’s not inherently worse or better than eudaimonic happiness. It’s just really good to know if you are constantly seeking pleasure (or avoiding pain) as a way to “make you feel happy.” Longer term, it will backfire and not allow us to look as closely at the other source of happiness, which is:

Eudaimonic happiness is meaning and self-realization based. It’s getting to know and acting on what drives you, what truly matters in your life, what brings a deeper joy and sense of purpose. It exists beyond and outside of momentary joys and pleasures (or pains) and can endure almost as a character trait.

2) Honestly acknowledge (and even honor) where you are right now in life (and how the past is likely influencing you in sometimes mysterious and not-so-obvious ways).  This probably means first developing some courage to be vulnerable (see Brene Brown’s amazing past and upcoming work).

If we deny what’s actually happening (or what has happened), how can we find our way back to the path toward happiness and meaning in our lives?  As Louise Hay (pre-eminent wellness guru and healer) has said, you have to actually see the dirty dishes in order to clean them. Denying there is a stack of filthy dishes in your sink will do nothing for achieving a clean kitchen. Then and only then can we make our kitchen truly shine.

Said differently, if we lose our keys on the side of the road at night and look only where the lamplight is shining, we miss real opportunities to find our keys that might actually be quite far from the light.

3) Acknowledge that “contingent happiness” rarely ever works and that hedonic adaptation is a very real thing.

Contingent happiness is the very common “when-then” phenomenon that sounds like this: “When I get that new job, then I’ll be so much happier.” “When my kid stops whining, I’ll finally find some peace and quiet in my life.” “When my boss stops harassing me, things will finally be better at work.” “When I get that ‘A’ in history class, I will be so much happier.” “When I get into the ‘best’ college, I will finally be happy.”

While it is true that our external environment does actually matter, it is even truer (or holds even more weight) that what we do within our internal world is so much more influential. From this, we interact with our external environment differently and thus create a different reality for ourselves. Sometimes though, life can act like an a* *hole, and we just have to acknowledge that in the moment and ride its wave humbly and with strength and patience.

Hedonic adaptation is the related idea that we will fairly quickly adjust to what we thought would make us so much happier. And we then once again aim for something else that we assume will make us happier or make us feel hedonically good. And so it goes on and on in this way. Genuine happiness is actually then out of reach because we never feel satisfied. That concept alone makes me feel a little unhappy right now.

Hopefully I’ve whet your appetite for more goodies on genuine happiness. Stay tuned for the next post on “Evidence-Based Happiness Hacks.”

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