Is happiness just a fleeting high?

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“Never underestimate the human capacity for delusion” – Roger Cohen

The renowned filmmaker, Woody Allen, once said, “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”

Life is undoubtedly plagued with misery, but I question why most humans seem to crave it nonetheless. Is it because life’s happiness outweighs its anguish? I don’t think so. I think it’s because we delude ourselves into believing that life is worth it.

Happiness predominantly doesn’t occur in the present moment. For the most part, we feel pretty average in the present, even when things are going well. A quote by famed theatre critic, Brooks Atkinson, puts it nicely, “In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time.” It seems, therefore, that a large part of our happiness is illusory: we find it in our selective (and therefore false) memories, as well as our fantasies of blissful times ahead. Besides concocting this illusory happiness in our minds, we do experience some actual happy moments in the present moment – but the problem is that the positive emotions we feel are generally exceedingly fleeting.

Maseratis, yachts, bottles of Dom Pérignon, luxury penthouses, millions of dollars. We all know that relying on decadence to bring us true happiness is futile, as it only provides short-lived satisfaction. Yet many fail to realize that the same is true about most of life’s happy moments – even seemingly blissful occurrences don’t have lasting impacts. For instance the positive feelings that are evoked when one’s child is first born, or when reading an acceptance letter for one’s dream college, are equally ephemeral. While these moments, which are few and far between, provide us euphoria for a short span, we rapidly get used to them just like we adapt to materialistic pleasures. Their contribution to our happiness ends up being trivial.

It’s a commonly held notion that happiness comes out of struggle. We’re told that we should be trying to find our worthwhile struggle. That enjoyment lies in the tough climb. That accomplishing challenging tasks results in joy. While I’m convinced that pursuing worthy struggles and working through them leads to gratification, I haven’t found this happiness to be any less short-lived. Plus ‘struggle’ of course indicates the presence of unpleasant emotions. So, all in all, it seems that engaging in meaningful struggles results in temporary satisfaction, as well as suffering. Where’s the sense in that?

The view that we quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive events or life changes is a part of the hedonic treadmill theory. However, the theory also claims that the same is true for negative events. Based on my life experiences, I believe this to be untrue. I’ve found that while positive events have scant longterm impacts on us, negative events do in fact have prolonged adverse effects on our levels of happiness.

Some face more misery than others, but nobody is immune to it. At various points in our lives, we are all tormented by miserable happenings of different degrees. The death of parents. The death of a child. Being dumped by our one-and-only. Being broke. Getting paralyzed from the waist down. You get the point – periods of life are pretty heart wrenching. The agony that we must endure often leads us into states of depression, grief, guilt and loneliness, just to name a few. Miserable times are of course difficult to weather, but unlike with happy times, the negative feelings we experience often stay for months on end, if not years. They sometimes even have deep-rooted detrimental impacts on us, in the form of phobias, cynicism, sustained mental health issues, etc.

Life is plagued with its fair share of misery, which leaves us in long periods of despair. Yet it only accommodates for bursts of unsubstantial positive emotions, achieved by chasing short lived happiness highs, and escaping into our illusory thoughts. Through this unsubstantial happiness, we delude ourselves into believing that life is dandy. Maybe this delusion is enough for people to find life worth it? Or maybe I’m missing something?

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