From getting the dream job to having the perfect relationship, we are obsessed with achieving happiness. But our biology means this search is futile.
No matter how hard we try to maintain that buzzing feeling of joy, our bodies are out to thwart us, says Dr Helen Driscoll, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland.
That’s because humans have evolved to have a “set point” of happiness. So whether we buy a new car or give to charity, our mood will adjust so we are no more or less happy than before. In fact, we need to experience a variety of emotions in order to keep us motivated and to strive forwards in life. One study into happiness showed that those who win the lottery are no more likely to be happy and satisfied in the long-term than those who are regarded as having dealt with a misfortune like being paralysed.
“Happiness can be difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to sustain,” she explained. “The key obstacle is that sustaining very high levels of happiness over long periods of time are unlikely to have adaptive value.
“Imagine a world in which all of us were completely and blissfully happy all of the time. What would happen? Would we be driven to develop, to achieve, to seek out new partners, to have children? If we were completely happy, why would we do these things? And that is the problem.
“Consequently, the human condition has evolved to find happiness a somewhat slippery and elusive quality. We have it sometimes, we know what it feels like, and we know how good it is. When we don’t have it, we want it. When we have it, we want to hang on to it, yet somehow it seems to slip away again.
She adds that - annoyingly - happiness has far more value to us when it is slightly out of reach "by driving us to seek it out and keep it, yet always pulling away from us. This is why we quickly readjust to gains and revert to the level of happiness we had previously.”
Psychologists also argue that achieving happiness often involves a lot of hard graft and relative unhappiness. In her book The Happiness Myth, philosopher Jennifer Hecht argues that different forms of happiness can conflict with each other. For instance, short-term happiness such as partying may disrupt achieving long-term happiness which is gained by working hard towards a career or building a relationship with another person. When one part of our happiness flourishes, it may fall away in another.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies