I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately in therapy about what life means and what happiness constitutes and honestly when you take a look at it, it’s a confusing concept. There seems to be this idea that there is some happiness point that we can reach in life where we’ll feel good all the time, but think about what that would even look like. If I imagine someone who is feeling good literally all the time, that would strike me (and our good old friend the DSM-V) as symptomatic of mania or psychosis. You can’t be happy all the time, so why do we expect it? Why do people talk about being happy in life as a goal when it’s not even real? I think the preferential way to talk about life-happiness would be something closer to “calm” or “joy” or “satisfaction,” but I definitely don’t hear those words as part of an overall goal nearly as much as I hear about Happy. Even writing this I know logically that happiness is an unattainable goal and yet I still very deeply believe I want it.
I read a book a while ago called Happy Money, which was all about studies on how people spend their money and in what ways it made them feel happier or unhappier depending on the method of spending. I love to spend money and like everyone else I want to be at my Utmost Happiness so I was interested in the concept. I tend to spend money pretty soon after I have it, saving up for some things but in general my mentality with shopping is more is more. I’ll go for the larger quantity of things (dollar spot!) versus the higher-quality things (except for Sephora). To me, money happiness is when I can find something really expensive at a garage sale, like a Coach bag, and my happiness comes from the incessant bragging I can do for years to come when people compliment me on it. In any case, the conclusion the authors of Happy Money came to was that purchasing experiences made people the most happy, in terms of satisfaction per purchase. The reasoning was interesting – they found that people were actually most happy right before the purchase of any item, and right after purchasing it, their happiness decreased. For tangibles like cars and houses, the happiness continued to decrease after purchase as the item became worn out, the novelty was gone, and expense was required to maintain it. With experiences, there was a similar effect for the first portion as well – looking forward to going on a trip, with peak happiness the night before leaving, and then disappointment during the trip when things didn’t live up to expectations, it was difficult to get around, the person drank the water and got sick, etc. The difference between the trip and the car or house was that after the trip was over, happiness bubbled up again as the person created fond memories of the trip, showed pictures to friends and family, and told stories about it for years to come.
If there’s a lesson here, I think it’s more than the obvious one that we should spend money on experiences like travelling and going to the State Fair. The thing I took from this was that the joy of an experience is mostly in the imagination and our narrative of it, rather than the thing itself. Looking forward to something is better than the actual thing. The book also talked about how tourists from Japan have tended to idealize Paris and often couples would save up large sums of money to go there, only to find that Paris smells like piss everywhere, there are cigarette butts all over the ground, homeless people, aggressive drivers, and all the nasty things you find in any large city. Some people would actually become depressed after making their lifetime wish of a Paris trip a reality, because that fairytale place has been crushed in their mind.
I wonder if we can trick ourselves into feeling happier on a day-to-day basis by intentionally looking forward to things in the horizon, and then after they happen, intentionally creating a narrative of happiness about the event so that the happiness endures upon remembering or retelling it. Would it matter if we knew it was somewhat made up? Aren’t emotions a little bit made up anyway? That’s the whole concept of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – you can basically Jedi mind trick yourself into altering your thought patterns with enough practice. I also think that even having a bad story about an event tends to be better than no story at all – think about the most interesting stories you’ve ever heard, and I’m sure that terrible things happened in them. I recently studied abroad in Europe and the only part of that story anyone finds interesting is how my fiance and I were bullied by some majorly aggressive staff at the Lisbon airport. If I talk about how good the food was, or that I saw a self-driving car, that’s more or less something people have heard before and it’s not as unique or gripping. A lot of humor comes out of misery. I’m sure somehow there is an ideal formula for the perfect mix of miserable and happy in memories that create the Ultimate Happy, or the closest thing to it.