• Chris Varano

The Happiness Dilemma

What is happiness?

This is a tricky question to answer. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of happiness is, the state of being happy. A pretty lazy definition in my opinion. I believe the way happiness is experienced and defined varies from person to person. Although some people may classify happiness as a specific emotion, many of us subconsciously believe that happiness is something we achieve with a particular outcome.

Even if we begin to shift our attention to noticing the positive emotions we experience in the present moment, I personally believe the word “happiness” is too general of a term to describe a particular state of well-being. For myself, I have begun to acknowledge that I experience various positive feelings and emotions such as graciousness, fulfillment, joy, contentment, and calmness. These emotions are triggered by different environments and situations. I notice that when I can accurately describe and express the sensations and feelings accompanied with a particular emotion, I am making progress towards redefining my own happiness.

I think we all impose tremendous pressure on ourselves to achieve happiness, but no one really has told us what happiness is and what it should feel like. It may be worth considering using a less common definition of happiness, “happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” – Margaret Runbeck.

As many of us continue to believe that happiness is something we achieve, we go through life expecting that certain outcomes and items will be the source of our happiness. The vast majority of us are constantly investing our time, energy and money to obtain luxurious items, perfect relationships, and a big house in hopes of making us happy.

The following five items are some of the most prominent things that we falsely believe will bring us happiness:

1. True love

2. High Salary

3. Expensive Clothes

4. Perfect body

5. Good grades

I like to believe that these five items are worth being used as goals in order to maintain a sense of direction in our lives. However, we don’t realize that once we obtain good grades or an awesome job that we don’t receive eternal happiness.

So why are we all under the impression that true love, fancy things and financial freedom will bring us everlasting happiness? According to Professor Laurie Santos, there are features of our minds that cause us to use social references points to predict our sources of happiness.

Marketing is a powerful force that influences our beliefs on how we should experience happiness. Companies have an understanding of our basic humans needs and our tendency to make social comparisons in order to sell their products. For example, a well-crafted luxury car commercial will target a person’s need to belong to a particular social group by demonstrating that purchasing a nice car will evoke feelings of acceptance. In addition, the commercial may also target a person’s need to feel safe by highlighting the key safety and efficiency features of the car. This tactic of marketing fulfills our basic human needs and influences us to purchase luxurious items. Companies will also convince us that their products will induce feelings of happiness simply by having the actors and actresses seem happy.

And yes, maybe when you do buy that fancy Range Rover, you may feel happy and satisfied in that moment. But, after a couple of weeks, we will return to our baseline happiness levels. There’s a feature of our brains worth noting to better understand why this happens.

Our brains have a feature called hedonic adaptation, which means that our brains adjust to changes in our environment. Professor Santos explains that this an unfortunate tendency of our minds, which prevents us from recognizing that our brains are programmed to adapt to things and experiences. In the case of buying the car, the car may bring some happiness right when we purchase it, but eventually our brains adapt and we are no longer feeling those same positive emotions. On top of this, when we realize that we are not fulfilled by our fancy car, we experience feelings of disappointment, further decreasing our happiness levels.

“Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure” – Tony Robbins

With this information in mind, we have the power to begin to take control of our happiness. Below are some techniques you can begin using today to help you experience more positive emotions on a daily basis.

Technique 1: Redefine what happiness means to you

Take some time to re-define your own happiness. Write down some of the positive emotions that you experience frequently and try to find what types of experiences produce these specific feelings.

For example, if I recognize that I experience feelings of joy when I make progress at the gym, then I know that when I go to the gym, I expect to feel joyful when I see progress.

Technique 2: Practice Gratitude

After waking up in the morning, write down 3-5 things that you are thankful for. Try this for 5 days straight and see if you notice any improvement in your mood.

Technique 3: Eliminate sources of Social Comparison

We live in a very connected world full of social comparisons. This might be a seemingly impossible task, but try deleting one of your social media apps for a week. Eliminating a source of social comparison can have profound effects.


1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2014/03/05/the-psychology-and-philosophy-of-branding-marketing-needs-and-actions/#1b4799b2725a

2. https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being/home/week/3

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