During my teens, 20s and some of my early 30s, happiness — specifically that butterflies in the stomach, feeling like your heart is going to burst with laughter and joy kind of happiness — was the only thing I really craved.
Until my early thirties, the pursuit of this came from chasing boys (in my younger years), alcohol, partying, getting married, travel and socialising.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I changed my whole life, moving from a big city to a small seaside town (living by the sea is meant to make you happier, right?) and opening a business dedicated to one of the most hedonistic pleasures of all; wine. All in the pursuit of a happier life.
This is when I thought I had it figured out. A successful business and marriage, all financial ducks in a row and, most importantly, an added layer of intentional living through the adoption of minimalism and a dedication to personal growth and development.
Despite my best efforts, earlier this year I wound up off work in a therapist’s office with burnout, depression and anxiety. The pursuit of happiness had gotten me, and it had gotten me good.
Happiness vs contentment
You may think it’s just a case of semantics, but words matter and these two have very different meanings.
Happiness is a fleeting emotion because of its very nature — it’s that dopamine rush. The butterflies-in-stomach, feeling like your heart is going to burst with emotion is not something that can last all day, every day. Satisfaction and contentment, on the other hand, are long term slow burners. They are what makes you feel safe, calm and at peace. They are a far better measure of wellbeing.
The confusion between the two can be seen everywhere. For instance, there is a well recognised formula:
Happiness = reality minus expectations
This isn’t a formula for happiness, this is a formula for contentment. We’ve been calling it the wrong thing and confusing ourselves in the process.
Millennials and GenY are often pigeonholed as ‘unhappy’. Tim Urban, creator of the excellent What but Why writes extensively about this in his wonderful post “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy.” I would argue he’s not talking about happiness, he’s talking about contentment levels.
Why the difference matters.
So why worry about making the distinction? Because the confusion can be seriously detrimental. Take my case for example. I KNEW that we as a generation have a propensity to feel unhappy and dissatisfied. But I also felt pretty aware about what else we humans should be striving for. That a good job, financial security and a stable personal life, although very important for baseline happiness (or indeed satisfaction) levels, are not what notches it up a level. There are noble pursuits that contribute to satisfaction levels such as making an active contribution to society and personal growth and development. Not only did I know this, I was trying to execute this. So why wasn’t it working for me?
As it turns out, everything I was doing in my life — even the more noble pursuits of personal growth and development, were dissatisfying because I was still seeking the wrong thing in them. I expected them to give me the dopamine hit of happiness, not the long term feeling of contentment.
Society has developed a ‘cult of happiness’. It’s what every human on earth should, apparently, be working towards and have the right to feel. In my mind, that meant the jumping-for-joy kind of happiness rather than a feeling of peace and contentment. Both are great and very important, but only one will last long term.
The pursuit of happiness is what makes me drink too much on a school night. It’s the anticipation of what could be a great night, one to remember, worth the hangover (it almost never is). The pursuit of contentment is what makes me write, what makes me exercise, what makes me spend quality time with loved ones. Satisfaction pursuits generally always come with a bonus happiness point. But the pursuit of happiness does not always make one satisfied.
Personally, I have a long way to go. Re-wiring a brain that has been hell-bent on happiness-at-all-costs takes dedication, perseverance and, in my case, a lot of therapy to work out root causes. Being aware that satisfaction and contentment should be our wellbeing goal does not mean that they automatically are. Dopamine is still my crutch, in fact it is many people’s. It even plays a role in addiction, thanks to its close links with memory and motivation
I’m approaching (yet another) new phase in my life, with the sale of my business and emigration to mainland Europe, But this time, I know that the decision to change my life direction yet again comes from a different place. It’s coming from a need to seek satisfaction and peace.
Hopefully with a few dopamine hits along the way…