Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is the author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. Here, she describes how attaching too much meaning to happy life events — think weddings, vacations, retirement — can actually deplete our happiness by creating a “happiness hangover.” She talked to us about living in the moment, showing gratitude and how to be happier everyday:
Q: What is a “happiness hangover?”
A: It’s when your happiness levels are high for whatever reason — a big event, something you’ve been planning — and you go from the high to the low. We see this with weddings, vacations and other things that involve a lot of planning and anticipation. The positive energy that has gone into thinking and dreaming is no longer there. Now what do I have to look forward to? How we feel is completely based on what we’re thinking. We get happy with the anticipation of thinking about how great something is going to be: the vacation is going to be perfect, I’m going to storm the buffet and I’m going to have the most relaxing massage ever. What actually happens is that your flight gets cancelled, the food is awful and the massage therapist is in training. Real life interferes with the plan and it makes for feelings of unhappiness.
Q: Who is most susceptible to this kind of thing?
A: I think it’s more likely to affect people who base their happiness on an event. It’s the “if only” syndrome: if only I lose weight, get married, get some time off work, then I’ll be happy. People who don’t rely on external events tend to experience this less. You can still be aspirational and not base your happiness on those goals. And, in fact, people who don’t look to external goals for happiness are more likely to attain their goals. When you get on that hedonic treadmill — you win a million dollars in the lottery or you get married — you’re briefly happy and then you return to the exact same happiness levels as before.
Q: Is there any way to sustain feelings of contentedness, even if you’re not bowled over by happiness all of the time?
A: If you employ the right skills, you can be happy from the inside. It’s okay to be happy about a wedding but think about what that wedding means — it’s not just about the day. When it comes to events, you can use photo albums and memories to help prolong your good feelings. You don’t want to define yourself by these events, but it can really boost your mood to watch your wedding video with friends or describe all of the funny things that happened on vacation.
Q: What can we do to encourage a sense of internal satisfaction, unrelated to any event?
A: The quickest, and most prolonged, way to be happier is to focus on gratitude, which means focusing on what’s going right. We tend to look at what’s wrong. Start to focus on the joys. I’m not suggesting you go hug a tree, but there is something to the glass-half-full idea. We’re not talking about delusional thinking — I’m so glad that my husband left me for a 20-year old! — but focus on the good things around you.
When I work with couples, I challenge each partner to spend a little time each day focusing on their great qualities rather than the things that irritate. It’s so insanely powerful. Even a gratitude journal, where you write down three happy things every day, can really boost your happiness. It causes you to see the glass differently.
Other things to do include exercise — even jumping jacks around the house — can change how you think. You can get a runner’s high without running a marathon. There’s some research that demonstrates that exercise is better than antidepressants. Another thing you can do is start helping other people. Maybe it’s an hour at a soup kitchen or chatting with people at a nursing home. It doesn’t matter. Just do something to help someone else.
Q: But what if everything is really terrible for you? What if your partner is dying of cancer?
A: I actually worked in psycho-oncology for five years, and once those people got this concept, they actually became the happiest. They abandoned the rat race, they focused on the people they love, and they were happier. Whatever you focus on gets bigger – if you focus on a lack of finances, they’re going to occupy more of your life. If you get out of bed, and you ask yourself how crappy the day is going to be, it’s going to be crappy. We answer the questions we ask ourselves. Happy people experience a full range of emotions, but they use them to make things better.
Do you find you’re happier before an event than you are during it?