Why True Happiness Is Always Unconditional

Don’t be ‘kinda’ happy.

Aside from meditating, writing, and building my own business, I also work with a retail-tech startup. My role — marketing entrepreneur — defies easy explanation. Let’s just say I aim to expand the company.

Anyway, recently, the whole team got together on Zoom and the founders gave us all some good news — they have restored the salaries of all people to pre-COVID levels and salaries will continue to rise every quarter along with the value of our ESOPs.

On the short call that lasted for 15 minutes, we saw how our revenue has increased dramatically month-on-month and how that growth translates into our compensation plans.

I joined the startup about a month ago and I was happy to see the presentation. Not because I’ll get more money, **but because the people who’ve been working long before I joined have faced a lot of hardships in the last year **— and now’s the time they get rewarded for it.

They took salary cuts, stuck together (even though everyone’s talented enough to get a cushy corporate job), and came out shining at the end of the tunnel.

An hour after the call, a short survey was rolled out for everyone.

How are you feeling about your compensation?

  1. Happy
  2. Neutral
  3. Sad

I wish they offered a third option called ‘psyched’! But happy was the best option I could opt for, so I submitted the survey.

I thought the majority would choose the same option, as, after a year of struggle, we’re finally seeing unprecedented, exponential growth.

Yet, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The majority of people were in the middle — “Neutral.”

Puzzled as to why this is the case, my mind got to work, and this article came out.

Everyone Is ‘Kinda Happy’

In the 1980s and 90s, psychologists tried to study happiness by asking people how happy they were at different points in the day.

Each participant had a pager and noted down their happiness levels on a scale of 1–10 at random points in time.

When the data from the study came in, psychologists found that most people felt at a 7 most times.

The only exception was when something extreme — bad or good — happened. For instance, if a close relative passes away, the scale would shift to 3. On the flip side, when one of the participants was getting married, the scale shifted to 10.

But here’s the bummer — it eventually came back to 7. No one was fully happy all the time. Everyone was ‘kinda happy’ thinking that we need something else to reach 10.

This is true for all of us, isn’t it?

Imagine you get a big fat bonus at work — you’d definitely be at 10. Then the next day, you would settle with your new income and be back at 7, thinking you need another bonus to go back to 10.

In other words, things are always fine, but they can always be better. No matter how better they’ve already gotten.

Lo and behold! You’re on the hedonic treadmill.

You earn a lot of money, get a house, another bonus comes around, you build a pool, then you switch to a higher paying job to pay for your high-maintenance mansion. Next thing you know, you’re sitting at a beach pissed off at the waiter for not putting enough ice in your cocktail.

The problem is, you’ve always relied on outside stimuli to get you to a ‘10’. And you thought, “If only I get at 10, I’ll stay there and life will be good.”

But to your surprise, you always found something to drag yourself back to 7. The water in the pool wasn’t hot enough, your car isn’t fast enough, your boss isn’t kind enough, the stocks don’t rise enough, and so on.

Every time you reached a ‘10’, your mind searched for another problem and put it in front of you. Being aware of a new (no matter how petty) problem, you slowly drifted back to 7, thinking “Yeah, life is good, but it can be better.”

What can you do? Quit running after outside things to give you happiness.

Things Won’t Give You Happiness

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Thoreau

One of the most common reasons for being on the hedonic treadmill is an attachment to stuff.

Again, the problem is collecting stuff isn’t going to give us true happiness.

When you buy something, you not only spend money on it, you spend a piece of your life. The bigger the possession, the bigger the piece of life you exchange for it.

You worry about their maintenance. You fear losing them. Every item you buy adds one more thing in your life to be damaged or stolen.

Think of the proverbial pretty vase you bought for the pretentious side-table next to your larger-than-life couch. You’re always afraid someone will break it.

Further, where does the cycle of accumulation end? Companies, especially electronics manufacturers, make their products in such a way that they’ll be obsolete soon. Thus forcing you to upgrade.

And why are you actually buying stuff? To impress others? Well, I hate to break it to you — someone will always have more than you. Keeping up with the Joneses is a flawed life strategy. Our self-worth needs to come from a stronger foundation than that.

Reaching Your Goals Also Won’t Make You Happy

I’ve been fortunate enough to realize from a young age that material possessions don’t give me the happiness I’m seeking.

But I fell into another trap — thinking that achieving my goals will make me happy.

When I started writing on Medium, I thought one viral post will give me happiness. Then, when a post did go viral, I found myself not being grateful but thinking how good would’ve been if it earned just 200 bucks more.

Goals are tricky in that sense.

What does it feel like to achieve your goal? It feels like you’re the last person to get a joke at a party.

Because when you reach the goals you passionately set for yourself, you don’t feel any different.

Finishing a big project may come with a sense of satisfaction that lasts for a few minutes along with a long-due weekend to chill. But what after that?

This is called the Arrival Fallacy. It was first introduced by Dr. Ben-Shahar in his book Happier who realized it first-hand as an elite squash player:

“I thought that if I win this tournament then I’ll be happy. And I won, and I was happy. And then the same stress and pressure and emptiness returned.”

That in fact sums it up how we all feel.

And so in that fleeting moment of achievement, you realize you need another goal — to feel the same rush of running towards something. Ergo, the vicious cycle begins again.

The lesson here is not to stop setting goals. Rather, be aware that achieving them won’t provide the satisfaction you seek.

If you’re not aware, it can lead you to strive for external confirmation, success, and material possessions. There’s no limit to the ante. And you just keep chasing the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick.

A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

The reason we always come back to 7, is that our mind is always wandering to something else.

The famous study by Daniel Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth, tells us how.

They took 2,250 people for the experiment and pinged them at random times during the day. The notification time was different for each participant as per their schedule.

Each notification asked them several questions about their mood, happiness, environment, and the task at hand. The results were enlightening. But most of all, they reveal one important insight.

**The nature of the work had a negligible impact on whether their mind wandered. **Every activity (apart from making love) had a high rate of mind-wandering.

“There is never a time when new distraction will not show up; we sow them, so several will grow from the same seed.” — Seneca

We can surely attest to the results with our personal experience. The mind always wanders, regardless of what we’re doing.

And it has a huge impact on our happiness.

Since scientific studies weren’t able to identify the key drivers of happiness, Matt Killingsworth had an interesting insight.

He thought, if all the other things can’t determine our happiness, then it must depend on what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

That’s when it clicked. As he collected data about happiness levels of participants at different moments throughout the day, he found this:

[Source](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy5A8dVYU3k) (Happiness on the vertical axis)Source (Happiness on the vertical axis)

No matter what people were doing, they were significantly happier if they were focused on the present. Even if they’re running errands, commuting, or doing laundry.

Even though we hate commute and running errands, we still don’t enjoy mind-wandering. Because when the mind wanders, we often think of unpleasant events. Stresses, worries, anxieties, and fear rule our minds.

This makes perfect sense. In the eternal Now, there are no worries, no tensions, and no anxieties. These are only caused when we ruminate on the past or worry about the future.

All that you seek exists Now. You just have to be here to find it.

The Takeaway

We Indians have a simple rule of living life (which ironically, few Indians follow) — “simple living, high thinking.”

Realize first that desires form the root of all misery. The more you focus on the present moment and the fewer desires you have, the happier you’ll be.

Desires pull us into Duality. And in Duality every high connects to a low. A tear follows every smile. That’s the law — you can’t get away from it.

The only way is to not be involved with it. To train ourselves to find joy in simple things. To be grateful for what we have instead of always wishing for more.

Go inside, enjoy the moment in front of you. That’s where you’ll find the happiness you’re looking for.

Stop looking for the right things in the wrong places.

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course — Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on