Picture this: you are healthy, you have a great job, live in a cool city that has both access to culture and nature, and have really healthy relationships. Nothing is weighing you down. By most societal standards, you have everything. But still, you feel uneasy.
And to make matters worst, you are guilty about the unrest you feel. Because you should be happy. You should be content. But you can’t shake that feeling that something is missing.
You believe that “once I get X”, you will be happy. But by the time you get there, there are other things you want and that feeling of happiness is always in the future, never here and now.
Sounds familiar? Personally, I feel this way a LOT.
In this post, I will explore reasons why we feel this way and some simple tips on how to stay happy in the present (or at least try!).
Why do we feel this way?
Sitting at Tenerife Sur airport, looking out at the blue sea and sky, in between an incredible holiday with days filled with surf and adventures and my life in (rainy and cold) Dublin, I am struggling to keep my mind in the present. What is going through my mind is: once I get to Dublin and finish the last things I need to do at work, and get Christmas presents, and sort out the last details for my mother’s visit to Ireland for Christmas, I can relax!
While this might feel simply like a way of thinking, something to be turned off by shifting focus, it’s far from it. What you feel in those moments is an embedded behaviour driven by a neuromodulatory molecule called dopamine.
A lot of people think of dopamine as the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Listening to “Molecule of More” (a book by Daniel Lieberman Michael E. Long) I’ve come to understand the role of dopamine in the evolutionary process: to create a desire that will drive behaviour.
In simple terms, it’s not the “doing” or the “getting” that increases dopamine in your brain, but the anticipation of the reward. So dopamine never makes you happy, it makes you want more.
Let’s say you really want a new car. You want it so much that you have spent months saving for it. Every time you imagine yourself driving it, you tell yourself that you will finally be happy when you get it. The closer it gets to the day of getting the car the giddier you get. Dopamine increases in your brain, and it keeps you focused on the prize, it promises that you will feel even better when you get there.
You don’t go off buying expensive holidays because you are saving for your dream car. You are focused, you work harder.
The day your new car arrives feels like the best day ever, but soon after, the excitement wears off and the car becomes yesterday news. Suddenly, you are on to the next thing. Maybe it’s a holiday or an item you saw your favourite Instagram Influencer sporting. Whatever is driving your excitement now, it’s not your “old news” car.
That doesn’t sound like a great way to be, right? But this motion is very useful for humans.
For thousands of years, it kept us alive at times when we had to keep moving to eat, to be safe from animals, and to pass on our genes. Dopamine was cleverly crafted to keep us moving forward.
Today, Dopamine still drives us to achieve success, to provide for our families, to continue progressing. However, dopamine doesn’t help us appreciate what we already have and most importantly it doesn’t make us happy.
So when you have everything you ever wanted and you still feel unhappy, there is nothing broken in you. It’s just that you have thousands of years of evolution, wired to your brain’s programme, designed to keep you wanting more.
How do I stay happy in the present?
Become a Buddhist monk! Just kidding 😛
The first step is awareness. Once you expect to feel this way, your emotions are no longer a source of anguish but something you know to be part of all humans. You can relax and accept that this is something you will always feel in some way shape or form.
With awareness comes the ability to choose the things you chase. It allows you to step out of the hamster wheel and be strategic.
In a world where Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Linkedin and all other media platforms are continuously advertising to you, it’s easy to be “always wanting”.
In fact those channels are so effective in triggering your dopamine systems, they make you want things that you don’t really want.
What do I mean? We are easily persuaded. We all want happiness. When we look at someone that looks happy with a lifestyle, it’s easy to start wanting that. But what you truly want, isn’t their latest bag. It’s their promoted happiness.
But when you strip back the hype, those things might not aligned with your values. And ultimately, once you get them, you won’t be able to get through the dopamine hit to the gratitude stage. Because you never wanted those things in the first place.
But with a heightened sense of awareness, you can apply some critical thinking to your desires.
You can slow down the process of wanting. Be more intentional about the things you chase. And hopefully not conflate your desired possessions and experiences with your happiness.
The second step after pushing the hand-break is to “stop and smell the roses”. Make time and space to be grateful for what you already have. To look at how far you have come.
Some people make gratitude lists, others talk to their loved ones, or meditate. No matter the medium, find a way to appreciate what you already have in your life.
Finally, my last piece of advice to stay happy and in the present is to use technology mindfully.
- Curate your feeds with people and brands that share content aligned to what you value in life. Want it or not, you are being influenced. So choose wisely who influences you. Otherwise you might end up with a life you didn’t want to have in the first place.
- Step away from technology for a few hours every week. Turn off the phone, the laptop, the smartwatch, the tablet and the TV. Get out in nature, meet your friends face to face, engage with your partner in a meaningful way, play with your kids. Nothing is better for the soul than time spent out in the real world.