Unwavering Optimism and the Pursuit of Happiness

My goal for the year was to write one post a month but I missed March already! A lot has changed in my life in the last few months, and as a creature of habit I don’t do too well with change. Inevitably, following a period of arguable chaos and instability, comes the opportunity to self reflect and reassess where things are. I found myself falling into the trap of making promises of future happiness, but only when I do this or I get that, which we talked about here. The idea of separating the goal from the journey and more importantly the value of the journey resonated with a lot of you and it got me thinking about it in more depth.

As a modern society we’ve now been conditioned to seek instant gratification; nearly anything we want is available to us at our fingertips so it’s no wonder. Whether it’s next day delivery, food to your door, no ads on Netflix or likes on social media for a well needed yet entirely temporary self esteem boost. We want it, we get it.

For wishes that are not so easily granted we are taught from a young age, this idea that unwavering optimism is the key to fulfilment of any and all of our desires. If you want it enough you’ll get it. It’s the law of attraction, tell the universe you want it and it will come. It’s bollocks. An example; I’m an Assistant Psychologist and my lifelong ambition has been to qualify as a doctor in clinical psychology. It’s fiercely competitive to get onto the doctorate and whilst there are certain steps I can take to increase the likelihood I will be accepted, selection is ultimately out of my hands. There are many people within the profession that put their lives on hold; not getting married, not getting pregnant, not moving, all waiting till they get the elusive and now seemingly mystical and golden nugget of a place on the course. I was on track to be one of those people until I applied this year and didn’t get on. When I told friends, family and colleagues the news of my rejection I got an almost unanimous response of “well don’t worry you’ll definitely get on eventually.” They were being nice, but the unwavering sense of belief in that because I want something badly means I’ll get it, is neither true or helpful.

It’s a niche example but easily extrapolated. I’m not saying don’t have self belief, I believe I have the competency to become a qualified psychologist but I am realistic to the fact that it may not happen. How can we expect to build resilience if we promise everything will be okay because we say so? Besides, what if the desire never materialises? I believe the pursuit of happiness should be less reliant upon a guaranteed outcome, but more the experiencing of possibilities that arise from the journey to the outcome.

Think about it, when you’re in school you are taught that if you get these exam results you can go to this college to get these a levels to get into this university to get this job to earn this salary to pay those bills and have that house to provide for a potential family etc etc. The problem with this way of living is that we’re on a permanent unobtainable quest for contentment. But what about those lucky few who do achieve the want? Say I get on the doctorate next year…years of hard work, grit, determination and piss poor salaries all worth it yes? Well yes but it’s transient. The hedonic treadmill theory from Brickman and Campbell states that despite any positive or negative life event, as human beings we fairly quickly return to our baseline state of happiness. If I get the letter offering me a place to study at doctoral level I’d be elated for an hour, bloody chuffed for a week and by the time I start I’ll have more than likely returned to my relative state of contentment, albeit a bit of a smug bastard. My point is that if we know we’re going to plateau at a fairly consistent level of happiness throughout life then why do we wait for the ‘when’ and not just revel in the now? We’re on a treadmill of continuous movement but not getting anywhere for it. I’m telling you, Socrates had it all figured out. The stoics argued that although by our very nature as human beings we seek pleasure, the path to happiness is by accepting the moment as it presents itself, not by what we wish it to be. And by that logic, I’m going to try and enjoy being an assistant psychologist a little more this week.

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3 Comments

  1. Great read as ever. The conclusion is sensible – I’m frequently told to “smell the coffee for longer”. It’s a perfectly fair point. Enjoying success for longer is definitely something worth doing. The journey is also important. But overall, the true value in the persistent search for success, or happiness, or love, or promotion, or fulfilment, or victory, should not be under-estimated. For it is the desire that drives the commitment and dedication and with hard work and a little luck dreams can indeed be fulfilled. One quest is just to be the best person you can be – whether that is emotionally, morally, socially, in the displaying of talents, or whatever it is that makes you “the best person” you can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a great post, I really enjoyed reading it! I really like that you mention the stoics and the hedonic treadmill theory, as these are theories that I have also learned about and applied to my own life for the better. I live much more in the present than I used to. While I have future goals, I am also very content with my situation as it is now. I think this is a much better approach than waiting for all of your plans to fall into place in order to call yourself happy. I actually write about similar topics in my own posts from the perspective of positive psychology, which asks what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Feel free to check it out and I welcome any contributions you may have to the content. Great post, keep up the good work, and I hope you are doing well! I believe your goals in psychology will all fall into place in a great way!

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