The Happiness Hypothesis You’re a highly adaptable and resilient little creature. It’s one of the main reasons we humans have managed to spread so far and wide on our pale blue dot of a planet.

Nevertheless, there are some nasty experiences to which you will never become accustomed. They’re permanent obstacles to your happiness, so long as they’re a part of your life.

The good news: although you won’t ever become so accustomed to these negative experiences that you will eliminate their negative effects, they aren’t like gravity. You have some control over them. If you don’t, that might be a good sign that a major change in your life is needed.

  1. Noise: You will never get used to it, especially if it’s unpredictable. Noise — you should know, if you didn’t — is often used as a form of torture. You shouldn’t be surprised, then, to learn that it interferes with your ability to concentrate and increases your stress.
  2. Commuting: You may love to drive and the open road, but don’t don’t kid yourself, you have not, will not, and won’t ever grow accustomed to the daily grind of heavy traffic. So long as you commute through traffic, you can expect to have much higher levels of stress hormones.
  3. Insufficient autonomy: People in nursing homes are happier, more active, more alert, and live longer, if they are allowed to water the plants and pick the movies they watch. Think about that the next time you find yourself in a situation where you have little control over your actions or your environment. Expect to have a lower sense of engagement, less energy and less happiness.
  4. Shame: Whatever its source, shame is double ungood for you. Take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to remove it from your life. In the meantime, here is an exercise that might be of some help to you.
  5. Interpersonal Conflict: Not only is interpersonal conflict damaging when you experience it directly, it’s also bad for you when you think about it — and who doesn’t do that! Some conflict is necessary, it can even be healthy, but ongoing and irresolvable conflict will only do you harm.

In thinking about these obstacles to happiness, it strikes me that “insufficient autonomy” may be the most important factor. With a sufficient level of autonomy, you should always be able to avoid or reduce noise, commuting, shame, and interpersonal conflict. The only exception to this rule I can think of are those circumstances when a person has been so ground down by his or her environment that s/he is unable to recognize the autonomy s/he actually has.

One last wake-up call for those of you who choose to endure the daily grind of a commute for a bigger house. Yes, a big house will give you some short-term pleasure, but it’s exactly the kind of material perk to which we humans eventually become accustomed. Whatever pleasure you may derive initially from your larger house, it will be fleeting. That commute, however, it will grind away at you and your happiness for as long as you make it.

I learned about these five obstacles to happiness in the highly readable and very enjoyable book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Written by Jonathan Haidt, it’s an expert blend of old-school philosophy and 21st century psychology and neuroscience. Haidt’s conclusion is not earth-shattering, but the journey he takes to get you there is well worth the trip. Highly recommended.

If you want to talk through and explore some of the ideas in this excellent book, I can help.

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