Happiness is the state of feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. Some of us are naturally happy whilst some of us need to work at it. But is happiness that easy to attain? Surely if it were simple, we’d all feel pretty upbeat all the time. In practice, there are several psychological obstacles which stand in the way of us achieving long-lasting happiness and contentment, and it’s worth knowing what these are so that we can try to overcome them. In this chapter we’ll explore the five main barriers to well-being.

Barrier 1: the negativity bias

The negativity bias refers to our tendency to pay more attention and give more weight to negative rather than positive emotions, experiences and information. In real life this means that you’re more likely to remember (and take seriously) an insult, a criticism or a piece of negative information or feedback than a compliment or a piece of positive information or feedback. From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense, since we would not have survived as a species had we not been finely attuned to notice the actual dangers and possible risks all around us. But now that there are far fewer threats in our lives (whatever the media says), this in-built negativity bias can get in the way of our well-being.

Studies also show that positive and negative information of the same importance do not hold equal weight in our minds. If we’re given two pieces of equally important information about a stranger, one positive and one negative, they don’t balance each other out – we’re more likely to form a negative view of the person than a neutral one. Similarly if we have a good experience and a bad experience close together, we’ll feel worse than neutral, even if the two experiences are of a similar importance. The evidence suggests that positive and negative emotions are not equal, in other words, negative emotions reduce our level of well-being more than positive emotions increase it. This helps to explain why the positivity ratio (the ratio of positive to negative emotions required for flourishing) is 3:1. For more information on the positivity ratio, see Chapter 3.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues summed up the impact of the negativity bias in five words: ‘bad is stronger than good’.

Barrier 2: duration neglect

It seems pretty logical, doesn’t it, that the duration of an experience should influence how we feel about it and how we remember it. A two week holiday in the sunshine on a glorious tropical island should feel twice as good as exactly the same holiday in the same location lasting for one week. Likewise, undergoing a negative experience such as a 20 minute dental procedure should feel twice as bad as a 10 minute procedure, assuming we feel the same intensity of discomfort throughout both.

So, it may surprise you to discover that when we evaluate our positive and negative experiences, their duration hardly matters at all, which psychologists call duration neglect. Factors which are more important are 1) the intensity of the peak positive or negative emotion, and 2) how the experience ends. So if we undergo a painful medical procedure which lasts 20 minutes, as long as the pain we experience at the end is less severe than our worst experience of pain during the procedure, we’ll actually remember it more favourably than the same procedure in which the worst pain is the same but which is only half as long.

Barrier 3: social comparison

We use the expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to refer to the comparison we make with our friends and neighbours to determine how well we’re doing in life. If we buy things to keep up with the Joneses, it means we’re not doing it out of necessity, but as a way of maintaining our social status. So, even if our standard of living is acceptable from an absolute perspective, if it’s lower than our peer group our well-being will be diminished.

If we see people around us (usually family, friends and colleagues) buying more or better stuff than us, it makes us feel worse about our lives. So how much we earn or buy in comparison to others has an impact on our well-being. That others may be up to their eyeballs in debt to acquire all these new goods barely registers. If they’ve got it, we feel that we’ve got to have it too. This is all made much worse by celebrity lifestyles which are splashed across the internet, TV and magazines, plus the advertising and brand endorsements which accompany them. The problem occurs because, unbeknownst to many of us caught up in the endless must-have-more cycle, buying more things in an effort to keep up with the Joneses will never make us feel happier. The reason? It’s what positive psychologists have dubbed the hedonic treadmill.

Barrier 4: the hedonic treadmill

The bad news

Think of the last big purchase you made, the last time you were promoted and got a pay rise, or a brand new company car. Remember how excited and happy it made you feel? Now think how long you stayed excited and happy. A few days? A week? In all likelihood, it wasn’t very long. We adapt, we get used to things, whether it’s the things we buy or other positive events and experiences in our lives. When that happens, we start taking them for granted, quickly reverting to our usual happiness baseline (also called the ‘set-point’). This is what happens when ‘the novelty wears off’. The hedonic treadmill means that, in reality, there’s little point in expecting shopping and material goods to raise your well-being permanently. They may give you a little boost of positive emotion in the short term, but the bad news is that it won’t last, and you’ll soon feel exactly as you did before. Worse still, you may feel driven to buy something else in order to make yourself feel better again.

And so it goes on. And on.

Sadly, this adaptation principle also applies to other pleasant experiences or circumstances, such as getting married. In research, the average person does not experience a lasting boost to their satisfaction after marriage. Instead, they experience a short-term increase in happiness, followed by a relatively rapid return to their baseline level.

Potential good news?

On the other hand, this process of psychological adaptation also applies to unfavourable circumstances, which means that if bad things happen, we will feel worse in the short or medium term before eventually coming back up to our baseline or set-point level of happiness. However, research suggests that we adapt much more quickly to positive events and experiences than we do to negative ones.

So there are two take-away messages from the hedonic treadmill story. The first is that you should expect the boost you get from positive experiences like shopping to wear off pretty quickly. The second is that over the longer term it’s worthwhile investigating other, more sustainable routes to well-being. And if you’re married or contemplating getting married, remember that it’s not a guaranteed pathway to permanent happiness – you’ll have to work at your relationship continually (for more information and tips on developing positive relationships, see Chapter 5).

Barrier 5: lack of self-control

The fifth barrier to well-being is lack of self-control. Self-control (often called self-regulation) refers to our ability to control our impulses and channel our effort in a way that will allow us to reach particular goals. You’re not alone if you think you have low self-control – one study of the 24 character strengths of over 83,000 adults found that self-regulation scored lowest. But self-control is important; according to Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister, lack of self-regulation is at the heart of many of the social and personal problems that we suffer in the modern, developed world.

Contrary to the popular view that happiness results from giving in to our natural desires, psychology studies show that higher self-control is actually linked to higher well-being. So it makes perfect sense to find ways to increase your self-control. Luckily, self-control is a bit like a muscle, the more you practise it, the stronger it gets. So developing self-control in one life domain can help to strengthen your self-control in other areas.