A few months ago, my friend and I were buying gum at the pharmacy. At the cash, we noticed an extensive collection of Loto-Quebec lottery tickets and impulsively decided to buy a scratch-and-win card. After much deliberation, we chose the "Magnum." It was a strong, virile name for a lottery ticket and, besides, the grand prize was $500,000-while no 6/49 payoff, 500 Gs is nothing to sneeze at.
Clutching the bright Magnum ticket, we huddled in the pharmacy doorway and began breathlessly scratching out the numbers. Our destiny slowly revealed itself to us. We could hardly believe our eyes-we had just won $50,000. Our hearts racing, we jumped up and down, high-fiving each other and screaming obnoxiously while flailing the winning ticket around in victory.
I have honestly never felt so happy in my entire life.
A few ridiculously blissful moments later-after having decided what we were going to do with the money-we looked at the Magnum ticket again. All our hopes and dreams vanished in one fell swoop. In our wishful thinking, we had read the numbers wrong. We went from big shots to big, fat losers in a matter of seconds.
I often think about what could have been had I actually won that money. I would have been able to pay off all my debts and go on a long trip. But would that money have bought me happiness? Probably not.
It got me thinking - what does it take to be happy?
In my opinion, there are three things, above all, that we believe will make us happy. The first: money. We live in a society of I-want-it-now materialism. If we're depressed, we opt for shopping-spree retail therapy. If we're stressed, we get a massage or buy a pricey bottle of wine. When we want something, we're only happy if we get it quickly and easily, and if we can't get something because we don't have the money, it makes us even more depressed.
We've confused pleasure with lasting happiness. Pleasure is a quick fix; happiness is a state of being. The orgasmic feeling of pleasure is like a drug-it leaves us wanting more.
The more stressed out I am, the bigger and more indulgent my quick-fixes get. I woke up one Saturday morning not long ago, feeling extremely stressed and anxious about a new work contract. So what did I do? To make myself feel better, I went online and booked myself on a trip to London in the fall. The thrill of finding the flight, entering all my personal information in the boxes, and hitting "Book Flight" was pure ecstasy.
Did it solve my problems? Of course not. All it did was divert my attention from my real life for a little while.
We also believe that love should make us happy. If only we found that special boy or girl, everything else would fall into place. This is a popular misconception. Anyone who's been in a relationship knows that it is not a yellow brick road to contentment.
According to popular psychology, we're attracted to people and things that are similar to ourselves. Couples often look alike and have similar character traits. I guess that means that depressed people are drawn to each other. Depressed people, whether or not they want to admit it, feel comfortable in their despair.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, discovered "learned helplessness" as a psychology graduate working in animal-behavior labs. According to an article in the Sunday Times Magazine, Seligman found that "dogs who experience electric shocks that they cannot avoid by their actions simply give up trying. They will passively endure later shocks that they could easily escape. Seligman went on to apply this to humans, with "learned helplessness" as a model for depression. People who feel battered by unsolvable problems learn to be helpless; they become passive, slower to learn, anxious and sad."
The ever-elusive road to fame is another of our perceived paths to happiness. Everybody wants to be recognized, respected and admired for what they do, to leave their mark upon the world. Whether we dream of being famous photographers, doctors, activists or entrepreneurs, we expect great things of ourselves.
It's not our fault. We were brought up in a society in which fortune and glory are coveted above all else. From a young age, we feel extreme pressure from our parents and teachers to be successful and, if we accomplish anything less, we're extremely disappointed that we're not living up to our "potential." Basically, we're setting ourselves up for failure.
And does fame truly bring happiness? Judging by the rate of divorce and amount of cosmetic surgery and unglamorous rehab time that occurs among the Hollywood elite, I think we all know the answer to that.
So the question remains: what will it take to make us happy? In a recent CTV documentary, In Pursuit of Happiness, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and comedian Jon Dore went on a road trip across Canada, meeting people who claim to be truly happy. Using Lyubomirsky's research in positive psychology as a starting point, the two tried to find out what makes happy people tick.
According to Lyubomirsky, "Truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways."
Basically, it's the old glass-half-full routine. We're in control of how we view the world and, consequently, our own happiness. But happiness takes work.
Lyubomirsky is currently conducting intervention studies, trying to change the way people see their lives. Here's what she suggests:
- Regularly set aside time to recall moments of gratitude. For example, keep a journal in which you "count your blessings" over the course of six weeks.
- Engage in self-regulatory and positive thinking about yourself. For example, one week, for fifteen minutes a day, try reflecting, writing and talking about the happiest and unhappiest events of your life.
- Practice altruism. For example, routinely commit random acts of kindness.
I think that we need to live in the moment a little bit more. We can't be happy all the time, but we can be much more content if we stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and just try to enjoy the small things life has to offer.
A few weeks after the lottery ticket fiasco, my friend and I found ourselves in the same pharmacy. Against our better judgment, we bought another Magnum. We knew we wouldn't win, but we did it anyway-this time, however, the excitement was all about sharing the moment.
But a little extra cash wouldn't have hurt either.