Are you a happiness addict?

Smiley coffee

My name is Kira, and I’m (sometimes) a happiness addict.

When the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes out, I’m itching to watch it and then it’s done – another week to wait until the next installment. As Friday nears, I start setting my sights on the luscious free time I’ll have to work on my blog, relax, and eat a rare dessert (preferably chocolate). Sometimes – just sometimes – it feels like my life is a series of waiting, highs, and disappointment-that-it’s-over.

That sounds a bit like an addiction. In fact, Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, calls the afterward part of this cycle a “happiness hangover.”

Yet the beforehand part – the anticipation – is supposed to be one of the major components of happiness. The New York Times advises you to “Find Happiness in the Pursuit”; Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says “Get More Bang for Your Happiness Buck: Revel in Anticipation.” One Dutch study found that planning a vacation can boost our happiness weeks or months in advance.

According to The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot, anticipation is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening. To boil it down: this is why brides can’t sleep the night before their weddings.

So what’s going on here? How can anticipation be so good, yet seem like it’s part of a vicious cycle of happiness addiction?

I think the problem is something that Nataly Kogan, the CEO of Happier, often talks about. She says that she created the app for sharing happy moments because she wanted people to stop saying, “I’ll be happy when…” and start saying, “I’m happy now because…” This usually applies to two separate events: you shouldn’t say, “I’ll be happy when I have $1 million” but rather, “I’m happy now because I get to hang out with my son.” But it can also describe two types of anticipation: the healthy type and the unhealthy type.

In healthy anticipation, we think something like, “I’m happy now because I’m looking forward to meeting my friend tonight.” We actually feel happy, because we can imagine the pleasure it will bring. The unhealthy anticipation goes, “I’ll be happy when I see my friend.” We don’t feel the pleasure now; we’re just waiting out our bad day until we can reach the oasis of our friend’s company. We’d happily skip all the in-between time and get right to socializing. To maximize happiness, we need to embrace healthy anticipation but avoid the unhealthy kind.

The happiness hangover afterward is a little trickier, but I think some things are more likely to cause hangovers than others. Anticipating something short – like a meal or a one-hour TV show – will probably induce a hangover, because the moment of happiness is so fleeting. Afterward, we wonder, “What was I so excited about?” Even vacations can be problematic: that Dutch study found that happiness generally goes back to normal after a vacation; the most we can hope for (if our vacation was very relaxing) is a short, two-week boost.

So avoiding happiness hangovers might boil down to focusing our anticipation on more permanent things: finding the right job, moving into a new apartment, being (not getting) married. Though the initial novelty may wear off, at least you won’t experience the disappointment of losing the thing you were so looking forward to.

Are you a happiness addict?

Photo by Flickr user OnyRod