November 26, 2014 by Dymphna 19 Comments

How much happiness can you actually handle?


4 seconds.

That’s my guess.

I reckon you can probably only actually handle about 4 seconds of happiness.

If you’re like most people, that about how long a spell of real happiness lasts. Maybe if you’re a particularly contented person, or have practiced some stillness or mindfulness skills you can extend it out a bit.

But studies seem to show that for most people, happiness lasts about 4 seconds.

That’s the time it takes for the pleasure we’re deriving from a situation to give way to distraction – distracting thoughts about what to eat next, what to say to Alan next time he calls, have I been sitting in the hot tub for too long? Maybe it’s not good for your health?

Pleasure is fleeting and we’re usually the ones chasing it away.

This seems to be another one of the cruel ironies of the human condition. We’re hard wired for the pursuit of happiness, and hard wired to be unable to hold it.

As soon as we snare our prey, the pursuit of happiness picks another target and off we go again.

Giddy-up horsie.

This seems to have been a good strategy for creating self-replicating species. A constant drive to better our situation keeps us driving towards being the best breeders we can be. We eat and drink to nourish ourselves. We seek out a mate. Once those two drives are satisfied, we sleep, only to wake up the hungry again the next day.

This is a pretty basic picture of the human condition, but if the reality is more complex it’s only in the range of desires layered over the top of these most basic ones. Like a need to socially connect, engage our creative talents or refine our spiritual dimensions.

And the constant is a mind that never lets us rest – that always keeps us on the move – to bigger, better, sexier and more successful.

I’ve heard McDonald’s employees are managed by the maxim: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

Our minds are a McDonald’s night-shift manager with a glorified name-badge.

But what does it mean if we’re only ever capable of experiencing 4 seconds of happiness?

Of course there are experiences that are enjoyable and last longer than that. Take a massage for example. 90 bucks buys you an hour and a half of bliss. But built into these experiences is an element of novelty.

That masseuse’s hands are constantly moving. It’s constantly stimulating. He presses his thumb into that tight spot in your neck for a moment, and it’s great. But if he left his thumb there for an hour and a half it would be a painful (and awkward) experience.

Same goes for watching a movie or riding a jet-ski or whatever. Happiness can be extended if we keep renewing the experience.

But unless we’re hitting the refresh button, happiness only lasts about 4 seconds.

This is kind of ridiculous isn’t it?

Most of us live our lives in the pursuit of happiness – would say that a ‘happy life’ is one worth living. In fact, the right to do whatever makes us happy is even one of the foundational principals in the rule of law.

And think about whatever it is you’re working on now. Whatever project is taking up your energy. Whether it’s building a solid property portfolio, or renovating your PPL, or planning the golden years of retirement.

What if I told you that the most you could expect from your endeavours is 4 seconds of happiness?

It hardly seems worth it.

It’s a little deflating isn’t it? The idea that whatever you do, the best you can hope for is to keep the wolf of distraction from the door for 4 seconds. Certainly made me stop and think.

But I’m not trying to burst your bubble. And I’m definitely not about to tell you to buy a big screen tv and try not to think about it.

But I do think there’s a lot of wisdom in recognising the reality of the situation. Learning how to be satisfied is one of the great challenges of this journey. I see a lot of what we’d call rich and successful people still under siege from the wolves of distraction and discontent.

Just one more house. Just one more car. Just one more aviation company…

And I actually wonder if it’s better to think about happiness not as a state, but as a skill.

We get very good at enduring pain and hardship. From the time we force the first broccoli down, we learn how to override the distracting mind that’s telling us to run away from the brussle sprouts.

We learn the skill of enduring pain.

So maybe we need to learn the skill of enduring happiness.

Next time you find yourself in a pleasing situation, practice being still in your pleasure. Practice resisting the mind’s urge to move on to the next “problem”.

Practice being, and staying, happy.

Like any skill, you’ll only get better with practice.

Ultimately, I’m a fan of the real estate journey, and the wealth that comes with it, for the creative potential it unlocks. With financial freedom comes the ability to craft the life you really want to be living.

But the journey can’t make you happy.

Only you can do that for yourself.