1. You know what you want.But there's a problem. It won't last long.
2. You've chosen wisely.
3. You haven't given in to short-term craving or temptation. Your will stays firm and you reach your long-term goal.Congratulations! You're happy!
This is the fourth obstacle to happiness, the fact that happiness is very, very fragile. It's like a balloon that keeps getting popped or an egg that keeps getting dropped. (Hey, that kinda rhymes.)
Why is happiness so fragile and transitory? There's lots of reasons for this, I'd just like to meditate on one psychological dynamic.
It's a perverse peculiarity of human psychology that we tend to make personal and social comparisons that are relative rather than absolute. That is, when we think about our abilities, status, income, homes, clothing, or cars we tend to compare ourselves to our peers, family members, co-workers, and next door neighbors. As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
What is perverse about these comparisons is that they are relative and local. The issues aren't framed in absolute terms. The comparison is relative to you. Do I make more money than you? Is my house as nice as your house? Rarely do we think about the blessing of actually owning a house, any house. Or how our income, even if it was $15,000 a year, would make us very wealthy in relation to many people in world.
To illustrate this I like to ask my students this question: How many of you feel grateful, really grateful, for your toilets?
Few students feel a deep sense of gratitude and blessing when sitting on the toilet. And it's a shame. A damn shame. Because indoor plumbing is an amazing and unique blessing in this world. And yet, we fail to feel grateful and appreciative. Why not?
Well, because everybody has a toilet. More precisely, all our neighbors have toilets. Locally, toilets are common. So, relatively speaking, compared to my peers, the toilet is no big deal.
But in absolute terms it's a HUGE deal. The problem is that this isn't how we make comparisons. We will tend to fixate on how the grass looks on the other side of the fence, in my neighbor's backyard. We don't often think about how our situation compares to someone, say, in Darfur.
This oddity of human psychology is one of the reasons happiness is so fragile and fleeting. Let me illustrate by demonstrating how easy it is to turn a happy, collegial workplace into a competitive, ugly snakepit. It's a very simple, one-step process:
Reveal everyone's pay.
Workplaces work hard to keep pay details a secret. Why? Because of the psychology we've been discussing. Imagine Bob loves his job. He likes what he does and he thinks he is well compensated for his work. Bob is, in short, happy.
But let's tell Bob that Joe, who is preforming an identical job in the company, makes $2,000 more that he does. Suddenly, Bob doesn't like his job so much. He doesn't feel as well compensated. Or appreciated. And his feelings toward Joe erode. Joe is, of course, a slacker. Doesn't everyone know that? It's unfair. That's what it is, unfair.
What happened to Bob? Bob's happiness floundered on the rocks of relative comparisons. It's just very hard for us, psychologically, to let go of that $2,000 differential. And our fixation on these relative comparisons kills any happiness or contentment we might have attained. As soon as we are happy and content with our jobs, car, church, technological gadgets, or whatever, someone, sooner or later, is going to walk up to us with something better. The upgrade. The 2.0 version of what we have. And--Poof!--there goes our feelings of happiness.
Let me give you a personal and real world example of this from my campus, my workplace. A long time ago, before I arrived at ACU, a decision was made to pay College of Business professors salaries that were market driven. That is, talented business and finance people can make a lot of money in the world. So why should they pass on that to work at a university and take the salary of an assistant professor of, let's say, psychology? Or history? Or sociology? In short, in order to get good people to teach in our College of Business we'd have to woo them with bigger salaries.
But here's the problem. The end result is that you have some professors on campus being paid more than other professors. Their day to day work is the same, but the salaries are very different. So guess what happens?
Well, what happens is that a great deal of resentment builds up. People in my college, the College of Arts and Sciences, feel frustrated that their salaries aren't the same as their colleagues in the College of Business. And this pay differential becomes like a thorn in the mind. It's the unnamed elephant in the room in faculty discussions about compensation and workload. A psychic shard that produces envy, discontent, and interpersonal friction. It's really very sad.
And you'd think that a group of confessing Christians could get past this. That we could stop with the relative comparisons and say, "I'm blessed. In the world today I'm glad I even have a job."
But you know what? That's very, very hard to do. Only the most spiritually mature amongst us can get to that place of contentment, joy, and peace.
So that's the fourth reason happiness is "impossible":
1. We don't know what we want.
2. And even if we did, we'd make a bad choice.
3. And even if we did make a good choice, we'd thwart ourselves by giving into short-term temptation.
4. But even if we achieved our goal the success would be fleeting. Something would come along to burst our bubble (like relative comparisons). Happiness is fragile.