Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do You Have to Suffer to Appreciate Happiness?

Yesterday morning I was on the phone with Dad complaining about a few career-related things when he gave me his favorite quote (as of late anyway).

"It's not about doing what you love, but loving what you do," he said.

Now Dad grew up in a poor village in the Dominican Republic so when he immigrated to the U.S. he never had much luxury when it came to chasing dreams and full-fledged careers. His primary goal has always been to provide for his family and make sure there was a roof over our heads and food on the table. Still, I disagreed and said I'd much rather spend my precious time only doing the things I enjoyed rather than waste a single moment doing the not-so-fun stuff. That then I'd be happy all the time and why shouldn't anyone be happy all the time?

"Because then you won't appreciate the good times," he replied. "You need to experience the low moments to then enjoy the happy ones."

Well let me tell you, I think at this point I can enjoy some 50 years of constant happiness and appreciate them just fine. I would like to think that my happiness' baseline is fairly constant no matter what's come before or what follows it and I'd like to walk on or beyond that line as much as possible. Perhaps the previous suffering makes it sweeter, yes, because we'd been yearning for the light, but would I actually grow displeased with my constant joy and eventually find something else to complain about? Would having something incredible happen to me permanently increase my happiness or would it just come back down over time?

A study late last year showed that while lottery winners might experience a surge in happiness and paralyzed accident victims suffer a dip in theirs, eventually lottery winners returned to a happiness level not that much higher than the victims, who weren't anywhere near as unhappy as assumed. This is due to the contrast effect, which means that instead of single events becoming permanent thunderclouds or sunshine in our lives, they're compared to other events that happen to us. We also adapt to whatever comes our way regardless of whether it's good or bad and eventually learn to live on. So long term happiness isn't necessarily affected by the things that happen to you, but rather your attitude and perspective.

So maybe Dad was right in learning to enjoy the life you're experiencing now (it could be worse, right?), but it's sure hard not to compare a current situation with something else you've imagined. And perhaps I'm spoiled or stubborn, but I'm still reluctant to see value in accepting suffering as your current fate and needing a dose of it to truly appreciate life.



  1. I have to agree with your Dad; you have to have the bad moments to appreciate the good ones. It's like light and dark; without one you can't have the other. The trick is to not let the bad times over-power the good ones.

  2. I do believe we have to know what it's like to suffer in order to truly know what it's like to feel blessed and happy. How can you know you're happy if you have never experienced unhappiness?


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