Chasing Happiness


When will you be happy?

When you finally get that promotion you’ve been working towards?

When you find the perfect person to settle down and spend your life with?

When you have a bit more money to spend on holidays abroad?

In her book ‘Tiny Traumas’, Dr Meg Arroll refers to this constant churning and constant striving as the “Wheel of Striv(f)e”. Driven by achievement culture, dreams of Insta-perfection and the perception that more is better, with our self-worth tied up in the tangibles, we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of telling ourselves ‘I’ll be happy when …’

And when we get there? When we finally do land that promotion? Do we sit back and bask in our happiness, both contented and satisfied? More often than not, we don’t. Society has taught us to strive and so we move on to the next goal, with very little time left to experience peace and joy in the present day.

Isn’t this exhausting? Relentless? Unfulfilling?

Yes! Living in this constant state of heightened endeavouring can have a huge impact on our mental and physical health, as well as adding to and triggering the little trauma that can permeate our lives.

How can you escape the cycle of ‘I’ll be happy when …’?

What’s the problem with always wanting to do our best and work towards the next goal … isn’t that a good thing? 

Whilst, at times, target-setting and self-motivation can help us to be productive and dynamic, all too often it is not borne of the ‘self’ at all. It is driven by many of the external influences and expectations placed on us by society, particularly in the modern world of shiny social media facades and comparison culture. 

Living in this constant state of heightened endeavouring can have a huge impact on our mental and physical health, as well as adding to and triggering the little trauma that can permeate our lives. It’s exhausting, relentless, and unfulfilling! Our minds and bodies need a little time and space to be content with where we are. 

So, what can you do about it? How can we change ‘I’ll be happy when …’ into ‘this makes me happy now.’


Firstly, it’s important to recognise that we can’t individually change the culture or society that we are living in. However, having an increased awareness of the impact that the world around us has on our personal goals and self-talk can be a helpful starting point in challenging these thoughts. Next time you find yourself thinking ‘I’ll be happy when …’, notice this sentiment and gently ask yourself ‘why am I feeling this way?  What can I do at this moment that will give me a small spark of joy?’


Another thing to consider is the friendships and online messaging that you are surrounding yourself with. What makes you feel good about yourself in the now? What makes you feel ‘less than’? It might be time to mute or unfollow the accounts that are not serving you well.


Finally, look to build focussed gratitude practices into your life. Acknowledge the things that you are grateful for, the things that are making you happy and the things that you wouldn’t change a thing about. It is so natural for our brains to capture all of the threat around us.  Can we help it to notice the safe, non-threats that we experience each day?  You could do this with your family around the dinner table, or journal about it each morning when you wake up or evening before you go to bed.

Why is your happiness often short-lived?

Even when we’ve managed to escape that wheel of continual striving and appreciate our in-the-moment satisfaction,  that happiness doesn’t last forever. Our happiness ‘wears off’. 

And then where do we find ourselves? 


Happiness isn’t cumulative. If we buy some new shoes and they bring us joy, this doesn’t get added to our happiness bank alongside all the other times we’ve bought new shoes in the past. We don’t steadily get happier and happier over our lives with each passing positive moment. No, at some point sooner or later, the novelty wears off and we return our baseline levels of contentment. This is natural homeostasis, and it means we need to adjust our expectations to appreciate it.

Research suggests that this ‘wearing off’ effect is due, in part, to our tendency to adapt to both positive and negative life events so that they eventually become ‘ordinary’. In their study into the lives of lottery winners and accident victims, Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman (1978) refer to this as ‘habituation’, finding that “gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.” 

How can you boost your happiness?

What does the habituation effect mean for our general happiness levels? If our baseline levels are low, do we have no hope of improving them?

There’s a couple of things to consider here. The first is the idea that we are not supposed to be happy all the time and that having unrealistic expectations around our own happiness levels can cause anxiety and stress in itself. If you find yourself under pressure to ‘be happier’ and asking questions like ‘why doesn’t my hobby bring me the same excitement that it used to?’, it can help to recognise that this is perfectly normal and a part of our innate adaptive psychology.

Secondly, much like the measures you can take to escape the wheel or strife, the field of positive psychology does offer some hope for flexibility around our baseline happiness levels. With intentional efforts, such as cultivating gratitude, carrying out acts of kindness and engaging in ongoing practice of mindfulness and meditation, we can find ourselves in a place to improve our overall happiness. 

In this society of high expectations, fuelled by constant opportunities for online comparison, slowing down and enjoying the present can be a real challenge. When you catch yourself thinking ‘I’ll be happy when …’ or asking yourself ‘why aren’t the same things making me happy anymore?’ compassionately challenge these thoughts, look to build gratitude practices into your daily routine, and allow your happiness to come and go without pressure. 

It is capturing and appreciating the spikes of joy in life, not an unrealistic constant state of happiness, which is what truly helps us find contentment as we journey forward.


Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927. 

Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ph.D. (2016, Sep, 5). How to escape the hedonic treadmill and be happier. Retrieved (April, 15, 2024) from

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