I recently came to the realization that none of us will ever be totally happy. Upbeat way to start a column, right?
Let me explain.
This realization came to me after a month of experiencing mounting fear and uncertainty around impending PET scan results. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re familiar with this scenario and know how much the anxiety of waiting for results can consume you.
Despite being told I was in remission in February, I started experiencing a recurring pain in my chest in April, which naturally triggered a wave of PTSD symptoms, further exacerbated by COVID-19 anxiety and an intense fear of relapse. (See my latest column.)
The pain started to overwhelm me to the point where I couldn’t sleep or enjoy myself because I’d constantly be imagining the worst-case scenario. I’ve learned this is a typical psychological response to trauma. It’s hard to hope for the best when things have so consistently gone wrong.
Due to COVID-19, it took longer than usual to get an appointment for a PET scan and a while to get my results. Last week, finally, I got the call. No evidence of disease! The sentence anyone who’s ever been through cancer dreams of hearing. The privilege of being in remission is never lost on me, especially after everything I have faced. Getting the results felt incredible, as if a weight had instantly been lifted. Additionally, since finding out, the pain in my chest has almost disappeared, which shows how psychosomatic stress really is.
That evening I felt on top of the world. The following day I found out that I would be returning to work after being on the U.K.’s furlough scheme for five weeks.
And so, just like that my life, which felt like it was on pause, would be returning to “normal.” The timing felt apt yet I couldn’t help but notice that the overwhelming happiness I’d felt just 24 hours before was starting to diminish. What was that all about? Why couldn’t I maintain that state of euphoria?
Turns out this is actually a well-studied psychological phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.
We tend to think that receiving news we’ve been desperately waiting to hear (for example, getting that promotion, receiving good scan results, or getting married) will grant us an everlasting state of happiness. It turns out we return to a neutral state pretty quickly. This works the same way with sad feelings, too. If we relapse, miss out on that promotion, or get divorced, we tend to think the feelings of disappointment and sadness will be worse than they are.
We are extremely adaptable creatures.
One of my favorite contemporary writers, Mark Manson, writes:
“We’re evolved to be slightly dissatisfied all the time, no matter what. And that’s because it’s a slightly dissatisfied creature that is constantly striving, improving, growing and doing.”
So, it makes sense that as my life resumed its prior state and I stepped away from the imminent fear of losing my job or relapsing, it didn’t take long for me to start focusing on my next achievement. It’s simply how our brains work.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we attained a state of total happiness easily, what more would we have to strive for? That slight dissatisfaction and preoccupation with wanting more is exactly what keeps pushing us forward.
It’s been hard to suddenly get thrust back into my 9-to-5 again after so much time off. But a few days in and my brain has started to adjust, as it always does.
And so, the treadmill keeps going and on we go. Although it can feel slightly confounding to realize none of us will ever be completely happy, it’s also reassuring.
Feelings are fleeting. We feel incredible and then those feelings dissipate. We feel sad and that dissolves, too. We constantly create new benchmarks for happiness. Before it was simply about surviving cancer, now it’s about maintaining my health and doing good work. Tomorrow it will be something new.
Instead of getting obsessed with a future point and believing happiness is somewhere we will eventually arrive, perhaps it’s good to shift our perspective. A happy life isn’t about feeling euphoric all the time, but rather having something to always be striving toward.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.
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