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The Four choices we make to be Happy.

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Are you treating Happiness as a long-term goal? Here's why you shouldn't. Introducing Positive Psychology's Hamburger Model of Happiness.

Mind if we start with a question? As a Singaporean, what comes to your mind when you think about Happiness?

Depending on your stage of life, some of the below might be your answers:

  • Study, study study. Then get a good career at an MNC (Multi-National Company).

  • Find a Husband or Wife, get a flat and start a family.

  • Make lots of money.

  • Take yearly trips to Japan and Korea, or see the world!

  • Party hard on the weekends!

  • Wait until retire. Just work hard, save money, collect CPF (government payout) and live out my golden years.

These are pretty standard answers the average singaporean might give. Yet in fact, if you look closely at all the above, you might find one similarity between all the answers above.

They all focus on attaining Happiness at a later point - be it a vacation, the weekends, or a later stage in life. All of the above don't focus about the present, which is where you are right now.

It's the mentality of us Singaporeans, where it's all about working, studying, or hustling in the present, and then expecting Happiness to come at some later point.

We've been trained to believe in a Work Hard Now, be Happy Later mindset.

Since we were young, chubby kids, it's been ingrained in all of us that we need to study hard to have a bright future.

"Ah boy ah, stop playing your stupid game and go do your Homework!", our parents have been yelling these to us ever since we entered Primary School.

It was hammered into us that studying is the most important thing in the universe, and everything else can wait until later. Delayed gratification was the key to a bright future.

When we got to Primary 6, things really started to get serious. It's PSLE time and it seemed that our entire lives came down to one important three-digit score. It defined the next stage of our life: Secondary School, and whether we were going to some Ah Beng (gangster) neighbourhood school or a heavenly top school.

When your PSLE score below Two Hundred...

We spent the next chapter of our lives having a little bit of fun. It's the time of our lives where we were even introduced to the opposite gender. Still, our time was mostly dominated by CCAs, enrichment classes, tuition classes and more studying for exams.

The years carry on and some of us find ourselves in University. We start to formulate an idea of what's next. What will our careers be? What kind of company will we end up in? This seems to be the final hurdle of our studying years, so why not try our best?

When we graduated and finally achieved our degrees or diplomas, this whole studying hard phase seemed to come to an end. Phew. We land ourselves a spanking new job. Maybe it's at an internationl company, a bank, some small local company or even in a government role.

Yet there's a new realisation - now we need to work hard to earn more money.

Singapore not cheap you know.

When will Happiness ever come you wonder?

Besides the occasional holiday, the Friday night partying, maybe Happiness will come one day when I get married, or get a house, or make enough money...

Our busy, fast-moving lives.

What does Psychology say about really being Happy?

There is a relatively recent branch of psychology called Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology differs from other Psychology fields like Abnormal Psychology which has conventionally dealt with negative issues, much like understanding and curing mental illness.

Like the name suggests, Positive Psychology deals with the positive side of mental health. This involves research trying to understand how we can live a happier life, have stronger relationships, and experience a life of purpose and wellbeing.

In one word, it's the science of how we humans can Flourish in life.

There are many renown researchers and Positive Psychologists that are pushing the field forward, but let me introduce you to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychology lecturer at Harvard University and esteemed author of the book, Happier.

Tal Ben-Shahar loves books.

Dr. Ben-Shahar actually came up with a psychological model that outlines four different ways people commonly try to achieve Happiness.

Of the four ways, three of them are approaches that are actually making us worse off, instead of actually making us happy..

This Four-approach Model of Happiness is called the Hamburger Model. Serious, no joke. So why hamburgers?

Let me give you a quick background intro to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. To make things easier, let's call him Tal.

Tal was once a strapping young lad training for the Israeli National Squash Competition. In the four weeks leading up to the tournament, Tal went into full-on chiong mode. He trained like a mad dog and also kept to an extreme diet of just lean fish and chicken, whole-grain carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables.

Jialat man.

As a promise to himself, he vowed to embark on an epic two-day junk food binge once the tournament was over. KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, you name it, here he comes.

That day after the tournament, he headed straight for his favourite hamburger joint and ordered himself a meal of not one, but four hamburgers. However, as he sat himself down in front of the hamburgers, readying for his first bite of greasy heaven, Tal found that he didn't want it anymore.

Why is that? Had all the training and dieting drove him siao (crazy)?

Well, no.

After a month of training and eating well, Tal was feeling fantastic and full of energy. He knew he would enjoy eating the four burgers but would regret almost immediately afterward feeling tired and yucky.

Sitting before his four untouched hamburgers, a moment of transcendental awareness descended upon him. Whereupon the hamburger model was born, given rise to four patterns and behaviors of how we approach Happiness.

The Hamburger Model: the four ways we try to be Happy.

Does what we do right now for happiness benefit the present? At the same time, does it also benefit the future?

Four ways we approach Happiness - illustrated as Hamburgers

Above are the four ways we try to be happy. Usually, each of us are a mixture of the four types above. Can you pick yourself out from the below descriptions?

1. The Pleasure Seeker (Junk Food Burger)

This first hamburger is like the one young Tal just turned down. It is the quadruple-patty Ramly burger that would give you lots of enjoyment right now. Yet it is harmful to your future because you wouldn’t feel so healthy later.

A Pleasure Seeker is someone who only seeks happiness only for the moment. When we approach happiness from a Pleasure Seeker perspective, we focus on being happy in the present while ignoring the negative future consequences of our actions.

The Pleasure Seeker believes, rather inaccurately, that "Happiness is only about the now".

Happiness is reduced to a succession of pleasurable experiences. Pleasure Seekers choose to do whatever their hearts' desire to get their kick of Happiness each day. If this was the true road to Happiness, then drug addicts would be the happiest people in the world lor.

Yet we know this is not the case, because much like a drug addict, the highs of the pleasure wears off quickly. After which, its back to emptiness in your life and desperation for the next dose of so-called Happiness.

Such a way of living is a tiresome existence. Other than a string of pleasurable moments, life is rather meaningless. There is nothing to look forward to in the future, other than the next desire to fill the void.

Soon, we might even realise that there is no new desire to fill the void. Stripped away of all current pleasures, we are left with a life without any long-term purpose.

Think this is extreme and doesn't happen in Singapore? Think again.

Pleasure Seeking might be what motivates us to get through the week. Thank God it's Friday (TGIF) anybody? We make getting to the end of our work week the goal of existence, only to indulge in a Friday and weekend of binge-drinking and partying. Yet in a snap it's over, and all we're left with is a nasty hangover and an another empty work week ahead staring at us.

Same thing with our quarterly or yearly Holidays. We spend all year hyping ourselves up for the next big trip to Japan. Finally the day comes and we feel absolutely contented with the experience. Yet, snap! It's all over. Ah well, we'll just have to slog through another few months, you hear yourself say.

2. The Rat Racer (The Veggie Burger)

The second burger is the tasteless vegetarian burger (no offense to vegans out there), but packed full of nutrients with a whole cucumber as the patty. This burger would provide plenty of future benefit, but one you probably wouldn’t enjoy during the process of eating.

This burger is likened to being in the Rat Race. This to me, is what most Singaporeans' idea of Happiness falls down to many times.

As described in my introduction, we Rat Racers have been trained to set our sights on the future, sacrificing our Happiness now for the sake of some future goal.

Work hard now, become happy later.

The question is, when does the race ever end?

Even when we've landed ourselves in a fantastic job with an awesome six-digit monthly salary and a bonus to rival Sheng-Shiong's recent payout, does that really make us happy?

The truth is, it never ends. What are your goals in running the Rat Race? Maybe it's to rise up in the company ranks, get paid more and upgrade from HDB to a condo. After a while, you can even buy a small landed property and the luxurious BMW car you've been eyeing. Your friends have now all started to see you as the successful one, yet you as the Rat Racer still feel profoundly unhappy.

You're not quite sure where your destination ends, as there’s always that next level up to go. A bigger house. Flying First Class. Five Star Hotels. You continue to have the persistent belief that in order to be happy, you must keep heading to that final destination.

This really is the case for some of us. Like a rat caught in a trap, it's a tough road finding a way out.

The main happiness fallacy of the rat racer is thinking "It's okay to give up my Happiness now, someday the health, wealth and all that was promised to me will come."

3. The Give Up Liao (The Crappy Burger)

The third burger is absolute crap. It doesn’t just taste bad but eating it will make you sick afterwards. If a hawker stall serves such a burger, it will cause a new pandemic outbreak.

This hamburger is akin to a Nihilist, which basically is someone who has given up liao. He or she is resigned to believing that life has no meaning. Such a person dwells in his or her present unhappiness and expects the future to be just the same.

In psychology, when we fall into such a state, it is called Learned Helplessness.

There's a sick experiment in Psychology from ages ago where dogs were given electric shocks for no good reason. After a while, they gave up trying to run away or avoid the shocks. They had learned that they were helpless.

For us humans, this happens when we become attached to our past failures, and start to extrapolate these failures to the present and future. We think that nothing we can do will make us happy.

This does happen.

Take for example the Rat Racer who reaches his 'goal' of material prosperity but finds that he is still not happy. With no next destination to race off to, he despairs and believes nothing can make him happy.

Being someone who's Given Up Liao might sound severe but engaging in such hopeless behaviors is all too familiar. Think about the times we've found ourselves spending our weekends watching hours of Netflix, only to grow more listless and whine about how there's nothing better to do.

Or times when we're stuck down a Instagram rabbit hole, scrolling through a sea of meaningless videos looking for something to fulfil us.

It is much like the alcoholic who is sick of his drink, but continues to drink to pass the time away. This approach is unfortunately caused by thinking "Well, there's nothing that can make me happy anyway".

Such thinking eventually leads to bigger problems, like depression, which stems from the a deeply rooted idea that there's nothing to look forward to in life anymore.

4. True Happiness (The Best Burger)

Lastly, imagine a burger that doesn’t just taste good but is also as healthy as a salad. Such a burger would give you a fulfilling experience in both the present and the future .

(Has anyone tried the Impossible burger?)

Now such a burger might not exist in real life, but taken metaphorically, Positive psychology does offer a way.

The optimal approach to happiness is about asking “How can I be happy BOTH now and in the future?”

There are multiple activities we can undertake that grant us happiness not just in the moment, but also creates a way to long-lasting happiness in the future as well.

I introduce many of these concepts on this blog. You can check out my article PERMA: 5 Areas to focus on for a Happier Life for a summary, but some examples include:

  • Building positive relationships and spending time with people you love.

  • Working on activities that keep you engaged.

  • Rediscovering your life's meaning.

  • Finding out what your True Strengths are and using them.

  • Spending time being kind and practicing gratitude.

  • Learning the art of Savouring, and really enjoying your daily existence

This may be unfamiliar concepts for you right now, so I hope you check them out on this blog.

Wait a minute, can everything always have a present and future benefit? What about exams and studying leh?

Great question. It isn't always easy to see the benefit of an activity on both the present and future.

For example you all engage in Pleasure Seeking from time to time. Doing things for the sake of the now is totally okay, if done in moderation that is.

Enjoying that happy hour cocktail, or tuning into your favorite tv show or even having that upsized Big Mac meal can help us relax and be happier too.

On the other hand, delaying gratification by sacrificing the present for some future gain (rat racer) is an important concept too. For example, like spending less money now to save up for the future, or skipping a night out to study for upcoming exams.

The main idea is this:

Even when sacrificing the present for a future benefit, the key to happiness is to spend as much of your time now doing things that provide both a present and future benefit.

In closing, you might have heard of this popular adage, "Happiness is the journey, not the destination". Well you now know that it's just rubbish, for Happiness lies in both the journey and the destination.

It might be helpful to do up a chart of your life like this.

As an exercise, think about how much of your time you presently spend in each of these four approaches? If you could envision a better week, what would you be doing differently?


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