Why seeking happiness can lead to more unrest.
Happiness. It’s often said that the pursuit and achievement of happiness is an inherent desire of every conscious being. However, in today’s go-go-go, increasingly disconnected digital world, research, studies and statistics suggest that there is much more chasing than achieving going on when it comes to living in a state of balanced wellbeing and joy. One in five Americans admit to being lonely. More than 40 million people in the U.S. over the age of 18 struggle with an anxiety disorder. Depression rates are steadily on the rise, and the disorder is the number one cause of disability worldwide. And, according to a Stress In America™ poll, stress rates in our country are climbing, especially given current political, financial, diplomatic and environmental uncertainties.
With so much discontent, uneasiness and uncertainty, it’s no wonder that upwards of 100,000 Americans are searching Google for “how to be happy” in any given month. And, that’s just one search phrase. Millions of others are searching other happiness-related terms and/or turning to self-help books and even classes and workshops with the hope of finding some quick fix, silver bullet, Holy Grail to happiness. With so much longing and displeasure permeating the American landscape, the lack of happiness has now become epidemic in our country.
What Is Happiness?
Many of us seek happiness for the sake of feeling happy without giving much thought to what happiness really means. Research in the field of positive psychology, an approach that overlaps many of the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT is an approach that focuses on acceptance, compassion and living in alignment with values) defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest and pride, and infrequent (although not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). While happiness—pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy—may be the ultimate goal, it’s impossible to exist in this state as a constant baseline. And, that’s okay. It’s healthy, really, to experience a wide range of emotions, which is aptly demonstrated in the popular Pixar movie Inside Out. There’s a place and space for all emotions, and it’s how we relate to our feelings—the relationships that we create with them—that can make a big difference on how we feel overall.
Relationships And Happiness
According to the Harvard Happiness Study, which has followed the lives of hundreds of men for more than 80 years, the secret to happiness is not wealth or fame. Rather, it’s the cultivation of close relationships and engagement in community. People have an intrinsic desire to connect with others in deep, meaningful and fulfilling ways. And, according to the study, the men who cultivated close relationships also tended to enjoy better health, experienced increased mental functioning and lived longer.
Meaningful relationships are different for everyone. Some people place emphasis on intimacy and closeness. Others value respect and accountability. And still others enjoy relationships that are based in freedom and allow for radical self-expression. There’s no right way to be in a fulfilling relationship; however, it is helpful to take some time to identify what it is that you find most satisfying in relationships and create and cultivate more of those qualities in new relationships and those you value most in your life.
How To Be Happy: Aligning With Your Values
Happiness is also derived through different things for different people. Ultimately, happiness is based on our personal values and how well we live in alignment with those values. We also each place different levels of importance on different parts (domains) of our lives. Domains are the main areas of life in which we infuse our values: family; leisure activities; education development; spiritual life; physical health; social life; work; intimate relationships. Taking time to identify what values are most important to you (love, peace, play, loyalty, honesty, curiosity … the list goes on and on) and infusing those values into the domains that mean the most to you (work and family, for example) can go a long way in helping you to live a balanced, satisfying and joyful life. For more information on the intersection of values and domains, visit my blog Spring Into Intention. And, if you aren’t sure what your core values are, Creating Your Beyond Value Cards, a deck of value cards that I created to use with clients, can help you clarify what is most important to you at this stage in your life.
Get Your Gratitude On
While on the seemingly never-ending quest for how to be happy, it’s important to remember that all feelings, including happiness, are transitory. Feelings are dynamic. They shift often and vary in levels of intensity. It’s okay to be with your feelings—to notice, feel and accept them with self-compassion and love. And, while there is a place for all emotions, if you’re in a funk that you desperately want to lift yourself from, shift your thoughts from what is lacking in your life to those things that make it full. When we give thanks for what we have (and maybe today that is simply the mental and physical ability to read this blog), we move from a place of scarcity to one of abundance. Also, work to remain open, agile and flexible. Rather than striving to be happy, let go a little and identify and give thanks for those things that bring you happiness. And, then go do more of those things. You get to choose how you feel about how you feel. In other words, you have a choice on how you relate to your own feeling, thoughts and sensations. You can hold them with gentility and dispassionate curiosity. Perhaps rather than continuing your search for how to be happy, mindfully practice connecting to this present moment, thankful for the right now. While it may not be your most elated or joyful moment, there is contentment to be found when we push less and live more. Perhaps the question is not how to be happy, but rather, how to be content with life. I am most content when my family is healthy and I am sharing time with them. My heart sometimes hurts for their hurts, and I always feel deep gratitude for the love we share.
Maybe You’re Happier Than You Think
Want to test your happiness skills? This Skill-Based Happiness Quiz, which is based on hundreds of scientific studies, hones in on the lifestyle choices and long-term habits that promote happiness.
What actions can you take today that can foster feelings of happiness, based on your definition? Is there a kindness you can bestow upon another (giving promotes feelings of wellbeing) or is there something uplifting you can do for yourself? What action can you take in a relationship that may be edgy to help soften the tension? Or, what can you do in an already satisfying relationship to strengthen it even more. And, at the end of the day, what makes you feel the most peaceful and content? Identifying your place of happy can be tricky, but doing so and then taking thoughtful actions that have meaning for you, may be your ticket to feeling more free, full and fulfilled.