I consider myself a positive psychologist. Not really sure what that means, but ever since I did a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology I felt like I found my niche. I believe pursuing well-being and happiness and flourishing are a valid goal in life. While alleviating pain and disease is important for a good life, for psychology I’m dubious as to whether alleviating disease is the only route towards increasing well-being and experiencing happiness.
Having said all of this I’m not completely convinced that happiness and well-being as most people conceptualize it is always attainable. First let’s define happiness, I think the most common definition is experiencing positive emotions. According to the Greater Good Science Center Magazine happiness involves feeling positive generally and about life overall. I’ve come to believe that it’s not always possible to feel positive in general or about life overall.
Life happens, suffering happens, ill-being happens, there’s no getting away from it. After many years of teaching about resilience and happiness, I’ve come to embrace the idea that maybe feeling less bad is a goal that is almost as worthy as feeling happy or experiencing well-being, it is a positive psychology concept. I’m not advocating for feeling less bad all the time, but I am advocating for some self-compassion during those times of difficulty and opting to try and feel less bad. I find myself telling students that if you add up feeling less bad over time, it could feel pretty darn good. Many times feeling less bad is easier to achieve than feeling happy.
Starting today what can you do differently to accept the idea of feeling less bad as good enough? Well first understand what happiness really is, dismystify the concept, most people feel they should just know what happiness is. Next, during those difficult times practice self-compassion. And lastly, plain and simply give yourself permission not to always need to be happy.
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be happy. So what is keeping us from being happy?
Actually the Declaration of Independence tells us what is keeping people from being happy. Most people focus on the happiness part of the pursuit of happiness. They seem to over look the pursuit part, as I see it this is a big problem. As I’ve said many times, contrary to what most people think, we aren’t entitled to be happy just because we think we are, or because we wake up in the morning or because … you name it. Happiness is really hard work.
Why don’t people work as hard to become happy as they do to become physically fit, learn something new or make more money? I think it is because many people have the misconception that happiness is a destination. The belief is, if I (fill this in with anything – marry, make more money, have fun) then I will be happy. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not Miami Beach. Happiness is more like Disneyland. You can visit it, and you can visit more and more often the harder you work at it. The irony here is that, in theory, working hard and achieving something tends to make us happy, except most people don’t know that, so they just feel sorry for themselves for having to work so hard (at something that should just happen). No one leaves this earth having lived happily ever after without having worked hard at it.
Starting today what can you do differently to work hard to make yourself happy. You can set goals, achievable, relevant ones. Ones you can break down into small steps, so that you can actively pursue them. You can join a group, a charity, a religious group or a political group. Being part of something bigger than yourself gives life meaning and it also makes you feel good. You can learn something new, preferably something that will challenge you. According to Michael Csikszentmihalyi the most productive state a person can enter is a state of flow, when the task at hand is challenging but not overly challenging. The bonus here is that learning something new also gives us a sense of achievement and according to Martin Seligman achievement is a pillar of happiness. You can learn some form of mindfulness meditation. Again learning something new tends to make people happy. And needless to say learning to be mindful, being in the present also tends to make us happy.
Starting today what will you choose to do differently?
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As I’ve said before I think it is pretty safe to say most people want to be happy. What keeps them from being happy? I believe the many myths of happiness keep people from being happy.
The biggest myth of happiness is you are who you are, as in you can’t get happier. Granted some people have a sunnier disposition than others and we do have what is called a set point for happiness, however, this does not mean we can’t make ourselves happier. We might not become as jolly as our jolliest friend, nevertheless, with a little effort, we can make ourselves happier, we can move that set point.
The second biggest myth of happiness is believing when I get that raise, promotion, married, children I will be so happy. Happiness isn’t a state we can achieve, it isn’t an end product, it’s a by product. Happiness isn’t a place you can arrive to and stay permanently if you work hard enough. Happiness is a place you can go to more and more frequently, but not a place you can hope to stay permanently. The irony here is if you can accept this fact you can visit happyland more often and for longer. Extrinsic goals don’t bring us happiness.
Another myth of happiness is believing that when you become happy you only experience positive emotions. This is very far from the truth. Happiness is about experiencing the whole range of emotions equally. Granted the optimum is experiencing more positive emotions than negative, but not experiencing any negative emotions does not equate to greater happiness. Experiencing only positive emotions doesn’t bring us happiness
Another myth of happiness is believing that material goods bring happiness. Because of hedonic adaptation this notion is very far from true. We adapt easily to both the good and the bad, when we get that raise, that big house, the shinny car or whatever, truth be told we will adapt to it, the joy will wear off and we will move on to wanting the next thing. Material goods don’t bring us happiness.
Starting today what can you do differently? You can start by being more realistic about being happy. When you feel bad, instead of trying to push the bad feelings away, invite them in. I’m not suggesting to wallow in anger, self-pity, jealousy etc, etc, I’m suggesting to acknowledge the feeling, feel the feeling, it will make it easier to move on. You can remember that material goods don’t bring happiness, however, how you use those material goods does. Remember doing for others and being with others brings happiness.
Starting today what will you do differently?
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you how happiness is defined, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness.
The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.