Happiness is a very popular subject in our modern world. There are countless books in your local bookstore, shelf after shelf of titles, all professing to have “the secret” to happiness. Why do we have such a fascination and maybe even obsession with finding happiness?
Research from the field of positive psychology explores the concept of happiness and defines a happy person as someone who feels frequent positive emotions, such as joy and a greater overall sense of pleasure/contentment. Happy people aren’t just happier, they are also less troubled and experience the negative emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger less frequently. Greater happiness has also been related to life satisfaction/appreciation of life and numerous studies have also shown that happier individuals are also more successful across multiple life domains —including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
Research has also suggested that happiness doesn’t just feel good, it is also linked to other huge benefits such as less disease, lower stress, better heart health, better immune-system function and even a longer life! So then, if it’s that important, why does happiness seem to be kind of a slippery concept that escapes and eludes so many people?
In our not too distant past, humans were busy running and hiding from animals that wanted to eat us and when we weren’t running and hiding, we were searching for food. We didn’t have the time or energy to be concerned with whether or not we were happy. But now, thanks to the wonders of modern life, like wonderfully abundant food, fewer hungry sabre tooth tigers, and modern medicine, life has gotten much, much, much easier. Modern humans have considerably extended their lifespans and we now have the time to belly button gaze and explore deeper philosophical issues like, what is happiness? We have also evolved giant intelligent and logical brains with which we can explore our world and wonder why we aren’t happier?
But What Is Happiness?
We certainly feel happy emotions when we are spending time with the people we love. When we’re enjoying activities like listening to music or exercising, spending time in nature or relaxing with a book in front of the fireplace. We feel happy when we’re watching a funny movie (Monty Python anyone?) or eating our favourite food at our favourite restaurant. But perhaps happiness is more than just a temporary emotion because emotions are often short-lived and transient.
So how can we look at happiness differently then?
Happiness is maybe better seen as a “state of mind” involving our perceptions, our feelings, our consciousness and even more importantly, having a sense of intentionality and purpose. Happiness can maybe best seen as something deliberate, intentional and strategic. This is good news for us because it means we can purposely make good choices that lead us to a more positive state of mind & happiness. We can also look to the people who seem to be naturally happy and even learn and mimic what they do!
And here are four things that they do differently:
1) They Understand Growth is Often Unpleasant or Even Sometimes Painful!
Many people play life really, really safe. They go to the same job every day for 30 years even though they don’t like it, they eat the same foods at the same restaurants, vacation every single year at the same time and place, and spend their free time with the same people doing the same things. But sustained happiness is perhaps about not always being so secure, safe and settled. It’s maybe about self-discovery and growth, which by definition demands a life lived outside of your comfort zone!
A friend and I were having a discussion a little while ago about how, when we’re on a vacation, in a new place with new surroundings and people, we really and truly feel more alive and happy! How did you feel the last time you were on vacation in a new place? Did you feel more vital and alive? I think that’s maybe because we’re fully outside our comfort zone in those new situations and places, our brain is highly stimulated and we sense and feel that everything is fresh and exciting. We feel alive, and when we feel alive, maybe we feel happier?
The ancient Greeks described happiness as:
…the joy that we feel when we’re striving after our potential.
Can you truly be happy if you dislike your job and you’re just biding your time until retirement, or if your marriage is stale and feels disconnected, or if you have no hobbies or interests that you’re truly passionate about? Probably not. So maybe we need to steadily strive for things outside of our comfort zone to grow emotionally and feel happy?
2) They Are Curious
Part of getting out of our comfort zone is being curious. A 2007 study found that happy people seem to have an instinctive grasp of the fact that happiness requires growth and frequently adventuring outside the confines of your comfort zone. Happy people are curious about life and their world. Researchers Todd Kashdan and Michael Steger found that when their study participants monitored their everyday activities, those who regularly felt curious on a given day also reported more frequent growth-oriented behaviors, experienced a greater presence of feelings of “life meaning”, life satisfaction and happiness and also engaged in the highest number of happiness creating activities, such as communicating gratitude to a co-worker or freely volunteering to help others. Being curious also predicted greater persistence of meaning in life from one day to the next. So by being curious every day maybe we can actually feel more happiness and satisfaction with life! So making an effort to be curious and exploring your world every day can make you happier!
Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
3) They Don’t Worry Or Fret About the Details
The book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” was super popular a while ago, and yes, at first glance, it does seem to be a strategy that’s maybe just a little too simplistic, however, it can really be an important part of our overall happiness strategy. Happy people don’t worry about the small stuff and they really try to not be overly perfectionistic. Rather, they often hold a less serious attitude about their performance. Psychology research from Shigehiro Oishi and his colleagues (2007) has actually found that the happiest people, defined as those who scored higher on measures of life satisfaction, typically didn’t perform quite as well as more moderately happy people in life accomplishments like grades, school attendance, or even high work salaries. So perhaps, always striving for achievements and perfection may somehow even make us less happy?
This is not to say that we should stop trying our best in life. But it does suggest that maybe it’s okay to surrender some degree of achievement if it means letting go of the fretting, worry and perfectionism that steals some of our happiness. Like many things in life, maybe it’s really about finding a healthy balance between endeavouring for achievement and being more relaxed and untroubled?
4) They Explore & Accept Their Feelings
You would think that really happy people are always happy all of the time, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Truly happy people recognize the reality that every life has its share of disappointments, obstacles, frustrations and problems. They accept this reality and have reasonable expectations of their world. Like Ella Fitzgerald sang:
Into each life some rain must fall…
Psychologically healthy people are those that understand the importance of actually paying attention to and feeling their genuine emotions even if they aren’t always positive. Happy people don’t deny or ignore their disagreeable or uncomfortable emotions. They realize that negative emotions and “bad feelings” are a normal part of everyone’s life. Everyones. Rather than denying these feelings, they instead try to manage their negative emotions with positive coping strategies, like physical exercise, or therapy, or hobbies, or yoga, or mindfulness, etc. They also realize that negative feelings and emotions are perhaps signs that we need to make life changes or that we may need to make better or different choices in the future.
For instance, a happy person might feel upset, sad, angry and jealous because a coworker got a promotion and they didn’t. Happy people don’t immerse themselves in this “woe is me” feeling. They don’t get stuck in those negative feelings of angry jealousy. They see these emotions as a sign that maybe they could have done something differently to achieve a more desirable outcome in their own life, like working harder or smarter, or that maybe the job that they’re in isn’t a good a fit, as they aren’t really progressing up the ladder. They also try their best to navigate around their own negative feelings and instead try to feel good for their coworker and even congratulate and support them!
Looking at another scenario, perhaps if we feel anger towards someone, it’s really a sign that maybe we’re overreacting to something, or that perhaps we need to set stronger boundaries and protect ourselves better from someone who is harming us in some way.
Regardless of the emotion felt, happy people, realize that life sometimes presents us with negative situations, people and feelings and that maybe these are things that can actually help us grow and change for the better? The important thing is to feel your feelings and not hide from them!
If you’ve always been someone who shies away from feeling their negative emotions or even denies or hides from them, it may seem difficult to actually start to feel your feelings. A therapist can help you get better acquainted with the full range of your emotional life and can even suggest some tools and strategies that can help you understand, accept and navigate your emotions in the future.
Finally, here are some wonderful books to further explore your own personal journey to happiness: