Happiness and what makes a “good life” was a topic of discussion since the ancient Greeks and throughout history. This theme is not only authentic today but has become one of the main focus of contemporary society. With no surprise to the question, “What do you want the most?” the readers of USA Today Newspaper answered, “To be happy.”
While everyone is on the quest for happiness, it is very important to define this broadly used concept. For different people and different cultures, happiness may have a different meaning. What makes one person happy, may not be the same for another. For some, ‘happiness’ might be just a euphoric emotion after positive life experience. Others might measure their level of happiness by their income and material possessions. For someone else, having a good family, healthy relationships and enough free time to enjoy the things they love to do might be all they want in life. There are also those, who find pleasure and deep life satisfaction in their work and achievements.
People define happiness individually, based on their values, beliefs and cultural prejudices. However, in spite of the different definitions, there is one common factor which unites them all, and that is the search for enjoyment, contentment and a deep life-satisfaction.
As the ancient philosopher, Aristotle said centuries ago, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
When people are happy and feel good about themselves, it impacts each area of their lives positively. Happy people have an optimistic outlook on life and are more likely to set life goals. They have good self-esteem. They are positive and confident, which makes them more efficient and productive in their work. They have more harmonious relationships with others, which results in better emotional and physical health. Happy people are more open and ready to give and engage with other’s affairs. No wonder that everyone wants to feel happy.
After all, what happiness is all about? Is it just a positive emotion which depends on external activities to be sustained or is a certain mindset? Is it an end goal or a by-product of something else?
Psychologists differentiate two main concepts of happiness. One is called ‘Hedonic’, which is the feel-good factor of pleasure and cheerful mood and revolves around seeking pleasurable experiences to maximise enjoyment. It gives the idea that happiness is unsustainable and is reliant on external factors.
The other concept is called ‘Eudaimonic’ coming from two Greek words meaning “good spirit” and is related to finding a deep life satisfaction, meaning and flourishing, using your strengths and realizing your potential. This concept associates happiness with having a certain attitude toward life.
We can see elements of the two worldviews intertwined in today’s western society, where Happiness has become a driving force and an ultimate goal in life.
We see daily adverts of happy people on TV, billboards with smiley faces on the streets and every time we scroll Facebook or Instagram we hit on a ‘happy quote’. Most of them are quite inspirational, but there are a few which in my opinion sound controversial.
Here are a few examples, “The most important thing is to enjoy your life – to be happy! It’s all that matters.” Audrey Hepburn.
And another similar one from Findinghappinessmovie.com,
“Life is too short. Don’t live for the things that make you unhappy. Live for the things that make you happy.”
Isn’t that what everybody wants, to enjoy life and to be happy? However, if the focus of life is only about positive emotions and seeking pleasureful experiences how do people learn to cope with negative feelings or deal with stressors and disturbing life events? The problem with pleasure is that it leads to a short-term high that is concentrated but fades quickly. When we use it, again and again, we adapt to the thing, we start taking it for granted and it stops working for us. Even a simple thing, as trying a delicacy for the first time. The second or the third time the sensation is no longer the same.
To avoid the “hedonic treadmill” is important to find a good balance between pleasure, engagement (positive activities) and meaning that is right for us and will bring a feeling of contentment.
A different perspective on happiness comes from a famous psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. He devoted his life to studying “meaning” of life. In his research, he founds that the man’s primary motivational force is to find meaning in life. Without meaning, people fill the emptiness with hedonistic pleasures to be able to sustain the feeling of enjoyment. He also finds that there is a strong connection between “meaningless” and criminal behaviour, addiction and depression.
Frankl points out that striving for happiness does not make us happy. Happiness and life-satisfaction are only a by-product of pursuing our lives meaning.
The American psychologist Martin Seligman, who is a co-founder of the Positive Psychology movement introduces the term ‘flourish’, which give a much broader understanding of the concept of happiness and well-being. He defines flourishing as the ability to deploy your high talent, which leads to more positive emotions, building deeper relationships with others, engaging in meaningful activities and contributing to the world.
After all, we can see that true happiness is not just an unsustainable emotion, depending on external factors, but is rather a mindset, based on internal attitude. It involves a good balance of enjoyment, building positive relationships, developing our character strength; finding meaning and contributing to the community.
Researchers have found that 40% of our happiness comes as a result of intentional activities, the other 50% are influenced by genetic set points and 10% of life circumstances and social factors. Whilst we do not have control over life events and genetic factors, we still have control over 40% of our life choices and activities, which can contribute to our well-being.
Here are a few tips that can help you increase your level of happiness and life satisfaction.
1. Check your beliefs
What you believe about yourself and your circumstances affects your level of happiness.
“Most people are about as happy as they make their mind to be.” – Abraham Lincoln
Take time to think about yourself and your circumstances. Identify and address any dis-empowering belief you hold about yourself. Think about what makes you unique and different. What are your skills and talents and how can you develop them?
2. Engage in positive activities.
Think about activities where you can express yourself, which will develop your skills and talents and will challenge you to get out of your comfort zone. In the process of engaging in new activities and learning new skills, not only your confidence and self-esteem will improve but you may find a new passion and purpose for your life.
3. Change perspective.
Accept your circumstances as they are and choose to have the right attitude. Remember that the way you perceive a situation determines what your reality would turn to be. Choose to have a positive mindset, to look at what you have, instead of what you might be lacking. Face challenges directly and take actions when needed. This attitude will help you become proactive about your problems instead of being reactive.
3. Overcome any hedonistic pattern of thinking and behaviour.
Learn to embrace pain and difficulties as part of your growth. Learn to delay your gratification. Try to leave the pleasant experiences as a reward for your efforts and hard work. With practice and time, you will create new patterns of thinking and behaviour, from which you will benefit in the long term.
4. Become part of a community. Make sure that you connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. Find a place where you can give and contribute to someone’s else development or well-being, by volunteering or charitable work. Adding value to someone else’s life brings an immense sense of joy and satisfaction.
In your search for happiness, remember that finding meaning in your life is essential. The pleasureful experiences alone are not enough to bring lasting happiness. A life without meaning can turn into a mere existence in which even the most pleasurable experience can lose its flavour. Finding meaning will give your life a purpose. It will empower you to live with passion and commitment. It will enable you to face challenges with courage. It will motivate you to grow and fulfil your potential. True happiness is a process of maturity, of finding your identity and your purpose in life. In the process, you will develop a mindset of gratitude and contentment, which will enable you to cherish each moment, to enjoy the small things in life, to love and accept others as they are and find meaning even in most adverse circumstances.