In 1988 Bobby McFerrin sang this feel-good, toe-tapping a capella song that rose to the top of the billboard charts and stayed there for two weeks. Not a surprise when it seems happiness is one area that most people claim to have a difficult time finding. Happiness appears to be an enigma.
What is it? How do you get it? Where does it come from?
Studies of happiness (also known as well-being, flourishing, thriving, positivity, emotional vitality, life satisfaction, to name a few) typically measure the state biologically, with brain imaging and hormonal levels, or through self-report measures that assess the frequency of positive or negative thoughts we experience, feelings we have, or memories of positive or negative thoughts within a given time frame. It seems such an ambiguous concept– each of us would define happiness differently.
Regardless, happiness impacts all aspects of our lives, and it’s related closely to optimism.
Think about how you IN GENERAL perceive the world. Some people I know, when asked how they see the world, would say, “It’s a dog eat dog world” conveying a perception of everyone being out for themselves and life really being about survival of the fittest. On the other hand, I am fortunate to know many individuals who rarely have a negative thing to say, perceiving the world “as my oyster…” In stark contrast to each other, studies have demonstrated that individuals who operate with a pessimistic worldview live shorter lives and have a significantly higher risk of disease and other illnesses. Older adults ages 52-79 who were followed over a 5-year period were monitored for their feelings and showed that those expressing greater happiness were 35% less at risk of death within 5 years. More compelling, and likely not surprising, is the higher likelihood of more substantial income, higher work quality and productivity, more satisfying relationships, increased physical activity, lower stress, greater social support, and less pain found among those who express greater well-being.
But happiness is a mindset. Happiness does not just happen. You build it brick by brick through intentional effort. While we all have a happiness set point (just like our metabolic set point), we CAN function above or below that set point. In fact, 40% of our happiness is in our control.Wait! Before you start thinking “WHAT?! That’s it?!” (if you did, this is a great example of your tendency to view things in a glass half empty or full manner!), imagine a pie chart. 50% is genetic; 40% is personally controlled (how you think, perceive, and view your circumstances); and 10% is environmental. You can compare this again to your metabolism. 50% is genetic. We may have a higher propensity for obesity, but does that mean we will be obese? I know plenty of individuals who have obese parents who are very fit and healthy. But guess what, it takes effort. So too, does happiness.
Ironically, the more you go searching for happiness, the more elusive it can become. Think about when you’ve felt most at peace and fulfilled. It’s not typically when you’re complacent, have nothing to do, or are just going through the motions. Nope. Would you agree that you notice you feel most happy when you’ve striven hard for something, when you’re accomplished a goal, when you’ve demanded a lot of yourself? I know this is the case for me. But you’re missing the boat if you’re only focusing on the outcome. The happiness is derived through the cultivation process– the growth that occurs between the setting of the goal and the meeting of it. Because think about this– how often do you meet a goal and then just take the time to relish in it? More often than not you’re asking, “Okay, now what?” You are so ready to move on, there is a lack of appreciation taken for what just went into your adventure!
I titled this blog the way I did because it’s antithetical to happiness. Without some worry, toil, or frustration, happiness remains an enigma. Without the discomfort, the focus on growth and learning, the recognition that “this is tough!” or that you are being significantly challenged, happiness often remains a pipe dream. You’ve heard the old adage, “There must be dark in order for you to appreciate the light.” Same thing. Goal frustration has even been researched and shown to be highly advantageous to creating commitment and striving toward achievement. The kicker with this– it depends on the support and other measures you have in place for staying consistent and true to what you’ve deemed important. Again we’re back to the necessary component of deliberate and intentional action. You must pay attention to what you’re doing and live less on automatic pilot if you want to be happy, fulfilled, and successful.
Ask yourself now what you notice about people in your life who seem genuinely happy. I consider myself one of these people. I’m rarely in a “bad mood.” It’s not worth it to me to wallow in self-pity, live in regret, or stew in negativity. I’m never bored– how do people get bored?! There are always things to do, people to see, lives to impact, and self-growth and knowledge to glean!
So a few take-aways about happiness…what can you do and BE now to practice being happy? Because it’s not going to come from money, it’s not going to come from food, it won’t come from sex, drugs, or rock and roll. You must work to create meaning and purpose in your life to fully LIVE.
1. Stop living in the past (unless you are going to use it for good, for change, for growth, regret is not an asset).
2. Understand that adversity is inevitable AND beneficial. We often create it ourselves for the very reasons we’re talking about here. Think about how often you’re frustrated. You don’t have to be! But when you’re complacent you’re not exactly happy either!:)
3. Happy people feel in control of their lives. They recognize that who they are and what they feel, how they perceive the world is most about their internal dialogue. Sure, outside circumstances you can not often control, but you CAN control your thoughts about them.
4. Happy people enjoy what they’re doing even if it’s difficult. They embody a growth mindset. This means that they see adversity as a challenge as opposed to failure.
5. Resilience is seen among happy people. They take whatever comes their way in stride. They’ve become adept at looking at things more objectively so as not to get swept away by emotion and thought. I’ve said it many times, but our feelings and thoughts often lie to us. We have to learn how to filter them.
Happy people worry. They do. And then they assess what aspects of their worry they can have an influence on. You can do the same to begin living a more fulfilled life.