Of all the sections on this website, this one was the most difficult to write. One would think happiness would not be such a difficult subject, but as I discovered when I decided a few years ago to find ways of bring more joy to my life, our assumptions about what happiness actually is can lead us in the opposite direction!
Early in my career as an IT professional I was responsible for supporting the VIPs of my employer. These were very rich people… very rich. I won’t name names, but one lived in a massive apartment in the Waldorf Astoria (a very ritzy hotel in New York City) as well as a massive farm estate in upstate NY, one lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan and owned two floors in the building, and another lived in long island in a beautiful home in a very exclusive area. As a young striving professional who was dealing with debt and had his share of difficult times growing up, these people seemed to be living the good life. They were driven to work, went to exotic places for vacation, mingled with the rich and famous, and some had helicopters and/or yachts.
Since I was often working on their computers and other technology both at home and office while they were lost in their own dealings, and also assisted their family, friends, and sometimes lovers, I had the opportunity to experience some of their daily lives, usually unnoticed or ignored as I fumbled with wires behind a desk or an open PC in the corner. What I discovered was confusing.
They were often very unhappy, dealing with the same drama as the “regular schmoe.” There were messy divorces, crazy or manipulative girlfriends, petty grievances, family complications…. the list went on. The very people living what I thought was the perfect life were just like me. This same message came to me again and again as I saw headlines of the famous and their woes in the news.
Clearly fame, money and things were not enough for happiness. Maybe money would help remove some of my current obstacles and sources of stress, but there would always be others to take their place. I wish I had taken this valuable discovery to heart, but I did not.
Later in life, when I was more successful, financially better off, and even a little well known in certain circles I slipped into depression. Here I was at the pinnacle of my personal success and I was unhappy. I wanted to be happy, but it became clear to myself I did not know what happiness really was. I had been clinging to a flawed notion of happiness, and this was not leading me any closer to it. In fact it was making me more unhappy. It was then that I decided to better understand what happiness was.
The Happiness Fallacies
Before we can begin to understand the true nature of happiness we need to recognize and let go of the fallacies which are getting in the way. These are the stealth robbers of happiness, lurking in our assumptions and expectations.
Below are examples of what happiness is NOT…
Happiness is Not Feeling Good All the Time
As humans we are not in a static state. We are constantly responding physically, mentally and emotionally to external and internal (conscious or not) experiences, thoughts and perceptions, and our body chemistry, which can influence mood, will vary with diet, environment, and one’s present emotional state. We are always in flux but cling to the illusion of a static sense of self. Thus our capacity and receptiveness to happiness can vary both throughout our lives and even throughout the day. Furthermore, when you ask people what makes their lives worth living, they rarely say anything about their mood, being more likely to cite things that they find meaningful, such as their work or relationships.
Research suggests that if you focus too much on trying to feel good all the time, you’ll actually undermine your ability to feel good at all. Essentially, if you expect to feel good all the time, no amount will be satisfying to you since we could not realistically sustain such a constant state in our current condition. Likewise if you focus on the peaks, you will dead the inevitable decline. This can lead to escapism through drugs or other mind altering or distracting habits which further rob us of the opportunities for happiness.
Happiness is Not About Being Rich
I already spoke at length about my own discovery of this fallacy at the beginning of this section so I will only add a few points here to consider.
Studies have shown that while living below the poverty line certainly makes it hard to be happy, beyond that, money does not appear to buy happiness. The excitement from things like getting a big raise, buying a new house, car, gadget, or all of the other material goods that people spend so much time pining over is short term. It would only be a matter of time before your expectations change to fit your new budget or environment. Before you know it, you’re just as happy as you were before!
There is however an exception to this rule. When you spend your time or money on experiences, especially with other people, you might become happier.
Happiness is Not A Final Destination
I used to think if I could just pay off my debt I would be happy. And I was for a little while. But it did not keep me happy forever. There would always be new challenges to face. Holding happiness out like a carrot to lead us to it, will never bring us to an end. We will never “get there” since it was never a final destination to begin with.
Contrary to popular belief, unless you are one of the few who won the genetic lottery and are naturally happy, it takes regular effort to maintain happiness. Most established techniques for becoming happier (which we will explore soon!) are habits, not one-shot events. Most life events that make us happy in the short-term, like getting married or being promoted, fade over time as we adapt to them.
Happiness Does Not Have To Be Huge
If I were to describe to you my most content and happy moment in the past year you may not be impressed. I was sitting on a cushion on the floor at home working on some random task on my laptop with my two adopted cats on either side of me purring contently. As I looked down at them with a smile, one looked back, reached out to gently touch me as it stretched and then nuzzled closer to drift off to slumber, lightly purring with a long content sigh. To me it was the perfect moment and as I think back to it now, I cannot help but smile to myself and feel a bit of that happiness return as a lingering warm glow. Such a simple yet potent event in my life, and one I experience on various levels constantly. Since I have adopted my cats (4 years ago as I write this) they have made me smile every day without fail. I smile when I think of them and I smile when I come home from work.
I can think back to when my career just started to take off and I was promoted to my first management position with a $40,000 raise. It immediately resolved my money issues at the time and I was debt free in a year. I was certainly proud and exited, but it did not take long for me to adjust to my new salary, move to a better apartment and eventually buy a house. The happiness of that event was a peak moment which faded quickly. If I look back I recall it being a pivotable moment in my career but I have new issues and demands which need attending. That peak no longer has relevance to me. It no longer brings me joy.
While these peaks are not without value, it is often the seemingly “little things” which will stay with us. Do not underestimate their contribution to your long-term happiness.
Happiness is Not “Out There”
As cliché as it sounds, happiness comes from within. The more we objectify happiness as something external to be obtained, the more we will loose sight of it.
We are ultimately the source of our own happiness, or lack thereof. Every time we project the cause onto others we disempower ourselves in the process. I can’t control when someone is rude to me on the subway, but I can choose how to perceive and respond to it. Likewise if create external dependencies for my happiness (boss recognizing me, etc.) then I limit my opportunities and create a situation for disappointment.
If we wish to be happy then we need to take responsibility for both our happiness and lack of it. Only then can we begin to take steps to increase our happiness.
So, Then, What IS Happiness?
Happiness is a combination of how satisfied you are with your life (for example, finding meaning in your work and relationships) and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis. Both of these are relatively stable in that, while our life circumstances change, and our mood fluctuates, our general happiness is more genetically determined than anything else. We each have our own base level and capacity for happiness.
However do not fret if you feel your base level or capacity is not so great. The good news is, with consistent effort, this can be offset. Consider your health when it comes to diet and exercise. If we did not put much effort into this, some of us may get fat, others may remain lanky, and yet others seem to be in great shape even without the effort (those bastards!!!). Each of us would have different considerations for diet and exercise to look and feel more healthy. The more consistent the effort put in, the better the results. If I eat poorly all week and just worry about such things on weekend my progress would be much slower. And if we stop our effort all together we would eventually return to a similar state from which we started. If you lost weight, you would gain it back. If you had build muscle, you would loose it.
It is the same when it comes to happiness. We may have a default baseline, but we have the ability to control how we feel, and with consistent practice, we can form lifelong habits for a more satisfying and fulfilling life. You have the power to take control of your happiness by choosing your thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
We cannot change our genes, but we can change ourselves.
How Do We Become Happier?
As discussed in the section on habits, what you repeatedly spend time thinking about and doing each day ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. So in seeking to find happiness, we must take an honest (and forgiving) look inward. As the saying goes, happiness comes from within.
Consider a rope. A rope is collection of smaller strands twisted together. Each strand on its own does not have much impact, but together they manifest the rope’s strength. In seeking to bring more happiness into your life, you find ways of incorporating various “little things” as habits which each bring you more and more happiness.
However, some of these seemingly “little things” may surprise you in their effectiveness. Take a break from your social media feeds for a week for an example. It probably won’t be easy, but you may be surprised at the peace of mind it can bring.
The more we develop habits conducive to happiness, and discover and deal with habits that have been sabotaging our happiness and success, the more happy we will become.
Hone Skills That Will Further Your Efforts
This website explores many general skills which are both valuable on their own, and can serve as helpful tools in any area of your life you choose to work on. Learning to become more mindful and better understanding what habits are and how they form, for example, would be of great help in your efforts to increase your happiness since it relies on discovering what brings and hinders your happiness.
Maintaining a journal will offer you excellent insight into the patterns your habits create and how they impact your mood.
As you explore various tips on how to bring more happiness into your life, consider what underlying skills such tips rely on. The more you can find practical ways to apply the ideas presented in the website, the more accessible those skills will be in future endeavors.
(To be continued soon, but check out the links below to get started…)
- How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed
- 5 Ways to Increase Happiness in Daily Life
- 54 Ways to Increase Your Happiness Set Point
- Stop trying to ‘find yourself’
- The Instant-Gratification Guide To Being Happier At Work
- Does Trying to Be Happy Make Us Unhappy?
- The #1 Way To Have a Happier, Longer Life (Relationships/Community)