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You would have to be completely disconnected from TV, YouTube, movies, Facebook, Google and even newspapers and magazines if you have not been exposed to research on “happiness” lately. Millions of people have watched Pharell William’s music video called “Happy” and have gotten happier listening and clapping to it!  However, some people are quick to dismiss this topic as another form of constantly chasing more…and always comparing ourselves to others.  There were even recent articles that rate different geographical locations as being “the happiest” places to live.  Is happiness competition the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses”? Or is it really something worth pursuing?

Happiness has been viewed as important throughout human history.  Aristotle in particular wrote that, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  The language of the “pursuit of happiness” is embedded into the fabric of our society through the Declaration of Independence (although as Ben Franklin allegedly said, “The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself”).

But what is happiness and is it attainable? I have always liked the idea expressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne that, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”  Thus, happiness is not a goal in itself, but perhaps a side effect of other, meaningful, goal-directed activity.

To flourish, research shows us that we need to look for opportunities to increase positive emotion through savoring our pleasures and amplifying our good feelings.  We also become happier when we are actively engaged… “in the zone” so to speak.  Time passes without awareness when we are engaged fully in what we are doing, whether it be having a conversation, playing tennis, or cooking a meal.  This means being fully present, not distracted with our smart phones, Facebook, etc.  Also, the better the quality of our relationships with others and the more we build these relationships, the deeper our satisfaction with life will be.  Identifying core values and living these everyday is crucial to establishing a fulfilling, “purpose-driven” life.  The philosopher Nietzche was the one who said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So develop a sense of purpose–what you want your life to stand for.  Finally, it helps to feel fulfilled and happy when we have a sense of accomplishment; while endlessly pursuing achievement out of a sense of perfectionism is unhealthy, dedicating yourself to the accomplishment of important goals, whether they be personal or professional, definitely adds to a sense of well-being.

Lots of research suggests that happiness matters; it’s not just hype. A meta-analysis of 300 studies with over 275,000 people found that people with greater levels of positivity lived longer, had better health, happier marriages, and made more money. So what are some take-aways on how to increase well-being and happiness:

  • Increase savoring by focusing on the moment; enjoy healthy pleasure in the here-and-now.
  • Increase engagement and flow, especially through meditation and mindfulness; limit passive activities such as TV and “screen time”.
  • Practice kindness; it increases your own well-being and that of others (the “pay-it-forward” concept has been found in hard research to be very real).
  • Practice daily gratitude or blessings.
  • Identify and use your unique strengths daily and in new ways (e.g., check out www.authentichappiness.com for a cost-free way to identify strengths).
  • “WWW”–Identify concretely “what went well” today–preferably write it down and ask others, such as your children, what went well for them.
  • Behavioral economists suggest that “satisficing” (which means going with “good enough”) is better than “maximizing” (always trying to get the absolute best deal) for happiness.  People who research endlessly to get “the best deal” are more unhappy with their choices.
  • Cultivate optimism; Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism” can help you learn how–you don’t have to be a Pollyanna to find ways to tame those negative messages. These messages are our brain’s way of trying to protect us from disappointment and disaster, but they actually prevent us much of the time from living fully.

For more ideas and information, check out Seligman’s book, Flourish or for a more personal take, read Gretchen Rubin’s, The Happiness Project.

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