"There is no duty so much underrated as the duty of being happy." -- Robert Louis Stevenson
As I sat down on the chaise by the window in my living room -- one of my favorite writing spots -- I caught a glimpse of a sign in my daughter's room that says, "Do what makes you happy." Someone gave it to her recently before she left to go abroad for a year -- ironically, to find what makes her happy. It's a worthwhile saying, great in theory. As someone who luxuriates in positive psychology, I love the idea of this saying, and that someone thought enough of it to make a sign as a reminder to others. I often encourage my clients, friends and family to put quotes where they will see them to remind, encourage and lift themselves up. But, how many of us know what makes us happy?
Happiness is sometimes represented as elusive or fantasy metaphorically symbolized with unicorns and rainbows. It may seem completely out of reach for the even-keeled and more so for the depressed among us. In this day and age, when we have constant access to information, much of it negative, you may be wondering whether it's possible for you to create a lasting state of mind that is dominant in happiness.
What is happiness and where does it come from?
Researchers tend to define happiness in terms greater feelings of life satisfaction and frequency, duration and intensity of positive affect with a corresponding absence of negative affect over time (Chamorro-Premuzic, Bennet and Furnham, 2007; Argyle, Martin and Crossland, 1989). Studies have shown that gratitude and appreciation, along with higher levels of four of the Big Five personality traits: agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness and extroversion along with lower levels of neuroticism are important to life satisfaction and, therefore, happiness (Fagley, 2012; Chamorro-Premuzic, Bennet and Furnham, 2007). Your happiness homeostasis is also related to whether you innately see the world in a more optimistic or pessimistic way, which is partly based on your genetic inheritance and what was role modeled for you in early childhood. There is good news, however, and not just because my glass tends to be half full. According to Martin Seligman, a psychology professor and happiness researcher at the University of Pennsylvania often referred to as the father of positive psychology, optimism is something you can learn. Dr. Seligman offers brilliant wisdom in this direction in his books Learned Optimism and Flourish. Further, he offers surveys, such as the Happiness Quiz, that will let you test your level of happiness.
So, if you can increase optimism (as well as appreciation and gratitude) and thereby control how happy you are by even a little bit, you are worth doing the work to be happier. Exactly how much of happiness is originally derived from nature versus nurture may still be open for some discussion, but whether happiness comes from internal or external sources is not. You are responsible for your own happiness. No one else can make you happy or complete you. It turns out that experts have also figured out what does and does not create lasting, enduring happiness.
Clearing the Space
Clear the space so you can do the work. Yoga and meditation are well documented ways to clear the space in your mind, to still your thoughts and calm your anxiety. One of my yoga teachers said, yoga will change your life. I thought she was being a little dramatic but I, an anxiety-prone, shallow-breather, was newly committed to developing at least a twice weekly yoga practice. I wanted to learn to breathe deep and ultimately to stop subconsciously holding my breath when I feel anxious. I wanted to develop an inner calm that actually reduced my daily anxiety level. What I found, after a few short weeks of regular yoga classes, is that yoga does change your life. The calmness and the ability to take a deep breath do wonders for keeping my head clear and my thoughts under control. This is referred to as emotional intelligence, which was also found to be highly influential to happiness in the Chamorro-Premuzic study. I have developed physical strength, balance and flexibility that are actual but also metaphors for the mental strength, balance and flexibility that more subtly developed simultaneously.
Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that money cannot buy happiness and that what creates happiness and lasting satisfaction are activities that bring about a state of "flow." An example of flow is when athletes refer to being in the zone. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as: "a state where you are ecstatic, intrinsically motivated and the outside world disappears. It's a place where you know you are good enough, talented enough, time is suspended and the work is the reward." Flow can happen in any or all facets of life: work, play, and social settings as long as you are doing something you love. It seems that flow and passion are intertwined. In other words, do what you love, get in a state of flow and happiness will follow.
According to Seligman, "Without the application of one's unique strengths and the development of one's virtues towards an end bigger than one's self, one's potential tends to be whittled away by a mundane, inauthentic, empty pursuit of pleasure" (Authentic Happiness, 2002). Seligman states that there are no shortcuts to happiness. It will require some work of most everyone, and more work for a few of us. But, what more worthwhile work is there than doing that which is necessary not only for our own happiness, but also to taste all the delicacies that come with happiness: peace, contentment, sense of fulfillment, increased life satisfaction, goal attainment, more friends, and helping to, in some way, leave the planet a better place than when you arrived?
Achievement and leadership guru Anthony Robbins talks about the importance of contribution to something greater than you, and identifies it as one of the basic human needs, building upon Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Robbins identifies the importance of other human needs such as security and love, but at a certain point you will need to feel the sense of fulfillment that comes from contribution.
So, perhaps a more accurate sign would say, Calm your mind, control your thoughts, find your flow, contribute to something bigger than yourself and enjoy the happiness that follows. It would be a big sign, but a more certain path to lasting happiness.
1. Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Bennet, E., & Furnham, A. (2007). The happy personality: Mediational role of trait intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences. 1633-1639.
2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow. Psychology Today.
3. Fagley, N. (2012). Appreciation uniquely predicts life satisfaction above demographics, the Big 5 personality factors, and gratitude. Personality and Individual Differences. 59-63.
4. Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.