I think it's pretty cool that there are people whose job it is to study happiness using research and science experiments. However, I also think there are serious limitations to what those researchers and scientists can tell us -- me and you -- about happiness. Studies make for fascinating news articles, but there are a lot of questions in our own lives that can't be answered by science or experts.
1. How do you define happiness?
In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht contends that there are three categories of happiness: a happy moment, a happy day, and a happy life. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says happiness can be "a state of well-being and contentment" or "a pleasurable or satisfying experience." Researchers usually come up with their own definition of happiness before they start studying it.
But what does that have to do with you?
Your personal definition of happiness has more to do with your values and personality than a description penned by a philosopher or author, as will the type of happiness that you decide to focus on. Maybe you're of the mind that life is short and so you should collect as many happy moments as possible, or perhaps you have a broader view of your existence and strive for an overall happy life. Personally, my goal is to balance happy moments with a larger purpose and a sense of inner peace.
No one but you -- not even a really smart researcher -- can tell you what happiness means to you.
2. What makes you happy?
Here's the thing you should know about researchers: They can't talk to everyone. Therefore, their findings are based on studying a collection of people and analyzing similarities among that group. That's all very well and good for figuring out likelihoods and averages, but it doesn't do squat to reveal your personal triggers and preferences.
Just because one study shows that marriage is more important to well-being than career doesn't mean that you will be happier getting married. Maybe you hate sharing your space with another person. Maybe you are attracted to abusive men; getting married to one of them is probably not going to give a boost to your happiness in the long run.
Happiness is personal, and your own likes and dislikes should carry more weight than anything published in a psychology journal.
3. What's getting in the way of your happiness?
I am a big advocate for gratitude practices. I think that most people could benefit from a daily habit that focuses their attention on what is going well in their lives. I even make my two kids list three things for which they are grateful every night. And while the research agrees with me, that doesn't mean that the only thing standing between you and your own definition of happiness is a gratitude practice.
I started treatment for depression in 2009. I'm convinced that a gratitude practice, no matter how religiously I stuck with it, would have been mostly useless before I started taking anti-depressants. A chemical imbalance, I'm certain, was one of the things getting in the way of my happiness. There's no population study that could have told me that.
Likewise, research that says that relationships make us happy won't reveal that your co-dependent relationship is making you unhappy, or that you're feeling anxious all the time because your day job is completely out of line with your core values.
A scan of the headlines won't tell you what's going on in your own life. Your search needs to start much closer to home.
4. What changes do you need to make to be happier?
I feel like scientists are less likely to step into this arena than advice columnists, but it's still worth mentioning that no one but you can determine what new choices you need to make to be happier. Sure, researchers and writers can guess at what you could do differently, but you're the one who has to be willing and able to make and follow through on the decisions.
For example, it might be easy for an outsider to prescribe you more volunteer hours or recommend you find ways to help out a co-worker in order to be happier. After all, helping others is supposed to make us happier. But, perhaps part of your happiness stems from feeling like your own needs aren't being meant because you're taking care of everyone at home; giving more because you think you should might just lead to growing resentment.
Just as you're the best person to determine what obstacles are preventing you from being happy, you're also most capable of figuring out which solutions are going to have the biggest impact on your life.
5. When are you happy enough?
I feel like happiness is something to constantly be pursued. Even though I consider myself happy now, I am always looking for ways to grow, to know myself better, and to deepen my relationship with myself and others. But that's me.
One of my best friends is a big fan of the idea that happiness is something to be enjoyed right now, not always chased after. She feels perfectly content in her life at the moment and sees no need to rock the boat by digging for ways to be happier.
Neither of us is necessarily wrong. We each get to choose at which point we'll feel happy enough, or if such a state even exists. In the same way, no scientist or researcher can tell you when you have had enough happiness or done enough searching. What feels right for you is right for you.
There is a lot of information out there about what might or might not make us happy. I've written a book on the subject myself. But it's important to remember that all of those insights and findings are really suggestions. They may be based on science, interviewing, or personal experience, but they can never be declared universally appropriate.
When it comes to your own happiness, the real expert is you.
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