Must I suffer to be happy?
Happiness. It’s a big word. It’s charged with meaning, with connotations. It’s aspirational and yet very intimidating to those who don’t get enough of it.
Some people seem to be born happy, whilst others need to work hard for it. Why does the search for happiness sometimes seem like a chore? Should we even strive for it? In fact, what is happiness?
Ask anyone around you, and chances are, they’ll tell you that happiness is family and friends, wealth, a good job and good health. And then perhaps we secretly dream of winning the lottery, of whirlwind romance, of excelling at our jobs, of having perfect bodies.
It’s embarrassing to admit, as it’s a bit clichéd and after all, aren’t we free spirits? But we need to remember that these are the aspirations we are encouraged to have. Marketers and the media know us inside out. They know what makes us click.
For years, thought leaders and politicians have repeated that the satisfaction of our individual desires should be our ultimate aspiration and that it was all down to us. With discipline and the will to tame our minds, we could achieve greatness. The sky was the limit. We deserved to have all we desired.
Trends in the self-help industry created the belief that you could attract what you wanted into your life by simply wishing for it and shoving aside any negative thoughts. That positive thinking was the path to happiness. By repeating that you were joyful, you would become joyful.
But what happened when one fell off the bandwagon? Disappointment, frustration, perhaps even a sense of shame?
And what about the fact that the poorest countries ranked as the happiest while the wealthiest lagged at the bottom of the scale?
Where did we go wrong?
- First, it seems we were encouraged to think of happiness as an individual pursuit, setting aside our contribution to society and our need to be part of a community.
- Second, we were pushed to consider happiness to be dependent on acquiring goods and power.
- Third, we were fed images of what happiness should be – a constant, standard, picture-perfect state of bliss – it was all or nothing.
- Fourth, we were told the sky was the limit, leading us to unrealistic expectations and assured failure.
- And finally, the assumption was that we should pursue happiness; identify what we lacked and focus on the future, rather than live in the moment.
True happiness is […] to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca
But times are changing and this messaging has taken its toll on us. We are increasingly yearning for healthier lives, trying to reduce our anxiety levels and to feel we are contributing to society.
Millennials are hearing from their “picture-perfect” social media icons that they are deeply unhappy, that their lives are staged. The Internet is increasing our ability to make our voices heard and to be of service. And research efforts are finally being spent on finding ways to gain awareness of how we best function and how to increase our levels of wellbeing.
It’s time to define what happiness means to us.“True happiness is...to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.”- Seneca Click To Tweet
I recently read an interview, which I found very interesting, as it brings a fresh perspective on our understanding of happiness. Vanessa Van Edwards, the founder of ScienceofPeople.com, carried out a study on over 15,000 respondents across ages and genders. She observed that the least content group saw happiness as the byproduct of an action, while the happiest thought of happiness as a skill – and built joy into their daily lives.
Van Edwards defined happiness as a daily practice and explained that we invest too much energy in reaching for big goals, all the while neglecting the small things, which increase our positive emotions much more significantly.
She recommended investing energy in three areas:
- Capability: using more of our skills in new and different ways (e.g. preparing a delicious breakfast, responding to an email in a structured and conscientious way, etc.) The happiest respondents to Van Edwards’ survey had anchors throughout the day, which made them think: “I’m good at this”. She applied this system within her own company by encouraging team members to craft their jobs. She asked her employees to select their favourite activities and redistributed work accordingly, with great results.
- Hope: it can be as simple as having a learning bucket list, thereby creating a horizon of opportunities for oneself. Again, Van Edwards tested this on her team, creating a much appreciated opportunity for growth and advancement.
- Awe: creating anticipation (thinking about watching your favourite movie will apparently increase your endorphins by 27%). Remember the childhood excitement of knowing your favourite TV show was coming up on a Saturday evening; the anticipation you felt when your mother told you what you’d be having for lunch; the first time you noticed that amazing view on the way home…
This is a great reminder that happiness is accessible to most of us (unfortunately less so for people suffering from some of life’s more severe afflictions). It does require proactivity most of the time, but the process is utterly satisfying and simple. If we are mindful that our big goals only represent a fraction of what makes us happy, then we can remember to enjoy the quest and remain present in the moment.
I would simply add contribution and compassion to Van Edwards’ list. Dolly Parton once said “If you see someone without a smile, give them yours.” – a simple gesture, which can bring so much joy to both parties!
Is there anything you could do today to make someone smile?
“If you see someone without a smile, give them yours.”
– Dolly Parton
I’d love to hear from you!
Please use the comments section below or email me at charlotte(at)astoryworthliving.com to share your thoughts.
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