We all want to be happy. But for many of us, happiness is sometimes a struggle. We often get so caught up in life and living that we lose sight of our happiness, and before we know it, it’s gone and difficult to find. Often, our striving for a better standard of living only reduces our happiness. In fact, research at Princeton University reveals that while our standard of living has increased dramatically, our overall happiness has not increased at all.
The possible reasons for this are many, but I contend that one of the main causes for our happiness deficit have to do with the stress induced on us by societal expectations and definitions of success.
To be clear, when I speak of being “happy,” I am not talking about fleeting feelings of joy we all experience when we buy a new flat screen TV, a new car, a new pair of shoes; or when our team wins the Superbowl; or even when a child is born. Although we often equate these moments with happiness, they are really only transient feelings of joy. And while these transient feelings of joy may be a necessary and beautiful part of life, and may contribute to lasting happiness, the two are not the same.
When I speak of happiness, I am speaking of an enduring sense of peace, contentment, and satisfaction with life and the role one plays in the world. A more simple definition, offered by the field of positive psychology, may be the degree to which a person has more positive emotions than negative ones.
So how do we develop this enduring state? How can we increase our levels of happiness? Here are a few thoughts…
Develop and nurture healthy relationships. Human beings are social animals. Even the most introverted person needs other people to be happy. Healthy relationships with friends and family help us endure difficult times, and make the good times better. Without these supports, we are left to our own resources to deal with hard times and make sense of the world.
Social networks (and I’m talking physical, not Facebook!) provide a sense of belonging, community, and security. Recent research at the University of Minnesota confirms a large body of evidence that the more healthy relationships a person has, the more happy, healthy, and emotionally stable that person is likely to be.
Find meaning in life. Finding meaning in life is about answering the question, “why?” “Why am I here?” “Why does what I do matter?” “Why should I go on?” Answering these question of “why” gives life purpose, a reason to endure, a reason to achieve; indeed, a reason to be happy. The answer to the question of “why” is by necessity deep.
For most of us, it’s not simply to make more money, to buy a bigger house, or to get a better job. These are all shallow answers that may address the immediate concern, and provide us with fleeting joy, but do not address our deeper needs as human beings. To address these needs, and help us find enduring happiness, we typically need to peel the onion and understand what our purpose in this life is. We need to dive deep and explore our deeper motivations and values.
Doing so is a difficult and long process, but a necessary one to break away from what society tells us our purpose should be. The act of simply taking the first steps down the path of self-understanding and beginning the journey to finding meaning and purpose on your life you will result in you becoming a happier person, and that happiness grows the further down the path you go.
Set and work towards value aligned goals. Once you have made the commitment to finding meaning, and have clarified some of your values (and perhaps some strengths as well), you can begin to direct your efforts towards goals that are aligned with goals that are deeply rewarding and fulfilling. You can align your life’s efforts toward work that is meaningful in itself.
You may find that your ideas of success change as you journey down the path of self-reflection, and also your goals. That is normal. Carl Rogers, considered by many to be the founder of Humanistic Psychology, wrote that life is about becoming the person who you truly are. It’s about personal evolution, and evolution never stops. The continual search for meaning and who you really are is in itself a key to enduring happiness.
By working on these three things, you will pave the road to newfound happiness in your life. I use the phrase “working on…” because actually accomplishing these is a lifelong pursuit. But when you are on this path, you will automatically generate a heightened sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. You will also become better at recognizing the difference between those fleeting joys and enduring happiness, and avoid pitfalls that take you away from the path. The journey is the reward in itself.
Photo by Alain Picard, who has loads of awesome images on Flickr