Making Yourself (And Keeping Yourself) Happy

Making Yourself (And Keeping Yourself) Happy

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. - Thomas Jefferson

Only, happiness isn't a pursuit. 

***

The Pursuit of Happyness

When I saw this movie in the theater, I immediately hated it and never wanted to see it again, despite the undeniable emotional grip of the film.

I hated it because in so many ways, it reminded me of my work-life at the time, which was a non-stop frenzy of chasing details, documents, deadlines, and people. It was working 50+ hour weeks organizing multi-day events, managing people, and planning logistics. I went from one quest to another to another with bouts of exhaustion-fueled illness in between. I did it because I was reaching for a better career. And I did it at great personal sacrifice to my social life, health, and oddly, my happiness. Watching Will Smith frantically leap over hurdles with bags under his eyes and worn emotions was like watching myself. I hated that movie. 

***

What is happiness?

Let me first tell you what happiness is not. 

Despite the popularity of Thomas Jefferson's quote and the success of the movie, happiness is not a pursuit nor is it a quest. 

If it were, Happy would be the equivalent of a felon-on-the-run and you'd be a bounty hunter chasing, tracking, and trying to catch up to Happy, who's a few steps ahead of you in a perpetual attempt to elude captivity. The energy is takes to pursue happiness is draining, but even worse, it's unnecessary because the key to experiencing happiness is by choosing it moment by moment.

Psychologist Ed Diener, leading researcher in positive psychology, describes a measurable aspect of happiness as having more positive emotions than negative emotions. Mathematically speaking, it's possible to be moderately happy by simply allowing good feelings to outweigh bad feelings by 51%; 60% to be on the safe side.

Although happiness means something different to each of us, it's universally internal (unaffected by external factors like an abundance of money or material things), and as Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky discovered by analyzing studies, 50% set by our genes (our biological temperament), 10% by life circumstances beyond our control, and 40% by our own actions, as PBS article "What is Happiness" explains. 

Your happiness is 40% set by your own actions.

That's huge.

Why do we want it?

Happiness undoubtedly affects our relationships, a major one being the relationship we have with ourselves. Happiness is also a sign of good mental health. This positive emotion colors our perception, it informs our decisions, and influences how we move about the world.

Happiness is desirable because it influences our overall well-being and success.

How do we make ourselves more happy?

How do we make ourselves more happy? By being fully present one moment at a time. 

It can be a sip of a good cup of coffee that brings you happiness, or hiking a trail, or noticing a curl that lays perfectly, or feeling adrenaline from a new experience, or soaking in the perfection of a chilly football Sunday made whole with chips and dip.

Happiness can be talking to a friend, eating a slice of pizza, or the heat finally kicking in on your drive to work on a wintry morning.

It's the sweetness of everyday things. It's the excitement of new things. It's the hope for the things you hope for. It's the thrill of adventure--adventure being anything from a roller-coaster ride to shopping at Target. 

Decision after decision, we are granted a legion of opportunities to stack up happiness.

We make ourselves happy by being present in the moment and recognizing the joy of that moment, instead of taking it for granted.

How do we keep ourselves happy?

Happiness can be continuously achieved by first understanding and respecting your base level. Everyone isn't the flashing neon-light brand of happy. Some of us are the moderate, more laid-back happy. It's not necessary to aspire to either, but to recognize where you are on the happy spectrum and cultivate it. 

None of this is to say that we should be so focused on harvesting happiness that we can't feel any other emotion. Happiness isn't the absence of emotional suffering.

As PBS notes, "While most pop psychology emphasizes positive thinking and affirmations, experiencing negative emotions (rather than trying to get rid of them) actually has a significant impact on lasting happiness."

Going through pain ultimately leads to sustained happiness.

I can only guess that suppressing negative emotions can have delayed negative consequences. It's true in my life that if I allow myself to get as angry or sad as I want, the likelihood of my getting over a situation is higher than if I try to ignore the discomfort of experiencing negative feelings.

Gratitude also plays a key role in happiness because without it, you may very well miss the miracle of an egg sandwich or a loud uncle. 

Making a habit of finding things to be grateful for is, in my mind, the same thing as finding reasons to smile. Which is the same as finding ways to make yourself and keep yourself happy.

 

Photo credit: Zuhair A. Al-Traifi