The happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything.”
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Why do we strive to be happy? Why do most of us think we can — or should — be happier? How much happiness is enough?
What is happiness and where does it come from?
Ask everyone you know and chances are you’ll receive several different answers to “What is happiness?” For most of us, happiness is a positive feeling we strive for on a regular basis. We may describe it as feelings of pleasure, joy, or feeling as though we are living “the good life.” It turns out that most of us use vague adjectives and descriptions when talking about happiness. We have a hard time pinning down this emotion. Psychologist Ed Diener has described happiness as “subjective well-being” or a combination of factors leading to life satisfaction in which people experience more positive than negative emotions.
In a recent study during which participants self-reported their levels of happiness, it was found that those who ranked themselves as quite happy tended to also be emotionally resilient. These were people who were well equipped to manage stress and negative emotions. They tended to have more positive experiences than their peers in general, but they also had better insight into their own strengths and weaknesses and a stronger ability to make the best of both.
Most researchers agree that happiness, while a vague term for positive emotions, is made up of three factors: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. These factors also tend to rely on three sources: genetics, life circumstances, and your own choices. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, pleasure is important, but engagement and meaning are the biggest factors in determining happiness. In addition, the choices you make directly impact your engagement level and feelings of meaning in your life.
According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, we have a great tendency to overestimate the effects of life circumstances on our happiness, often considering it one of the most important aspects of how much we enjoy life and feel happy. However, it turns out that our life circumstances are actually one of the least important factors on life satisfaction. In other words, you could be dirt poor, have an extremely stressful job, live in the worst part of town, but still be incredibly happy. Facing challenges due to life circumstances accounts for about 10% of your life satisfaction. Lyubomirsky attributes 50% of happiness as resulting from genetic makeup, and 40% from your own actions — you have the ability to make choices that directly impact your level of happiness on any given day or in any given moment.
Happiness vs normal unhappiness
Feeling happy does not eliminate suffering. However, experiencing happiness, even only on occasion allows most of us to bear difficulties with greater ease. Feelings of unhappiness, stress, anger, and so on may feel less intense and as if they can be overcome when balanced against prior episodes of positive feelings. Experiences of unhappiness are normal — we all experience them. The key is in how we manage such experiences. For many of us, true happiness is not feeling upbeat, smiling, and positive all of the time. Rather, it means NOT feeling depressed, angry, in despair, or as if life has no meaning — for many of us, happiness is as simple as the absence of all of these negatives.
While many of us tend to strive towards daily happiness, sometimes we confuse feeling happy with simply feeling ok. We also tend to create our own unhappiness through our choices, but then we also often wrongly seek out sources of the negative outside of ourselves. The possibility of feeling happy, or at least satisfied with life, is always there, but moving from despair, anger, or other negative emotional spaces does take patience and the understanding that most of us must go through the negative before we can reach the positive. It also may require understanding that we are largely responsible for creating our own circumstances through the choices that we make and thus we are also responsible for changing those circumstances, again through our own choices. When you feel unhappy or are experiencing other negative emotions, it may be worthwhile to examine if you have created the obstacles that brought you to that negative space, and if so you might be able to tear them down, go through them, or find a way around them.
It is particularly important to differentiate the appearance of happiness from actual happiness. As a society, we tend to project an outward persona of what we believe others want to see — we try to meet unrealistic perceptions about societal expectations. We strive to be, or at least appear, happy all the time. It simply isn’t realistic. Attempting to be 100% happy 100% of the time may actually lead to the opposite. The harder we try to be happy all of the time, the less we are actually likely to achieve lasting life satisfaction and joy.
As mentioned, most of us need to experience unhappiness or negative emotions before we are able to feel happiness or life satisfaction. These negative experiences give us a backdrop against which to judge other emotions and experiences. It is important to note that finding the positive in negative situations does require practice and patience — it is a skill and requires practice. Finding happiness in life is a process of building foundational emotional and mental skills that you may then apply to your next unsatisfactory or negative experience. It is the building of emotional muscle.
Steps to greater happiness or life satisfaction
We tend to be quite bad at estimating those things that will bring us joy in the long-term. We often focus on all the wrong things, maybe achieving a moment of happiness, but overall finding ourselves just as dissatisfied as we were before. We tend to think more money, a new car or home, weight loss, new clothes, and so on will make us all happier. They may result in short-term satisfaction, but often without other supporting shifts in our day-to-day lives, we are left in the same original place of unhappiness. Our expectations change in direct correlation with increases in income and belongings — we get more, we want more. We create our own negative feedback loop in which we end up even less satisfied over time and constantly chasing an elusive goal of happiness through physical things. Instead of focusing on happiness, focus on life satisfaction and try these steps:
Build relationships — Happier people tend to have stronger ties to their family and friends. In fact, this may be the number one action to implement in striving for greater life satisfaction. Feeling connected to others, even if we don’t surround ourselves with others all of the time tends to increase our positive feelings and associations long-term. Having others in our lives gives us a framework for our experiences and helps us to build memories and experiences. That is not to say that you must be an extrovert, surrounded with groups of people, to be happy or satisfied. No, rather you simply need to feel connected and to have strong bonds with others. Even the most introverted of people can cultivate this.
Experiences above things — Money and objects may only bring transient moments of joy that quickly dissipate. Instead of focusing on concrete objects and possessions, shift your focus to experiences and memory making. We live through experiences, not through inanimate objects. This is true of both big and small experiences. Taking a vacation with family and friends builds memories of extraordinary events and places. However, simple daily rituals such as enjoying your morning tea or coffee and appreciating the ability to take time to read the newspaper over breakfast are also important. These small, daily rituals and experiences set the tone for the day and bring us pleasure that may last for hours allowing us to navigate stressful situations throughout the day. It is important to find meaning in both the positive and negative experiences of life. The ability to find meaning in experiences increases resilience, or the ability to weather stressful or other negative emotions and situations, coming out the other side with more positive emotions and thought processes
Set meaningful goals — Building meaning in life is one of the most important tasks in creating life satisfaction or happiness. Meaningful goals are ones that have personal meaning — they are internally fulfilling and are built to meet your own expectations, not the expectations of others. Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar suggests asking yourself three questions:
It is where the answers to these three questions overlap that most of us find purpose and meaning. Focusing on that overlap and setting goals from there help to build goals you are much more likely to strive for and achieve.
Exercise — It is well known that exercise promotes positive feelings both short-term and long-term. Regular exercise not only helps to regulate multiple systems in the body, but it specifically regulates stress the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine while regulating the heart rate. An elevated heart rate is associated with a rise in stress hormones to which the brain and body typically respond by manifesting feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear or anger. Exercise causes a release of endorphins, feel good hormones, that bind to receptors in the brain, effectively reducing or buffering against negative sensations and triggering positive ones instead. In addition, exercise may help some people manage depression and anxiety or to develop skills to help them cope better. Many also find that while exercising, the mind tends to wander and by the end of the exercise session they may have broken free from stress, found a solution to a problem, or their troubles prior to exercise seem less serious afterwards.
Fake it until you become it — The old saying is “fake it until you make it”, but “fake it until you become it” might be more appropriate. Studies have shown that people who smile more often not only are perceived as happier but are actually happier. Practicing smiling, good posture, and other expressions of life satisfaction may, over time, translate to real positive feelings. Not only do they have a physical effect, but they also have a positive effect on the brain. We love THIS post from life coach Amy Wong about standing like Batman to solve problems. We also like THIS TED talk from Amy Cuddy about using body language to shape who you are and how you feel in the world.
Find pleasure in the things you already have — Constantly striving for newer, better, bigger tends to lead to deep feelings of dissatisfaction both in the moment and long-term. Look around your home for things you love and display them prominently. And, take care of the things you have. Don’t love your car? Learn to appreciate it more by taking the time to clean it out and detail it yourself. Appreciate that your car allows you to get from place to place in safety. Want to feel pampered on a regular basis? Pull out the good soap and softest towels — the ones you have tucked away for special company. Use them. Treat yourself as special company.
All of these tips, both large and small, when taken together may help you to achieve greater life satisfaction or feelings of happiness. Just remember, it is normal for even the happiest of people to have negative emotions and experiences. It is how you respond to the negative that impacts your ability to feel and experience the positive.
Happiness over the long-term
Happiness and life-satisfaction are not things you can pick up from the grocery store shelf. If you haven’t experienced them in a while — or ever — it may take time and practice before they begin to manifest in your daily life. Some people are able to achieve them on their own while others need assistance. To learn more about working your way towards greater joy and satisfaction in life, you may want to consider coaching. Coaching may take many different forms, but for most it provides a framework of realistic expectations, goals, and actionable steps with guidance. It also provides accountability, an important part of any goal-setting framework, and a safe place to vent, worry, or express yourself as you work towards your goals.
To learn more about coaching, whether it is towards a happier life or better health, please call Functional Longevity Institute today at (916)550-0567 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Andrea Rosario, DC, DACNB or Dr. Lisa Medel, DC. In addition to practicing functional medicine and functional neurology, we also offer lifestyle and health coaching. We see clients in our Sacramento, California office and over Skype or telephone.