In Pursuit of Happiness
A few secrets to more smiles in life
Wouldn’t it be amazing if somehow we could capture and bottle the optimism that so many of us feel in those first few moments of the New Year? That sense that we are open to possibility and that we can shape our lives in new and positive ways. For many this initial hopefulness is fairly fleeting as we come back down to earth and ‘real life’ does it’s level best to barge its way back into our consciousness. Old stresses resurface, old habits die hard and exchanging new for old seems like an increasingly distant memory. But maybe focusing on this single point in the year as our only opportunity to rectify the things that make us unhappy with ourselves is actually missing the point. Perhaps identifying the things that make us truly happy and emphasizing them in our lives can help us to achieve an equilibrium that simply makes redundant the magnifying glass we focus on our shortcomings at this time of year.
But what does it mean to be happy? It’s such a small word and it’s so familiar that it’s easy to forget it’s a word of such weighty implications. It goes to the very heart of the matter when we consider the big questions that life asks and of course there is no single answer. The idea of happiness is entirely subjective and though there are common threads which stitch the whole of humanity together such as having positive close personal relationships, feeling safe and secure, having good health, developing a sense of self-determination and an ability to see the positive in ourselves and others, defining ‘happy’ in a personal sense can require a great deal of soul searching.
The reality of happiness is that we probably can’t achieve that feeling all of the time. Indeed, in order to understand what happiness really feels like we have to understand what makes us unhappy. Embracing the fact that life has emotional texture and that set-backs in life are inevitable when considering it in the long-term allows you to take a more pragmatic approach your own happiness. If you allow the difficult times to destabilize you and you become weighed down by the self-pity and drama that these events generate, it is easy to step into the role of victim. Research shows that people who believe themselves to be ‘happy’ tend to have a highly developed sense of perspective and resilience which helps them ‘bounce back’ when things get tough.
If you’re naturally of the ‘glass half empty’ persuasion, it’s likely that you indulge in negative self-talk. This is the kind of talk where we repeatedly tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough in many small ways. ‘I don’t look good in this’, ‘I’m hopeless’, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’, this is the kind of talk that gradually erodes your confidence and your potential to be happy. Yet once you’re aware of yourself doing it, you can change it by monitoring it and then countering it. Ask yourself what the evidence is for what you are thinking. Ask yourself if you could put a more positive spin on things. Ask yourself what you would tell a friend if they said the same thing about themselves. The reality is we are often far too hard on ourselves, so cutting yourself some slack is important. We are all marvelous in our imperfection and it’s what makes us human.
I see happiness on two levels. Firstly, you have that day-to-day happiness that is all about living in the moment and appreciating those many small joys that are built into the fabric of life. A lie in after a long week, fifteen minutes to spend on yourself, the laughter of your children, a really good cup of coffee, the pleasure of reading a good book. Developing your own list of these things is easy once you set out to recognise them. I often work with clients who feel like life is getting on top of them and one exercise I ask them to complete in order to help them identify the positives usually proves to be helpful. Over a week or longer if they wish, I ask them to note down in two columns anything that makes them feel even the smallest feeling of being happy and that they enjoy and anything that causes them to feel upset, angry, irritated or stressed. It’s a simple and straightforward thing to do, but it helps those who feel consumed by naturally pessimistic about their life and their future to understand that we all have pleasure in our lives, no matter how small and that is something to value. It also helps them to work out what it is that has a negative impact on them, so that they can begin to redress the balance and build in more of the positives.
Long-term happiness obviously works in conjunction with this, but inevitably requires some deeper thought. Working out what actually will give you that innate sense of happiness in your life over a period of time is never easy and often people mistake the acquisition of material possessions or wealth as something that will deliver it. Yet all the research points to the opposite. It’s important to feel comfortable and secure, but beyond this the pursuit of ‘stuff’ only ever provides temporary joy and indeed can often lead to feeling unhappy. That driving need to get then next new thing and the inevitable comparisons we make between ourselves and others who we feel have more actually increase the stress and pressure we put on ourselves.
The reality is general happiness tends to flourish in positive environments. And one of the most important elements involved in being able to maintain a level of ‘happy’ is developing resilience in the face the many adversities, both small and large, that life throws at us. One thing is for sure, though each person’s vision of happiness is unique, having good physical and mental health is vital to create the strong foundations necessary for allowing this. Research also suggests we are happiest when we play a significant role in the lives of others and we feel engaged in what we are doing. However, understanding that you alone are the architect of your own happiness and that even though others close to you, are of course a source of that, they are not responsible for it. Your happiness is in your hands.