After having spent a long time reflecting over what ‘success’ means to me, I arrived at the conclusion that happiness is an integral part of my own definition of success. Therefore, I thought it made sense for happiness to be the subject of my next post.
Sociologists define happiness as “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life-as-a-whole positively. in other words, how much the person likes the life he or she leads”1.
Aristotle calls happiness the only goal “we always choose for its own sake and never as a means to something else”. In this sense, ‘happiness’ is often our ultimate, unacknowledged goal. Many people pursue love, money, power, and numerous other goals as they believe that they will bring them happiness.
Interestingly, happiness provides numerous advantages in different areas of our lives. This ‘Happiness Advantage‘ makes your brain perform significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence levels, creativity and your energy levels all rise.
“Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed. Which means we can reverse the formula. If we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.” ~ Shawn Achor: The Happy Secret to Better Work (TED Talk)
The happiness advantage goes even further. Those with a happy, optimistic outlook, live on average, 7.5 years longer than those with pessimistic outlooks. To put that in perspective, if we cured cancer tomorrow, it would add about 3-4 years to life expectancy! 2
Here are some of the ideas and thoughts around happiness that I have found interesting, and that I hope you find both interesting, and aid you in living a happier life:
1.) Happiness is closely connected with how we choose to look at things
Two people can experience the same event and feel very different about it. There is no set amount regarding how happy or sad a person must feel as a result of an event. One example to illustrate this is ‘failure’. it can be viewed as a reflection of your own fallibility and limitations, or it can be viewed as a learning opportunity, which is making you a better person than you were before the failure.
Another example is contrasting someone who chooses to focus on the things that he does not have,and someone who is grateful for what they do have. The first feels envy, jealousy and dissatisfaction with their own position. The second person feels happiness, gratitude and satisfaction with their lot in life.
Here’s a quick experiment. It requires you to compare yourself to others – something that is discussed in the next point. First, think of someone who has something that you wish that you had. It could be someone that has inherited great wealth, without having earned it. They may be able to spend their time, however they like, whilst you have to spend your time working to earn money. It could be thinking about someone who is more intelligent, better looking, or more successful than yourself. Most of these things will make you feel dissatisfied with what you currently have.
Now think of someone who is far less fortunate than yourself. Perhaps someone in a developing country, who has to work long hours just to be able to pay for enough food to survive from day to day. If they get ill, or injured, they have no support to help them get through it. They would likely lose their income, and possibly their life. Think of those struck by tragedy. Perhaps fatal illness, or the death of someone close. Perhaps their entire family. Now your perspective on your own position has totally shifted. You likely feel far more grateful for how lucky you really are.
[To tweak – emphisise gratitude more]
2.) Compete and compare yourself against your past yourself, not others.
There will always be people out there who are more ‘successful’ in society’s definition than ourselves. We should not focus on this fact and compare ourselves to others. Instead, we should constantly seek to compete against the person we were yesterday. We should strive to be a better person, wiser, happier, with greater discipline. This will both ensure that we are constantly improving, helping us to be the best that we can be, and we can take satisfaction and happiness from this fact. Personally, one of the things that gives me the greatest satisfaction in life is that I know that I am constantly learning and improving. It gives a feeling that no matter the situation you are currently in, you can improve your situation.
3.) Happiness is a choice
There are aspects of our physiology that are unconscious reactions: reflexes. For example, when our eyes are exposed to different intensities of light, the pupil dilates in darker conditions to let more light through, or contracts to reduce the light entering the eye. We do this unconsciously.
Happiness on the other hand, can be dramatically influenced be our conscious thoughts. Our happiness is not strictly determined by our environment, or the events that occur. We have a choice as to how they affect our happiness. It is easy to forget that unlike with an unconscious reflex action, we have a choice between the stimulus and our reaction (Stimulus –> CHOICE –> Reaction).
4.) We should appreciate that happiness is not constant
Happiness can only be noticed by contrast. If we were at a constant level of happiness, we would no longer feel it. To illustrate this point a comparison between happiness and physical touch is useful. When we first put on clothing, we feel it because our nerve cells detect the change in pressure which is applied to them. After a short while, the pressure being constant, the nerves stop firing. This means that we no longer feel our clothing. Take now as an example. Can you feel your clothing as you read this? Now move slightly. Can you feel the increased sensation as the pressure between your skin and your clothing changes?
Our sense of touch functions through contrast. Our feelings of happiness are similar. If we were at a constant level of happiness, we would not feel it. We would take it for granted. Another body analogy that may help in the appreciation of this fact is our health. When we have good health we take it for granted. It is only when we recover from an illness or injury that we appreciate our good health.
An appreciation of the importance of contrast, has helped me to look on the bright side of moments when I’m less happy. The knowledge that I would not feel the joy in happy times without the contrasting less happy times certainly helps to look at the situation with a more optimistic perspective.
Next time you are feeling unhappy, try to remember that in life we would not appreciate the happy times ones without the unhappy moments.
This single Greek word captures two important points relating to happiness.
Developing a greater understanding of yourself, what makes you happy, and what your values are, are all important steps towards increasing your happiness. For example, understanding what success means to you can help to ensure that you live a life according to what is truly important to you, rather than according to what society encourages you to absorb as ‘success’.
The second point this word helps to capture is that self-control is important. Living a hedonistic life dominated by desires and pursuing pleasure will not lead to long term happiness and satisfaction.
6.) Be present
In the words of Lao Tzu:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi (quite a surname eh?) being in a state of ‘Flow‘ – being completely absorbed and present in an activity – can lead to ‘spontaneous joy’. Each of us has likely experienced such a state, whether it is playing our favourite sport or doing something creative, such as painting.
As a fan of quotes, here are a few of my favourite on happiness:
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope it has provided something of value. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! Please feel free to share blog posts, videos or quotes that have had an impact on your own thoughts on happiness!
If you are interested in the topic of happiness, you will likely be interested in a project that a good friend is leading; ‘Felicidar‘. “Felicidar a compound word between ‘felicidad’ which means happiness, and ‘dar’ which means to give; coming together to mean giving happiness.”
In addition, here is a collection of TED talks on the topic of ‘what makes us happy?‘.
1. p18, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, by Matthew Richard