Most of us want to be happy—and we recognize the power of joy, contentment and overall pleasant emotions as how we want to feel most or all of the time. But many of our assumptions about happiness are actually wrong and we can achieve happiness more successfully by considering it in new ways.
Across cultures and societies, happiness is recognized as a desired state. Since ancient times, people have theorized about happiness, researched happiness and sought happiness. In the U.S. constitution, happiness is identified as a fundamental human right. In addition, according to a study published in the Psychological Bulletin, happiness is one of the most universally recognized human emotions. When we’re interacting with someone from a different culture, happiness is the emotion which is most familiar, and which unites us most powerfully.
The Happiness Paradox
But the paradox of happiness is if you pursue it, you’re less likely to achieve it. Like sand through your fingers at the beach, more fervent pursuit will result in less accomplishment of that joyful feeling. This has been demonstrated through research featured in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Importantly, if you’re pursuing happiness, you’re necessarily focused on what you don’t have—and this can cause frustration, angst or dissatisfaction. In another study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, people who spend more energy seeking happiness tended to feel more time scarcity and pressure—and therefore less contentment. Better than chasing happiness is to focus on gratitude—appreciating all you can in your present circumstance—and to focus on making contributions to others. Generosity focuses you on your connections with the community and all you can offer—and this is also correlated with happiness.
You’ll Have Ups and Downs
A misnomer about happiness is that you can achieve it—like climbing the experience mountain and planting a happiness flag at the peak. But happiness isn’t something you can accomplish as an endgame. It’s not a steady state and it will always ebb and flow. According to research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology comparing over 2,300 people across eight countries, Western cultures tend to believe happiness should be rather constant. This can result in happiness inflation. You’re satisfied, and you adapt to that feeling and want to be even more pleased and so on. But being increasingly happy all the time isn’t realistic. True happiness isn’t a constant condition of euphoria. It will rise and fall, and you’ll experience pain and discontent. This is part of the human condition and you can learn from the down times and appreciate the ups even more in contrast to negative experiences. The concept of post traumatic growth suggests we can develop through trauma, and it’s possible to come through difficult times with positivity and resilience.
You’ll Do It Your Way
One of the barriers we face in reaching for happiness is the comparisons we make, largely because of social media. As you’re scrolling, it’s natural to compare yourself with the idyllic posts from others and assume you’re not as accomplished, successful or happy. But of course, you’re only seeing a curated (and possibly photo-shopped) version of people’s lives. In addition, expectations can get in the way of contentment. Research at UC Berkeley found that even feeling bad about feeling bad can make you feel worse (what a negative spiral!). A better alternative is to take the pressure off and accept you won’t always be happy. In addition, there are multiple ways to live a good life—and yours may be different than what you’re seeing in your Facebook or Instagram feed. In addition, know there is no perfection and you can be satisfied with doing well, rather than in trying to achieve an impossible ideal.
Your Choices Matter—A Lot
Sometimes people believe happiness is something they can finally feel when the conditions are just right—a perfect partner, an ideal job or a beautiful place to live. But we are all empowered to create the conditions for happiness. Every choice we make has assets and liabilities. There’s so much you may love about your husband, but he still has some irritating habits. Or your job taps a lot of your best talents, but doing your expense reports is a total bummer. Remind yourself no situation will be without annoyances. When you make a choice, you’re choosing a set of circumstances and it’s wise to select the best match for you. From there, you can do your best to influence toward your preferences, be tolerant of imperfections in the circumstances and make a different choice if it’s necessary to move on.
According to popular culture, happiness should be easy, and the experience of happiness is relaxing in a beautiful place and eating bon bons. But these are illusions. In reality, the path to joy is frequently very tough. And challenge can be great source of happiness. If things are too easy or too hard, we can become disengaged, but a “just right” amount of stress (called eustress) can be extraordinarily motivating. Solving a really tough problem, stretching for a challenging goal or having to learn something brand new can create pleasure. Hard work can be a very good thing when we feel rewarded and accomplished as a result. Sweating—both literally and figuratively—can be a very good thing.
You’ll Go Far Together
In the cross-cultural study above, one of the reasons Western cultures experienced less happiness when they sought it more aggressively, was because people tended to pursue their goals more individually. In fact, a key to happiness is connections and community. We are hard wired for belonging. Even introverts need a few close relationships on which they can depend. Seek experiences you can share with others. Reach out and support people in your community. Lend your talents to the needs you see around you. When you foster these kinds of connections, you’ll experience greater happiness. The saying is apt, “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.”
Happiness isn’t hard to experience, but misconceptions can get in the way. However, happiness is yours to create. Reduce the pressure you put on yourself. Know your happiness won’t be just like others’ and you don’t need to accomplish perfect or constant conditions of contentment. Remind yourself that the ups and downs are natural and enjoy all the little things, knowing they result in an overall sense of positivity.