What is happy and how do you know you have it?
Are you happy?
If I asked you if you are happy, what would you say? Yes, no, sometimes, never, always? When people are asked what they want for their children, their partners, or their friends, it’s usually, "I just want them to be happy". But what is happiness, and should we be spending so much money, time, and energy in order to attain it? Why are some people happier than others, no matter what they own or what life throws at them? In this article, learn why we are all under pressure to be happy, why we shouldn’t be happy all the time, how struggling to reach happiness is making us all unhappy - and what you can do about it.
What is happiness?
Despite the fact that we are healthier, generally wealthier, and live in a relatively safe world, we are more unhappy than ever. Most of us are lucky enough to have cars, a roof over our heads, food in the cupboard, and clothes to wear. We may even be very near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and doing rewarding work, but statistics show that we are not happy. Anxiety is the biggest mental health problem, and people report being less happy than their parents and grandparents.
People say they want to be happy, they want others to be happy, but is it healthy to think we can be happy all the time? Is that what we should be striving for?
The answer is no. We didn’t evolve to be happy all the time. Our minds didn’t develop in order to tell jokes or make us feel good; it evolved to simply keep us alive. The myth of happiness being our natural state is just that - a myth.
Naturally, we all want to feel happy - it’s nice. But happiness is not just about feeling good - if it were then drug users would be the happiest people on the planet. Continual striving to be happy has its problems because realistically we can’t be happy all of the time, and we shouldn’t try, because striving to be happy can make us unhappy.
When we put pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time, we acutely notice the times when we are not happy, and we think something is wrong with us or that we’re lacking in some way - it’s just another thing to fail at. We compare how happy we are with other people; their grass looks greener than ours, and it becomes another thing to be worse at than our peers.
In this Facebook era, we compare and despair. In Facebook-land everybody is happy - eating a lovely meal, or enjoying a wonderful holiday because we only share nice things and beautiful places. But really, we have no idea what’s going on for other people; they may be smiling and laughing and posting great pictures, but who knows what demons they’re fighting in private, or what their private life is really like.
We have such an amazing imagination that we can even conjure up images of our ideal self and compare ourselves with that - and fail!
According to a Danish psychologist, our obsession with happiness could have a serious dark side. Svend Brinkmann from Aalborg University says forcing ourselves to be happy all the time could leave us emotionally stunted. Happiness simply isn’t the appropriate response for all situations in life. He says:
"I believe our thoughts and emotions should mirror the world. When something bad happens, we should be allowed to have negative thoughts and feelings about it, because that’s how we understand the world".
Why do we think we have to be happy all the time?
We’re all subjected to a pressure to be happy - inspirational posts tell us to think positive, and self-help books tell us we’re all responsible for our happiness and to blame for our sadness. So, we think we must never feel anything less than awesome.
Some people are brought up to feel a duty to be happy, as they’ve been given the gift of life so they must make the most of it. I don’t think making the most of life is being happy all the time; exploring, experiencing, and often enjoying the wide variety of feelings, emotions, and states that we experience as human beings is more like it.
I have a real 'resting bitch face', so when my face isn’t moving I look miserable. I might be miserable or just thinking about my shopping list, but if I had a pound for every time someone said cheer up I’d be rich now.
We pressurise each other to be happy. Our basic human reaction to someone who is unhappy or troubled is to try to help them to be happier. Maybe you have a strong 'rescuer' tendency, or you are a strong 'people pleaser', so you feel other peoples' happiness is your responsibility, and you can get very unhappy around unhappy people.
Should we try to be happier?
There is a theory that we’re all born with our glass half full or half empty. The setpoint for happiness is a psychological term that describes our general level of happiness. Each of us has a different set point—some have a high setpoint, meaning they are mostly happy; some have a low set point, meaning they are mostly less happy; while most fall somewhere in between. Our set point for happiness is based on our genetics and conditioning. While we may have emotional ups and downs throughout our lives, these are temporary.
You’ve probably met people that go through enormous challenges but remain cheerful and genuinely happy, and others that have everything but are still not happy.
This explains why some people living in poverty can be happier and more content with their lives than someone who has won the lottery.
No matter what life throws at us, over time, our happiness bounces back to around the same point.
You can raise that happiness point, but only slightly, and that’s not depressing - that’s just accepting the way you are. You can be happier - but happier at times, not all the time. We can work on being as happy as we can be.
I’m not advocating giving up, throwing in the towel, and wallowing in misery - let’s look for the bright side of life when we can, but accepting that there is a dark side to life too that is healthy, yin and yang, night and day.
It’s good to feel happy. We release nice hormones when we are, and we feel good, but the strong emotions that we sometimes think are negative, that are associated with being anything other than happy, won’t do us any harm unless we get into a struggle with them and get stressed about them.
Brinkmann believes that by desperately trying to be happy all the time when something bad does happen we won’t be able to cope.
Life is not black and white - there are shades in between. Life can’t always be good and happy, so let go of the notion that you always have to be happy, that to be loved you have to be some cheerful, emoji-faced person at all times. Sometimes you can turn up in life and be grumpy, sad, shameful, or guilty, and that’s ok. It’s only when these feelings overwhelm you and are unhelpful that you want to do something about them. You know, if I’m feeling sad, it may be that I’m thinking of relatives I’ve lost, so it’s authentic to feel sad. I don’t want to get stuck in it or get overwhelmed, but I’m feeling sad because I miss them - why would I want to think I don’t want to feel this sadness; why would I force myself to be happy?
And, at the times when I feel shame about things done or haven’t done, it might be helpful to think, "Was I the kind of person I want to be?", "Is there something I want to think about?", "Why did I behave like that?", or "is there any way I can be different so I don’t have to experience this feeling again?". But I don’t want to force myself to be happy about it.
Life is wonderful from time to time, but it’s also tragic. People die in our lives; we lose them. If we have only been accustomed to being allowed to have positive thoughts, then these realities can strike us even more intensely when they happen - and they will happen.
Brinkmann also fears society is getting to a point where people don’t even feel they can discuss their worries and problems with their own friends because they think they need to pretend everything is rosy all the time. And I agree. I think people are fearful of admitting they’re struggling with life, that they’re feeling bad, that they have dark thoughts. We all have dark thoughts, for fear of being judged, of being less than enough because we’re not happy and smiling.
I think there’s sometimes a general opinion that if you’re not happy then you’re not 'achieving' or 'doing it right'. So we all turn up and we pretend that things are better than they are, that we’re happier than we are. But that’s not healthy, because we need to acknowledge the bad things in life. Without the bad things, you’d never appreciate the good, and it’s fine to feel sad, angry, guilty, ashamed, and happy too.
What can you do?
How about answering this - what does happy feel like for you? If I said to you are you happy right now, would you be able to answer? Would there be a 'but' in there; 'Yes, but I’d like to have more money, be thinner, have a different job'?
Don’t put conditions on your happiness, just experience it while it’s here and enjoy it. Maybe you’d like a better job, a bigger house, more money, etc. It’s not to say you can’t be happy at the moment. Research has shown that, after reaching earnings around the £50k mark, you don’t get any happier anyway. And this is not settling, it’s just enjoying the moment.
Happiness is not conditional on the stuff outside us - it’s the stuff inside us; how we feel about ourselves, how we manage our emotions, our lives, knowing our values - these are the important things, so don’t look for external sources of happiness.
Yes, it’s nice to have nice clothes, cars, etc, but it’s only stuff. I love pretty crockery, nice furnishings, going out to eat, going on holiday and buying nice things, but it’s only stuff at the end of the day - trinkets. They don’t make me happy. They may give pleasure, but it is temporary, and when we get used to them the pleasure fades.
It’s not all our fault. We’re encouraged to think that stuff will make us happy by advertisers all the time. Look at them with new eyes. There is a thinking in psychology that one of the basic human fears is that we are not loved or loveable, and the adverts are all about making us feel good enough, loved, and loveable. Spray yourself with Joy perfume and you’ll be able not only afford a ball gown but go swimming in it too, and not worry about the dry cleaning or shrinkage; drive this car and people will admire you, look up to you, respect you and hold you in high esteem - 'what a guy!'; wash your clothes with this soap powder and your kids will be so happy to be wearing a clean white shirt they will love you forever. Why wouldn’t you be happy? But you know it’s all an illusion to make us buy. So if you’re not feeling as happy as you’d like to, then don’t try to stuff the hole with stuff.
Cognitive psychologists have identified a phenomenon they refer to as the Pollyanna Principle. In a nutshell, it means that we process, rehearse, and remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information (although an exception to this would be depressed people who can continually ruminate upon past failures and disappointments). For most of us, the reason that the good old days seem so good is that we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.
These innocent forms of self-deception keep us striving, and they can be motivating. If our past was good and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant, or at least mundane, present.
All of this tells us something about the fleeting nature of happiness. Emotion researchers have long known about something called the 'hedonic treadmill'. We work very hard to reach a goal, anticipating the happiness it will bring. After a brief, great feeling though, we quickly slide back to our baseline, mundane way-of-being and start chasing the next carrot at the end of the stick. Studies of lottery winners and individuals at the top of their fields who seem to 'have it all' bear this out.
So, by all means, have nice stuff, but don’t expect it to make you happy. Look inside. We cultivate happiness, calm contentment, inner peace, and anything else you want. The take-away is to stop trying so hard to be happy, just be whatever you are at any given time, be aware of what helps you to cultivate your happiness, not pleasure, not thrills, but that deep inner happiness and contentment. Don’t be fooled by all the false gods out there promising you happiness. See them for what they are - distraction, trinkets, pretty things, and treat them as such. Enjoy them but don’t strive for them.
Get in touch with your values and what is important to you - what matters. Spend time and energy on these.
According to Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics and a government advisor on how to make the population more contented, most people are wrong about the things that will make them happy anyway. Making simple changes is the key to joy. He advocates five things you can do right now to begin to feel happier;
1. listening to a favourite piece of music
2. spending five more minutes with someone you like
3. going outdoors
4. helping someone else
5. having a new experience
Allow yourself some time to feel unhappy and any of the other range of other emotions that go with unhappiness, because it won’t last. The unhelpful emotions that are making you unhappy, or the situation that’s currently causing you problems will pass - everything does eventually - or you’ll adjust to it and cope with it.
Ask anyone who has been up against it and they’ll say you are much stronger than you think. We underestimate ourselves and our capacity to withstand challenges and setbacks.
So, just to say, be as happy as you can be, be kind to others, and help out when you can, as we know it helps. Don’t aim for 100% happiness, it’s unrealistic and will make you unhappy; it’s just another thing to fail at. Allow yourself to just be you and be in the moment.
If there is any underlying anxiety, or high levels of stress, getting in your way, then how about working with someone to manage those in a more helpful way? Getting out of your own way so that you can get on with the life you really want. Anxiety and stress don’t have to dictate how you live your life - they don’t have to hold you back. You can get over them. I know because I have, and I help clients to do it all the time. You can do this.
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