Finding Your Happiness
Ah, the Good Life – isn’t that what we all want? From Aristotle to Tony Bennett and nearly everyone in between, we love to talk and daydream about our own personal vision of a happy, fulfilling life.
So, if we spend a lifetime chasing our vision of happiness, it seems wise to spend some time asking ourselves: What makes me happy?
It seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? Deceptively simple, in fact.
There is a mountain of research that says we often look in all the wrong places for our bliss. In other words, the things we think will make us happy… don’t really make us happy for long.
Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “I’ll be so happy when… (fill in the blank).” When I have a fit body, when I make more money, when my spouse leaves town, then I’ll really be happy.
The pursuit of happiness can be easily confused with pursuits of pleasure, security, and success. But a lasting sense of happiness is simply not rooted in these things.
Consider the evidence. The human race has never been more sophisticated, more privileged or more resourceful – or more depressed. All the promotions and fancy cars, plush furniture and sexy spouses, and all the other pleasures we dream about simply don’t produce as much joy as we think they will.
Let’s take money for example, since we find it at the top of so many wish lists… anyone would be happier if a vast fortune dropped in their lap, right?
Well, not for long, it turns out. Harvard professor Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, carefully measured the happiness levels of two distinct groups: new lottery winners and new paraplegics.
Believe it or not, within one year of their life-changing event, tests showed they were equally happy with their lives!
This test and many more scientific studies are telling us that happiness is not really a matter of pleasurable circumstances in life. The beautiful clothes, the chocolate, the living room furniture you always dreamed of… they barely register on the scale of life satisfaction.
So what does make us happier? What are the necessary components of a happy life?
Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology (or “the science of feeling good,” as some call it), says there are three basic kinds of happy life:
- The Pleasant Life, where you generate and receive as much pleasure and positive emotion as you possibly can; pleasure is savored.
- The Good Life, where you experience deep engagement in your work, family and social interactions; time stops for you; you spend a lot of time in flow. This comes from knowing your highest strengths and crafting life to use them as much as you can. (This is why I encourage all my clients to use a strengths assessment tool – it’s critical knowledge for building a richer, happier life. When you know your personal strengths and find new ways to use them, happiness always increases.)
- The Meaningful Life, knowing your strengths and using them in service of something larger than you.
Seligman’s research tells us that the pleasures of life don’t really contribute to life satisfaction unless they are paired with something meaningful or an opportunity to do something you’re good at. (To watch a brief lecture by Dr. Seligman, click here.)
To bring this philosophy to life, think about eating ice cream… now think about eating ice cream with a close friend who had a rough day. Which gives you a deeper sense of happiness?
Studies reveal that the number one predictor of a person’s happiness is close, intimate relationships; it doesn’t matter whether they are romantic relationships, family ties or friendships – as long as they are meaningful.
True happiness has been the personal quest of Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar; his course, “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” has the highest attendance of any course at HarvardUniversity. When I heard his course would be offered online (starting in September and January), I knew I had to register.
For those who can’t make it to Dr. Shahar’s class, here are some tips from the Harvard happiness expert (adapted from his “Six Tips for Happiness”):
1. Give yourself permission to be an imperfect human. Accept all emotions – even fear, sadness and anxiety – as natural.
2. Happiness explodes when pleasure and meaning meet. If your work doesn’t include activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable, create moments throughout the week that provide you with both.
3. Happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind. What we choose to focus on (the full or empty part of the glass) and our interpretation of events (catastrophic failure or learning opportunity) are pivotal moments with a heavy influence on happiness.
4. Simplify! We compromise our happiness by trying to do too much. Cut out the things that don’t bring you pleasure, hold a sense of meaning, or align with your strengths.
5. What we do – or don’t do – with our bodies has a big influence on our minds. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits impact mental health.
6. Express gratitude whenever possible. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile. Keep a gratitude journal by the bed and make an entry each night.
With a little focus, we can make a big impact on our own happiness – and I can’t think of anything more important to focus on.
Margaret Page, founder of Beyond the Page Coaching Ltd., is passionate about helping successful professionals achieve their highest vision of success. With over 30 years as an entrepreneur and business leader, Margaret has helped countless professionals find focus, build efficiency, and eliminate overwhelm. Guided by her personal mission to inspire, encourage and motivate, she empowers people with the resources, tools and understanding they need to achieve extraordinary results in record time. As the head of Etiquette Page Enterprises, Margaret is also a recognized expert in business etiquette and international protocol. As a dynamic trainer, Margaret conducts inspiring programs and private consultations, with customized sessions that address each person’s individual needs. For information about Margaret’s coaching program, or to sign up for her newsletter, “A Page of Insight,” please visit her online.
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