I’m sure many of us care about how we will look back on our lives on our deathbed, but the value of our lives comes from the experiences of pleasure and purpose over our lifetimes and not from a judgement we might make at an arbitrarily chosen moment in time.
Most of us want to avoid depression and to be happy. Happiness is something that we pursue with varying degrees of intensity. There are even greater variations in the success that we have in pursuing this Holy Grail of the emotional world. Much of the time we do not even seem to be aware of what we mean by happiness, and seem to have even less idea of how we might possess it.
There is a huge published literature available on depression, and books on happiness are appearing in ever-increasing numbers. Although there seems to be a great deal of variability in their quality and focus, ranging from short self-help books, to scholarly tomes outlining the latest research, they do seem to share some common themes.
The good news about this increasing volume of writing, is that the focus is moving away from happiness as something to be searched for, and found outside of ourselves, to the view that happiness is more dependent on an inner state of mind. A dawning realisation that it is much more about the way we see ourselves in relationship to the wider world, than something that mere money, or possessions, can provide
This has meant that in the past, the search for happiness has been misdirected, instead of looking at our inner world, the materialistic society in which we live has encouraged us to seek outside of ourselves, for the things that might make us happy.
There is an increasing awareness that we need to find our own personal sense of happiness. This will lie within each one of us, and is a reflection of our lives and our experiences. One person’s happiness might well be another person’s idea of hell.
Happiness is not just down to one thing.
There is an interplay between several factors. The degree to which these combine, and act together, will vary from one person to another. Our personal sense of happiness is something that we can influence, deliberately, and by design, through focussing on developing more of some elements and reducing the impact of others.
A life that is lived with an inner sense of happiness as its focus will be much more fulfilling than one that is spent searching for something outside of ourselves to make us happy.
Too often we seem to confuse happiness with excitement. A new car, or some other possession, might be credited with making us happy, but only for the moment as it will soon be replaced by a newer model, or will lose its shine. It is like Christmas Day or our birthday, when we all enjoy the fun and thrill of giving and receiving presents and unwrapping them. This thrill cannot, of itself, make us happy, but it can contribute to our general levels of happiness by providing enjoyable, and enduring memories to look back on.
Happiness is a positive state, by which I mean that it is due to the occurrence of certain emotional states and conditions, and is not due to the lack of others. The absence of depression does not equate with happiness, and the lack of happiness does not equate with depression. They are not the opposites of each other, although being depressed does remove many of the mental states required to feel happy. Both states interact with the other.
There are active steps that we can take, that will lead to happiness, these same steps can reduce, or even eliminate depressive thinking and lead to a “happier” lifestyle. This involve setting up the conditions in which happiness is more likely to be generated, and reducing the opposite situation.
Paul Dolan, writing in his book, Happiness by Design, taking an economist’s view of the subject, describes the state of happiness as arising from a balance between pleasure and purpose, over time. He emphasises taking the long-term view, where short-term negative experience may be worth the long-term benefits.
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, writing in his book, Flourish, describes five factors as being needed for a human to be able to flourish and so reach their full potential in life.
Many of these factors are described, under differing names, by many others in the field. Seligman uses the acronym PERMA, which stands for the five factors of Purpose, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment to summarise the elements that his research suggests are necessary for human happiness or flourishing. They are also seen in descriptions of those living in so-called “Blue Zones”, as some of the key factors that long-lived human populations seem to have in common.
All of these things can be changed to a greater or lesser degree. We need to balance out both the immediate, and longer term, positive and negative effects of the things that we choose to do, and in this way we can maximise our happiness over time.
A blinding hangover might be the price we pay for a great night, spent talking with our oldest friend, it may not be something that adds to our immediate feelings of happiness the next morning, but may well be a price worth paying, if it adds to our overall level of life satisfaction, through the happy memories we might recall, from time to time, in later years, about a night in good company.
As a personal state of mind, it is up to each of us to find our own particular brand of happiness. The necessary ingredients for this lie within ourselves, and are not to be found externally. External and internal events can both contribute to changes in our inner mental states, however, it is these mental states that matter where happiness is concerned, and not the particular events that lead to their being present.
Events do become important however, in helping us to manage our mental states. Through monitoring our mood and the events that accompany it we are able to set up the right conditions to generate greater happiness for ourselves. This might be through exposing ourselves to similar, positive emotional events in our daily lives, or through reliving them in our memories, and taking the opportunity to feel gratitude for the experience and company involved. Gratitude is one of the emotional states that helps to generate happiness in people.
A gift from a friend may only last a short time, but the thought that went into choosing it can have a much longer lasting effect, one that can help to lift us up when we are feeling low, both through remembering how we felt when we were given the present, as well as through feeling appreciation for the person who gave us the gift. .
So what are the elements that we should be trying to create to improve our general levels of happiness?
- Purpose. We can work to set ourselves clear goals in life. Making clear and specific plans to help these goals become a reality. It might be one of those things that we feel is a bit silly, but the research shows that happy people have clear goals and targets, and have drawn up plans to help to reach them. Purpose is an personal experience, and what generates a feeling of purpose in one person might have the exact opposite effect on another.
- Living a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, sleep, and good health all contribute to being happy. Sleep is something that seems to be neglected in the modern lifestyle, and lack of sufficient sleep contributes to depression.
- Having a positive outlook. The happy person thinks about the world, other people, and themselves, differently to the unhappy one.They see the positives in situations, and tend to believe that they have the power to influence their lives for the better, and not to accept the blame when things that go wrong. Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, may be of help here.
- Relationships. Humans are a social species, and we need contact with other people to be truly happy. Positive relationships are vital, and taking care of them is important. If we are in relationships that are not working, it may be better for our personal happiness, to take the short-term unhappiness that ending them might cause for the longer term gains. Otherwise we should look after our relationships to make them stronger.
- Personal strengths. We all have strengths that help make us who we are. In the current world too much focus seems to be paid to what is wrong, rather than on what is right. Concentrating on what is good about ourselves is more constructive that tearing ourselves down for imagined failings. Build on what we are good of, and find ways to use our strengths more and more in our daily lives.
- Mindfulness. Living in the here and now is very beneficial fo human happiness. When we live in the past and worry about the things we did not do, that is a recipe for depression, while worrying about the future can generate anxiety. Mindful awareness can help us to catch our negative thoughts, helping us to set up better mental conditions for being happy. Improving our ability to take a realistic view of what is occurring. Taking a moment to come back to the present, perhaps through taking a few deep, slow, breaths, helps us to see the situation in a more realistic light and allows us to respond appropriately to what is happening
Being truly happy, is about making the most of our current situation, acting to improve the conditions that we can, in order to be happier and to minimise the impact of negative events on our lives. Although there are many things that we cannot control, or which are dependent on other people in order to bring about change in our circumstances, our happiness depends on how we choose to live in our world.;