When people ask me what I want to be, I say happy. After all, I’ve been looking for happiness my entire life. Soul searching, if you will. In reality, happiness is the most illusory thing human beings have ever sought to find. I believe in it only because I’ve felt it before and have faith I will again, therefore, it is not futile. This, the pursuit of true fulfilment, is lifelong. Happiness is an integral part of being human in which we strive for growth, health, play, integration, autonomy, love, wholeness and meaning. Human beings are quick to adapt to new circumstances- a quality that has helped us survive and thrive. Yet, over time, this means that positive outcomes that initially make us happier soon become our new normal and we return to our old happiness baseline. This is known as the hedonic treadmill. Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously said, “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp. Should you sit down quietly though, it may alight upon you.”
Throughout history, across a wide range of professions, enlightened experts have pondered the meaning of happiness and taken bets on how it may be achieved. Philosophers, religious writers, poets, scientists, psychologists and even politicians have joined the discussion. Psychologists have found it useful to distinguish between two states of short and long term fulfilment. They are known as the hedonic and eudaimonic states. A hedonic state is a transitory state of pleasure, largely based in quick rushes of feel good chemicals to the brain. A eudaimonic state however is one associated with ongoing wellbeing, engagement and contentment. It is based on Aristotle’s notion of The Good Life, however subjective that may be. Scholars have determined that a range of conscious and unconscious, changeable and fixed sets of circumstances shape our outlook. These variables include our genetics and habits, only the latter of which is a productive focus.
Flourishers, people with high and enduring levels of life satisfaction, tend to tick a few common boxes. They are consistent contributors to society and find meaning in this. They believe in social integration and generate opportunities for themselves, striking up conversations whenever possible. They branch out and find ways to relate to people across a range of social groups and in different standings and situations. They accept others for who they are and don’t seek to change them. They accept themselves and allow room for grace and understanding where they have downfalls. They attain mastery over their environment and remain in control, placing themselves firmly in the driver’s seat of their life. They work on developing positive relationships with others and cultivate an air of gratitude. They find purpose in life through personal growth and strive for betterment in ways both subtle and significant. They are mature and honest enough to self critique and embrace constructive feedback from external sources. We can all learn to manage our happiness proactively.
Eckhart Tolle once said, “Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now by facing what is rather than making up stories about it.”
My brother was in one of his more inquisitive moods yesterday and asked me why being happy matters when you could be rich or successful instead. After all, aren’t they the same thing? I’ve come to realise that money, power and influence are mere measures of what you can do. They do not make you. True power lies in the pure satisfaction we can experience just from being and this is because it is unconditional. Conditional happiness relies on other people, pursuits, achievements or material objects- what these have in common is that they can be lost, taken away or surrendered. There is no shortcut when it comes to doing the inner work. Cutting corners can only ever mean cheating yourself.
Research in the field of positive psychology defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions such as joy, interest and pride as well as infrequent but not entirely absent negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety or anger. It is also said to relate to appreciation for life and moments of pleasure. The truth is that happy people are normal people, just like us. They go through a spectrum of emotions and at one point or another will have times they don’t do so well. The human mind is ingenious, a powerhouse. We can train it to work to our advantage and become mentally resilient. Happy people know that they can overcome or work through what stands in their way because they’ve let go of the defeatist mindset many of us hang onto. In doing so, they are free.
To know what happiness is, we must also know what it is not. It’s in that parallel, that distinction, that contradiction, that we come to understand the importance of sustainable and realistic living for better health and overall wellness. Research also suggests that an even keeled-mood is more psychologically healthy than a mood with staggering highs and some lows. It’s a simple law of life- and gravity! What goes up must come down. Another point to consider is this- when asked about what gives their lives meaning, most people don’t mention happiness directly but instead speak of things they believe have that effect on them. A job they enjoy, so it doesn’t feel like work. The partner that’s finally come along after years of waiting and wishing. Such is the journey to happiness- a destination you’ll always be on your way to. Sometimes it’ll feel like you’ve arrived and other times you’ll wonder if you’re on the right plane or even have a ticket. That’s life.
A student in my class said that happiness is what happens when you go to bed on the hottest night of the summer, a night so muggy that you can’t even wear a shirt and you sleep on top of your sheets instead of under them. Although, try to sleep and fail hopelessly is probably more accurate. And then, at some point, late into the night, just a bit before dawn, the heat finally breaks and the night turns cool. When you briefly wake up, you notice that you’re almost chilly and in your groggy half consciousness, you reach over and pull the sheet around you. That flimsy sheet makes it comfortable enough and you drift back off into a deep sleep. It’s that reaching, that gesture. That reflex we have to pull what’s warm, whether it’s something or someone, toward us, just as a baby would in his or her mother’s womb. That feeling we get when we do that, the knowing we’re safe in the world and ready for sleep, that’s happiness.
When I think about happiness, I often forget that it is an incredibly non linear state of being. I can be happy most of the time but not always. That is normal and anything else would be highly unrealistic. Some of you may know this and others of you may not but I was diagnosed a couple of years ago with depression. While I do a lot better nowadays and can appreciate how far I’ve come, it’s still discouraging when I have harder days. The human experience is ever changing and as much as it can feel like upheaval, it is necessary for growth and moving past stages we are no longer in. As I begin to reflect on what constituted my happiness in times past and what it looks like for me now, I think of how my many wants and needs have grown simultaneously more complex and yet simpler.
Leveraging a contemplative mindset will allow you to draw on sources of wisdom in the hope of identifying the necessary building blocks to construct a life that is balanced and serves your values. There are four core spheres in family, career, friendships and faith that have an ongoing influence on how we show up in the world. When we pause to consider this at length, our lives may become enriched and we are better equipped to share this gift with the people we love and lead. What makes work meaningful has nothing to do with its’ kind and everything to do with the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others at the same time.
A highly dimensional and multifaceted look at happiness in relation to the brain’s hemispheres. Glass half full or half empty? Left side: I am not a math test or a scientist. I am not a mathematician or a perfectly linear graph. I am the way you know how to colour inside of the lines and not fall off your bicycle after the second time. I am the reason why you can smile eighteen different smiles, each a different and unique way. The reason you can hold a book in your hands and play baseball for the first time is because of me. I am how you can play with puzzle pieces and remember the name of your babysitter. I am the one that let you win at poker and checkers. I am vocabulary and verbose because I can be. I am analytical and you depend on me to decode sequences and complicated texts. I am how you can exchange a look with someone I am probability and your best bet on learning their name. I am how you get up in the morning and go to sleep too late sometimes. I am seconds and minutes and hours and months and years. I am how you made and came to understand the concept of time. I am how you know it runs out.
Right side: I am not an artist or dancer that is on television. I am the vibration through your fingertips in clinking glasses. I am the reason you smile eighteen different smiles while counting the crayons in your box set. The reason you can yearn for something is because of me. I did it first. I understand the intimacy of it. I am the muse of who you want to be. Every single penny you’ve ever thrown into a fountain, glorious and shimmering, is my body. I am swimming in the ocean for the first time and getting salt up your nose. I am stepping on abandoned snail shells and preferring the green lollipop over the orange. I am the reason you fill a blank page with everything you’ve ever felt. I am the movement in your cheeks and thighs when you race down hills. I am why you are able to be excited on Christmas. I am the reason why you want to travel to Italy and Greece and Australia and Madagascar and Bali. I am how you perceive the world. I am not time. I am how you know you’ll never have enough of it.