“Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”–Aristotle
By Dave Hood
Many of the great philosophers have attempted to answer the question: What makes people happy?
World religions, such as Christianity, have attempted to explain what makes people happy and how to live a happy life through faith, the belief in God, by reading scripture, by living life according to the moral code, and by the religious doctrine imposed by the church.
The philosophy of Buddhism preaches to its followers how to live a peaceful and blissful life–which ultimately leads to “nirvana.” The Dali Lama has written a bestselling book, “The Art of Happiness”, which explains how to find happiness as you journey’s through life. It begins by embracing Buddhism.
In recent years, psychology has developed a new field of study called positive psychology, which focuses on the science of happiness. Significant research has been conducted in this area, and many excellent books have been written. The eminent psychologist, Martin Seligman, wrote “Authentic Happiness” and “Learned Optimism”, two popular books that explain how we can improve the level of happiness in our lives happiness in our lives.
So how do we make ourselves happy? And if we are already happy, how do we make ourselves happier? In this article, I’ll provide a definition of happiness. I’ll also explain what determines our level of happiness. I’ll also describe the three paths to happiness, as suggested by Seligman. And I’ll identify eight steps you can take to improve your level of happiness in your life.
Definition of Happiness
What is happiness? Ask different people to define happiness, and they will provide you with many different definitions. Many people don’t really know what makes them happy. They just live in a state of automatism with the automatic pilot switch turned on. They cruise along the highway of life never thinking about what makes them happy. They never ask what is the meaning and purpose of their lives. They don’t savour life’s pleasures, they are not socially connected, their lives have no deep meaning.
Most positive psychologists define happiness as “subjective-well being.” Happiness is a subjective state, defined by the individual. It is a personal choice. It includes all the pleasant and positive emotions, such as affection, joy, gratitude, that we experience in a happy state.
Most positive psychologists will also tell you that real happiness is more than just a pleasant emotional state. There is also a cognitive or thinking component to subjective well-being. The happy person is contented with his/her life. The happy person also has meaning and purpose in his/her life. And the happy person thinks they are living the way that is right for them. This is called “life satisfaction.”
So, real happiness is a subjective state in which the person feels pleasant emotions, such as joy or gratitude, and it is a cognitive state in which the person thinks they are living a satisfied life, one with meaning and purpose.
A variety of circumstances and events make us happy: falling in love, earning a promotion or pay increase at work, watching an entertaining baseball game, taking a walk on the beach, winning the lottery.
In part, a person’s well-being is related to their external circumstances. People who are working and have a certain level of material wealth tend to be much happier than the homeless guy living under a bridge. People who are healthy tend to be happier than those suffering from cancer or other disease. But a person’s well-being is also dependent on how the person thinks and feels about their living conditions. For instance, some people are happy living in poverty. Some people who are suffering from debilitating illness or disease are happier than healthy people. Why is this so?
What determines our level of happiness?
Positive psychologists, such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, have determined what factors create our happiness. They’ve created the “Happiness Set Point” Theory. It states that three factors determine a person’s happiness: 50% of our happiness is genetically determined; 10% of our happiness is externally determined by social conditions such as feeling connected to society and economic conditions such as earning a living; 40% is determined by how we think and feel about ourselves and our lives.
The theory suggests that we tend to gravitate to a predetermined level of happiness, one that is genetically predetermined. And so, some people have a predisposition to be happier than others, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the person is born an extrovert or thinks more optimistically. Perhaps the person is blessed with an artistic talent to learn to play the guitar, to sing, to write, to think creatively.
But this Happiness Set-Point Theory also suggests that we can change our level of happiness, we can improve it, increase it, make our lives happier, when we make the decision to become happier, and then take responsibility for increasing the level of happiness in our lives.
The Three Paths to Happiness
In his book “Authentic Happiness”, well-respected psychologist, Martin Seligman, has identified three paths to happiness: the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life. He suggests that the happiest people lead lives filled pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
The Path of the Pleasant Life
There is no question that we can find happiness through pleasure, such as buying a new car or bigger home, purchasing a new pair of jeans or getting a massage, taking a summer vacation to the cottage or a trip to some faraway exotic destination.
The person who walks the path of the pleasant life seeks enjoyment of sensory pleasures, such as food, sex, rock music, drugs, alcohol, a joyride on a roller coasters, hot showers the kinds of things that make you go, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
Pleasure as a path to happiness is often associated with the hedonist, a person who lives by the maxim “seek pleasure and avoid pain.” This type of person focuses on enjoying the present, often recklessly, and ignoring the future consequences of their actions. This type of person often lives on the hedonic treadmill.
The Hedonic Treadmill
When people seek happiness through instant gratification and pleasure, they often become like rats on a treadmill, constantly chasing an exciting relationship, big paycheque at work, trip to an exotic destination, purchase of a bigger car, or an intense thrill in their leisure time, like smoking weed. They thrive on constant novelty and thrill seeking.
For a short time, these people feel pleasure from the new thing or new activity or new person. But the pleasure is short lived. With the passage of time, this “emotional high” dims, the sense of happiness evaporates. And so the person who seeks happiness through hedonic pleasure must find and chase a new type of pleasure on the hedonic treadmill. This type of person is never satisfied, contented, or happy.
According to Seligman, hedonic happiness is fleeting. It doesn’t last for a lifetime. So the person must find ways to sustain the pleasure. He suggests that do the following:
• Savour the moment. Reflect on the joy. Reminisce the moment. Share the pleasure with others. Pay attention and sharpen your perception. Take a mental picture.
• Be mindful of the context of your experience. Live in the present moment. Focus on the here and now. Practice meditation to increase your mindfulness.
• Space your pleasures. This will counteract the effects of habituation that reduces pleasure. In other words, seek pleasure on a regular basis. You might find something pleasant to do each week, like reading a book, taking a walk, having sex.
The Path of the Engaged Life
Seligman has defined a second level of happiness. He refers to it as the “engaged life.” When a person follows this path, he/she feels challenged and connected to different aspects of life. Work is meaningful. The person has strong social supports, such as a close circle of friends. The person has a loving relationship with a significant other. The person has a spiritual connection to a particular faith, religion, belief in God or supreme power.
The person engages in leisure pursuits that result in a state of flow, a feeling of timelessness, in which the person is so immersed in the leisure activity, that he/she loses all sense of the passage of time. The person spends time at leisure pursuits that result in a “flow” experience, such as reading, writing, carrying on an interesting conversation, taking photographs, learning to play a musical instrument, competing in a sport like tennis or baseball or hockey or football.
The Path of the Meaningful Life
When the person follows this path to happiness, he/she is able to transcend themselves. The person has the ability to look outside themselves and be concerned with the well-being of others, the world outside themselves. The person is compassionate and empathetic. The person is often altruistic, seeking the greater good. The person seeks to solve the social problems in their community, society, or the world. The person is committed to a cause that it bigger than whose demands and pressures of their own personal life.
How does a person find the meaningful life? The person often engages in volunteer work, teaching, mentoring. The person is often charitable, helping those who are less fortunate, in need of the basic food, shelter, and clothing.
According to Seligman, the person who lives the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life is the most happiest.
I would agree with Seligman’s definition of happiness. I have often felt happiness through pleasurable pursuits, such as sex, taking a trip, buying a new car. But these pleasures of disappeared as time passes. So I’ve had to seek new pleasures.
I have discovered that my sense of happiness is more permanent when I’m engaged in life. When the work I do is not meaningful, I’m often bored and not motivated. When I don’ have a loving relationship with a significant other, I’ve felt alone and discontented and unloved. I’ve experienced the most joy when I’m involved in an interesting conversations about interesting topics, from politics to pop culture. I’m also happiest when engage in a state of flow, reading an interesting poem or short story, writing a personal essay or posting to my blog, snapping a cool photograph with my digital SLR camera and then editing it in Photoshop. I’ve also discovered that I feel happiest when I’m with learning something new, acquiring knowledge. And so I’ve made lifelong learning a personal goal. Finally, I’ve discovered that I’m happiest when I’m socially connected to others, such as friends, family, and people at work, meeting new people.
And sometimes, I’ve felt a deeper meaning, not felt as the I’m living in a nihilistic, existential state, one in which life has no external meaning, devoid of joy, empty of future hope, purpose and meaning. I’ve experienced this deeper meaning when I’ve transcended my own personal concerns, when I’ve moved beyond the needs and wants of my own private life—and connected with the needs or solving the problems of a stranger, a friend, a family member, or society. I’ve discovered that when I help others I feel a deeper meaning and a sense of purpose, as though I’m doing something virtuous. I’ve discovered that when I’m compassionate and empathetic to other’s problems and concerns, I feel happiest, and believe that I am doing something truly meaningful and purposeful in my life.
For these reasons, I believe that Seligman has the correct definition of happiness.
Improving Your Well-being or Happiness
Many people are happy with their lives. But studies have shown that we can make ourselves happier. How can we do this? The article “The New Science of Happiness”, published in Time magazine on January 9th 2005, provides eight steps toward a more satisfying life:
- Before bedtime, count your blessings .You can keep a gratitude journal and write down 5 things in your life for which you are grateful for. You might be grateful for having a job, earning a paycheque, or for being healthy, free of disease, and so forth.
- You should practise random acts of kindness, such as smiling at a stranger, holding open a door, giving the homeless person on the street some of your pocket change.
- Savour life’s fleeing pleasures and joys. In other words, don’t live your life in with the automatic pilot switch turned on as you drive down the highway of life. Instead inhale the delightful smells, take in the delight of the beautiful sunrise. Find delight in a passionate kiss, holding hands, engaging in an interesting conversation with a good friend. Most of all live in the moment. Live in the here and now.
- Learn to forgive others.Studies have shown that it takes more energy to stay angry at another person, than it does to let go of our angry thoughts and feelings. Studies have also shown that when we forgive others, we feel a sense of relief and peacefulness, even acceptance, which can lead to contentment. When we remain angry with others, our anger often eats us up. It creates stress in the mind. We cannot sleep, we focus on seeking revenge. When we forgive others, we let go of the anger, and move on, which allows us to focus our attention and energy on those things in life that make us happier.
- Invest time and energy in friends, family, and seeking and keeping a loving relationship with a significant other. Studies have shown that the happiest people are socially connected with others in a meaningful way. We are closer to being self-actualized when we have strong, loyal, supportive friendships, when we have close family ties, when we are able to share or lives with a soul mate or intimate, warm, positive relationship with another person.
- Take care of your mind and body.Research studies have shown that having more energy makes it easier to change in your life, allows you to enjoy more of life, such as fitness or sports activities or socializing. Research has also shown that when you feel energetic, your self esteem increases. Studies have also shown the regular exercise releases endorphens, a hormone that makes you feel good, and it triggers the body’s relaxation response, so you feel more relaxed. You can take care of your mind and body by getting enough rest and sleep. You can practise moderation—don’t over eat, drink too much alcohol, or smoke too much weed. You can find quiet time each day. You can take time to relax, to decompress.You can nurture the soul by reading meaningful poetry or fiction, or something interesting. You can meditate to relax the body and mind, and to find peace and tranquility.
- Develop strategies for dealing with stress and hardship. You might join a club, an association, or a social support group. You can save money for a rainy day. You can plan for a future catastrophe or setback. You can develop a backup plan. You might find a philosophy of living that is right for you, such as Buddhism. You might discover faith and belief in God, and become a member of a church. You might earn positive self talk and use it, or other coping techniques that are associated with cognitive behavioral therapy You might learn how to problem solving. The strategies you can use to cope with stress, deal with hardship, solve problems are endless. You just need to discover them.
- Express gratitude in different ways. When someone does something nice, you can say, “thank you.” Remember a friend’s birthday—give them a card, a gift, take them out for a beer, wish them a happy birthday. If there’s someone who you owe a debt, pay them back. If you see something that gives you pleasure or joy or a sense of appreciation, tell the person why you liked it and express your appreciation. If you haven’t told a person you love them, tell them. You don’t want to be haunted by an unforeseen death of a person you loved but never told them how much you feel gratitude. You must find ways to reciprocate. You must also find ways to express your gratitude and not expect anything in return.
Becoming happier is a personal choice each of us must make for ourselves. Once you decide to become happier, you must find the happiness that is right for you. You must determine what sorts of people, activities, pleasures, pursuits will make you happier. Then you must take steps to change your life and embrace happiness when it knocks on your door.
To become happier, you need to generate more positive emotions by engaging in pursuits that result in joy, pleasure, gratitude, intimacy, and so forth.
You must make decisions about life that are “right for you.” You must live the life you desire, such as a finding a meaningful job or career, embracing a particular faith and believing in God, finding a significant other to share your life with, engaging in leisure pursuits that challenge and immerse you in a state of “flow”, like reading a good book, playing the piano, or painting a landscape.
You must also live up to the expectations you set for yourself, whether it’s enjoying your leisure time or climbing the corporate ladder.
A sense of purpose is very important to happiness. Each of us must find our own purpose. A purpose helps give your life meaning.
Research has shown that we are happiest when we are growing and developing, when we are learning something new, discovering something delightful, when we are stretching ourselves, climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, trying to self-actualize, become the best we can be.
We are most happiest in the pursuit of happiness, not when we achieve it. For instance, there is more joy in learning how to play the piano than playing something you have already mastered. In other words, we become happier by immersing ourselves in those pursuits and people and activities that challenge us, stretch us, require us to expend energy and talent, mould and shape us into something new. When we choose happiness, our lives become like a work of art.
It is the process of working at achieving the goal, not the achievement of the goal itself . So, if you are writing a memoir, there is more joy and pleasure in writing the story of your life than achieving the end result, which is printing and publishing the memoir.
That is how you live a happy life. You make the choice, discover what makes you happy, and pursue it every day of your life, you work at the process, right up until the end. And then it doesn’t matter, because you don’t really know what will happen after you die. But you’ll know that you’ve lived a worthy life, rich in meaning and purpose, a life filled with happiness.
For additional information the science of happiness, read the following:
- The Happiness Project, a memoir by Gretchen Ruben
- The New Science of Happiness, published in Time Magazine
- Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
- The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama
- Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Dierner
- Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar