By Dave Hood
“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”~ Martin Seligman, Positive Psychologist
The desire to be happy is what motivates most human action, such as the desire to purchase a BMW automobile, take vacation to slumber poolside in the warmth and sunshine, purchase a lottery ticket or new pair of designer blue jeans, to experience the pleasure of a passionate kiss. Pascal said, “Happiness is the desire of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.” In his bestseller The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama writes: “I believe the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not…we are all seeking something better in life. So, I think the very motion of our lives is toward happiness….”
Happiness is a feeling of contentment or satisfaction. I am not referring to fleeting enjoyable moments or short experiences of pleasure, but an enduring sense of contentment and satisfaction with one’s life. This desire to feel happy is what motivates most people. To be happy is the meaning and purpose of human existence. Most people, don’t say to themselves, ” I am going to do this or that or some other thing so I can be happy.” Instead, the pursuit of happiness is carried out indirectly in one’s quest for pleasure or satisfying experiences.
According to the research in positive psychology, we have control over much of our happiness. To do so, requires us to take steps to enhance our sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Writer and psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness, tells us that only 10% of our happiness is determined by circumstances, such as a having a job we enjoy, experiencing the love of a soul mate, possessing an abundance of money in a bank account and material pleasures such as sports car. Another 50% is genetically determined, inherited, and beyond our control. For instance, the person who has inherited the DNA for schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression will have a more difficult time experiencing satisfaction and pleasure in life than the person who is born with an optimistic personality. Positive psychologists refer to this genetically predetermined level of happiness as our happiness “set point.” The remaining 40% of happiness is in our control. We can choose to do nothing or work at elevating our sense of happiness.
Before we can enhance our level of happiness, we must make a conscious choice to become happier. Neil Pasricha, author of the bestseller, The Happiness Equation, points this out. He writes: ” What’s the first thing you must do to before you can be happy? Be happy. Be happy first.” In other words, you can improve your level of happiness by altering your attitude. The problem is our predisposition to think negatively. We are genetically programmed to think negatively about the future–imagine the worst, worry about what might go wrong, engage in negative self-talk. According to evolutionary psychologists, our pessimistic view of the future is rooted in human evolution. To think negatively is part of our survival instinct, which enables us to be on guard for unknown adversity or hardship. How do we alter our negative attitude?
There are many ways we can begin choosing to be happier. Neil Pasricha shares this wisdom in his book. He writes that the first decision must be to alter our attitudes and decide to work at enhancing our level of happiness–our sense of pleasure and satisfaction. It must be a conscious choice rather than like strolling mindlessly through life, wondering why we are not happy.
One easy step you can take to alter your attitude is to focus on being content with what you have. In other words, be grateful for the blessings you already possess, such as good health, a job that pays your bills, someone who loves you. By focusing on what you already have reduces the desire to always be seeking something new, something different, something more pleasurable, which often results in dissatisfaction. Positive psychologists suggest you establish a gratitude journal. Several times a week, you write down those things you feel grateful for possessing. Each week, I remind myself how beneficial it is to have good health.
Another step you can take (a Buddhist practise) is to live mindfully. Instead of focusing your mind on the unknown future, perhaps worrying or imagining a catastrophe, or focusing on a sad memory from your past, you focus your attention on the here and now. The philosopher Seneca points out that “true happiness is to enjoy the present.”
To live mindfully is not easy. You must train your mind. The best way to train your mind is to practise mindfulness meditation. You can also tune into your senses–the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and feeling. For instance, if you sit down, turn on the stereo, listen to inspirational music, you are living mindfully. But if you sit down, turn on the stereo, begin reading the newspaper, you are not. And so, another way in which you can become mindful is by doing one thing at a time. If you do more than one thing, you are distracting your attention. This is not mindfulness. To be mindful requires you to focus all of your attention on what is unfolding in the here and now.
According to Martin Seligman, the eminent positive psychologist who developed the theory of happiness called “Authentic Happiness” (later revised to Well-being) we can achieve happiness in three ways. First, we can seek pleasurable experiences, such as sexual climax or licking an ice cone or sipping a glass of wine. For many people, the desire to be happy by experiencing pleasure and satisfaction is the meaning and purpose of life. The desire to feel pleasure and experience contentment is also what motivates most people to take action. Sigmund Freud, a leading figure in psychology, argued that we have inherent desire to experience pleasure, and so that is what motivates us.
The problem with seeking the hedonistic life, one that is filled solely with pleasurable pursuits, is that pleasure is fleeting. We experience the pleasure for a short time and then it vanishes, and so we must continuously search for new experiences that inject pleasure into our lives. All pleasurable experiences have a diminishing utility–the more we have of the pleasurable experience, the easier it is to become bored, the less we desire it. Pleasure is also ephemeral—it vanishes. So, we must continuously search for new pleasurable experiences.
The other potential problem with pleasure is that it can inspire excess rather than moderation. For instance, after a long, stressful day at work, a person may begin to crave six or seven bottles of beer rather than refrain and enjoying one or two bottles of brew. After feeling the joy of sex and sexual climax, a person might desire to experience sexual pleasure from as many different beautiful women as possible rather than sharing his desire for sexual pleasure and gratification with one soul mate, perhaps his wife. A person might desire the taste of food and the sense of comfort it provides. Instead of eating in moderation, the person eats himself into obesity and then suffers a heart attack, which lives him handicapped. And so, seeking only pleasurable experiences will fail to generate a lifetime of enduring happiness.
We can seek the engaged life by participating in activities or experiences that create a mental state called “flow” When experiencing a flow activity or task, we become so focused on the task or activity that we lose all track of time. We are no longer self-conscious, focused inwards, worrying about the future or tormented by the past. We are mindful of what we are doing in the present. Time stops when we are in flow. We experience this mental state of flow from rewarding work/career and enjoyable leisure activities, perhaps creative writing or playing a musical instrument or taking street photographs.
Rather than live in isolation, we seek the engaged life by developing friendships. We do this for a variety of reasons, perhaps someone to share in life’s pleasures, someone who provides social support, someone to enjoy good conversation, someone to share a few laughs….
We also seek love. Love is an essential human need, like food and shelter and safety. The majority of humanity desire to be loved and to love. To experience the benefits of love, a person must engage in life, not live in isolation. Furthermore, love will rarely flourish and endure unless we nurture the object of our love. If we desire to be loved by another human being, we must give our time, effort, attention. We must practise the language of love, spending quality time, communicating words of affection, providing physical touch. There must be giving of self and reciprocation. Love withers and dies if their isn’t reciprocation. That’s way so many marriages fail the test of time.
The desire to experience pleasure and flow and love are not the only things that motivates us. Victor Frankl, a doctor and survivor of the Holocaust, believes that we are motivated to seek meaning in life. He states “striving to to find meaning is one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”
According to the research in Positive Psychology, we can improve or level of happiness by creating a life of meaning and purpose. Meaning is often sought by embracing a particular faith. A person reads scripture, prays to a higher power, accepts a set of religious credos, takes a blind leap of faith, because it is nourishes his or her spiritual appetite, diminishes the fear of death, answers questions about the great mysteries of life, such as Does God Exist? or What happens after I die?
We also create meaning and purpose by setting goals and working at achieving them, perhaps to acquire a university degree, write a novel, run a marathon, be successful in a career. Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, stated: “The greatest and most glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.”
I have learned that when I have a purpose or goal, I have a sense of direction, which provides meaning and purpose to my life. So, I regularly establish both short-term and long-term goals and then work at achieving them. For instance, a decade ago, I made the decision to become a creative writer and professional photographer, and then dedicated much of my leisure time to pursuing these dreams. The experiences have been thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding, and enriched my quality of life and feeling of self-worth. I have also learned that the pursuit of the goal and not its achievement is what generates a sense of pleasure and enjoyment.
And so, we can increase our feeling of satisfaction with life, which will enhance our sense of happiness, by shifting our attitude and deciding to be contented with what we already possess. And so, we must count our blessings. As well, we must learn to focus the mind on living mindfully in the present moment. We can also improve our level of life satisfaction well-being by infusing pleasure, flow, love, friendship, meaning and purpose into our lives.
“The key to happiness, writes Positive Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”
- The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.
- The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha
- The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
- Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide by Frederic Lenoir