On happiness

“If you were to wake up tomorrow and your life was exactly how you wanted it to be, what would be different?”

If you’ve ever been in a graduate counseling program or have been involved in therapy, you’ve probably asked or been asked the “miracle” question. This question, often used to spark discussion about what’s needed to facilitate productive changes, is often met with one of three answers:

  1. The specific, well-thought answer where the client knows exactly what needs to change and is making strides as to how to change it (thank you for making my job easier)
  2. “I don’t know…everything”
  3. “I’d be happy”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “happiness” recently. As a child, you learn that you’re supposed to be “happy.” We chant, “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” get praised for drawing happy faces on people, and are told to “cheer up!” if we start to cry. As you hit puberty and eventually become a full-fledged adult, you realize that the concept of “happiness” is significantly more complicated. Societal expectations impose happiness as the standard (Pharell’s song “Happy” exemplifies this notion), and that anything else is “abnormal” and needs fixing. Most people are uncomfortable with sadness, depression, or apathy and will attempt to avoid it at all possible costs. Instead of trying to understand our or others’ lack of “happiness,” we work on “making it better” and impose our own standards of happiness on others.

Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, suggests that true happiness consists of three concepts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure refers to the physical or emotional sensations, sunny disposition, and overall “positive” mood. Engagement is the act of finding life and energy through work, leisure, socializing, and relationship-building. And meaning? That’s when we use our strengths and abilities to contribute to this world. There’s been research on how contributing to others can greatly impact happiness, and Seligman notes that contributing to others is what makes us feel positive and good about ourselves.

Now, that’s all well and good, but there are some major problems with the way we as a society conceptualize happiness. We think of it as a state that we have to achieve, rather than as an experience. When we think of it as something that must be achieved, it makes it that much more difficult to express and experience symptoms of depression, sadness, apathy, loneliness, anger, fear, and stress. And while these feelings can be difficult to handle, they are human emotions – ones that we will all encounter throughout the course of our lives that we have to cope and deal with.

But despite the normalcy of experiencing emotions other than happiness, I speak for myself when I say that I want to experience happiness and joy on a daily basis. For me, this particular emotion provides me with the motivation and incentive to continue fostering meaning and development. And while I try to tell my clients not to judge their emotions, I do know that happiness feels good. It’s supposed to. Chemicals and all that (but don’t ask me which ones…I scraped by with a C+ in neuropsych. Oops).  There’s also the idea that associates the mere act of trying to be happy with experiencing happiness. The notion of actively seeking happiness and experiencing a happy moment appear to be connected. Go figure – apparently our thoughts can affect our emotions (how very CBT).

This research,  my thoughts on the concept of happiness, and a personal desire to become more “positive” (whatever that means) has led me to participate in a project called 100 happy days. The concept is simple: post a picture of something that makes you happy each day for 100 days on the social media platform of your choice. While there has not been empirical research to support these claims, the website posits that those who finish the project experience more fulfillment and joy in their daily lives and begin to think in a more positive manner. And so far, it seems to be working.

I currently am on day 30 of the project, and have found myself actively looking for tidbits of positivity, even on exhausting, dreary days (or, in today’s case, sick days). I’ve felt myself whining less, smiling more, and feeling lighter. It’s hard to determine whether this is a result of the summertime upswing or if this project is actually working, but maybe it doesn’t need to be questioned. Maybe actually looking for happy moments can give us that sense of accomplishment and joy that we look to achieve on a regular basis.

Now, I can only speak for myself when discussing the project, and nobody else. I don’t claim this project to be a cure for clinical depression or anxiety, and certainly recognize that everyone’s lived experience is unique. But I do believe that we each have the capacity to make changes in our lives – it’s just a matter of working at it. And if you’re really willing to put in the effort, you can become a happier person – whatever that means to you.

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2 thoughts on “On happiness

  1. Enjoyed this post 🙂 The one thing I really had to wrap my head around is that there are not “good” and “bad”. Emotions simply “are”. It goes against everything I was taught to believe as a child- Which was about happiness being desirable and anger being unacceptable. It’s such a pity really. I have such a hard time feeling safe enough to express anger as an adult, as do millions of other people around the world.

    • Exactly! And I think it’s hard to accept that even as adults, particularly as several of these emotions can be unpleasant and we tell ourselves that we “should” be feeling a certain way. It makes it so much harder to express anger, as well as a plethora of other emotions that are not deemed “good.” Glad you liked the post!

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