BY SAKUNI WEERASINGHE
A quick Google search will lead you to dozens of articles suggesting that chasing happiness is a double-edged sword. In the presence of mediating factors like social media, the pursuit of happiness can quickly turn into a competition. Chasing happiness in everyday moments turns into a sprint to “get there” faster.
This happens primarily when happiness is thought of as an end goal. We work tirelessly at jobs we pretty much hate, hang out with people with whom we have to force conversations, and compromise our health trying to achieve that #Instabody because we believe we will find happiness when we have money, connections, and an appearance that gets 10,000 likes.
So what exactly is happiness anyway? Constructing a clear-cut definition of happiness proves to be a difficult task, especially one that is amenable to scientific study. However, positive psychology, a field of study concerned with exploring happiness and its tenets, has explored three distinct elements that capture the essence of happiness. These elements are a pleasant life, a good life, and a meaningful life (1).
- The pleasant life involves experiencing simple pleasures on the daily, such as eating chocolate ice cream, listening to your favourite vinyl record, or playing with your labrador.
- The good life is achieved by utilising our skills and talents and engaging in tasks that enrich our lives. This involves being in a flow state of mind, in which the individual is completely absorbed in what they are engaging in. This could mean being completely absorbed in creating a signature dish if you are a chef, or being fully immersed in solving Sudoku puzzles on a Sunday afternoon.
- The meaningful life entails experiencing a sense of fulfilment by using our skills for a greater purpose, to enrich the lives of others, or to contribute something useful and positive to the world.
It is thus understood that the happiest of people tend to live a full life pursuing all three of these elements. Hence, happiness can be described as “an enduring state of mind consisting of joy, contentment, and other positive emotions, plus the sense that one’s life has meaning and value (2)”. As it turns out, whoever said happiness is a way of life and not a destination is absolutely spot on. Happiness as a state of mind is crucial to our lives, especially when considering it links to both improved mental health as well as physical health. Researchers have long noted that happiness is related to fewer symptoms of psychopathology, such as depression, and hypochondriasis. Self-reports also convey that happy individuals experience fewer unpleasant physical symptoms and report overall good physical health. Research reports suggest that in terms of work, individuals who experience a happy state of mind are more likely to secure job interviews, be more positively evaluated by their superiors, are known to have increased productivity and improved performance, and are less likely to experience burnout. Happiness has also been related to overall social support. These findings prove that chasing happiness on the daily is important for our overall wellbeing; not that we needed proof of this anyway.
When happiness is described as enjoying everyday moments, engaging yourself in things you can become fully absorbed in, and helping you contribute positively to the world, chasing happiness does not sound too bad, does it? Yet, the question of how we can chase happiness in a way that doesn’t make happiness seem like an end goal remains. Let’s take a look at how we could attempt this:
- Savouring moments
Happiness largely relates to the experience of positive emotions such as joy, love, interest, and contentment. They are important as they enable us to think in more open, creative, flexible, integrative, and efficient ways. As our thinking becomes more open and flexible, our actions start to represent them, and in a cyclic manner, this will lead to the sustained experience of happiness. In order to sustain happiness, you can savour moments in your everyday life by : Appreciating and fully engaging in the present moment, Reminiscing and reflecting on positive experiences, Sharing positive experiences with others, Cultivating gratitude, Appreciating yourself.
- Engaging in achieving goals that you find fulfilling
Happiness is not a state you can only achieve by getting to the mountain top. The climb itself ought to bring you happiness and fulfilment. So when you are devising goals for yourself, make sure that the process of achieving them is just as rewarding. You may endure a nine-to-five job that you can manage with your eyes closed just to be able to afford a luxury house in hopes it may bring you happiness. However, you may find a deeper sense of happiness in engaging in a more challenging job that gets you excited to get up on a Monday morning, even if the pay is not as hefty. Happiness comes from being fully engaged and absorbed in what you are passionate about, whether it is a job, hobby, or creative activity.
- Give back
An act of altruism is any unselfish attempt to help others and contribute positively to their wellbeing. This is closely linked with the experience of empathy or a deep understanding of the state of another. As such, helping others and giving back to your community are other means of chasing happiness. Acts of altruism could range from giving a meal to the poor, donating blood, or helping out a stranger at a time of crisis, to something as simple as holding open a door for someone else. Perhaps the best part of giving back is how it initiates a chain reaction, or what psychologists refer to as “reciprocal altruism”.
This refers to the idea that if we help someone, they are likely to return the favour at some point in the future when required. While we may not always be in the receiving end of the favour, we can be assured that they will reciprocate the gesture to someone, at some point in their life.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realise your potential for lasting fulfillment. London: Nicholas Brealey
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others? The role of cognitive and motivational processes in wellbeing. American Psychologist, 56(3), 239-249