What is happiness? Is it a state of mind? A philosophy? Is it an emotion that we can manage like anger and sadness?
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” ~ Aristotle.
Aristotle helped us understand happiness in two distinct parts:
Hedonia: the feeling of pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction and the absence of stress and distress.
Eudaimonia: a good life based on authenticity, personal growth, while contributing to a purpose larger than oneself.
It turns out Aristotle’s two thousand year-old wisdom still applies today. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, Dr. Martin Seligman has identified three dimensions of a happy life that correlate well with Aristotle’s ideas:
The Pleasant Life (pleasure seeking). Looking for opportunities to maximize feelings of pleasure while minimizing feelings of pain.
The Good Life (engagement). Seeking happiness by using our signature strengths to fulfill our desires by pursuing our passions.
The Meaningful Life (wellbeing). Finding happiness using one’s strengths, abilities, and passions in the pursuit of and service towards a greater good.
While happiness is individual, it is also universal. Happiness has become recognized by the United Nations as a key measure of social progress in the world. The World Happiness Report, which ranks 155 countries by their happiness levels, found that, while the Nordic countries topped the list, the USA plummeted from 3rd place in 2006 to 19th in 2016.
Globally, we are richer than ever before, have greater access to advanced medicine, technology, information, healthy food, and live in a time of unprecedented freedom and opportunities. So why are so many of us still so unhappy?
It seems we stick with jobs we dislike, relationships that are unhealthy, are cynical about our institutions, and burden ourselves with attaining and maintaining ‘stuff’. Basically we’re overextended, underappreciated, have fewer social supports, and feel more uncertain than we have in over a decade. And what’s the typical response to this malaise? We put our heads down, roll up our sleeves, and work harder. That’s a recipe for keeping our happiness at bay.
The good news is we can learn ways to respond to our situations in ways that create and promote our happiness. That’s where Positive Psychology comes into play.
Positive Psychology suggests each of us is born with a ‘set-point’ for happiness. Basically, some of us are naturally wired to be happier than others. While our set points remain relatively constant, evidence suggests they increase or decrease depending upon our interpretation and responses to events. This means that, though our DNA, genes, and personality traits impact how happy we are, we ultimately have some control over our own happiness. But there’s a catch.
Simply wanting to experience more happiness won’t make it so. The happiest people are the ones who take charge of their attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The bottom line is, happy people are highly intentional.
Knowing that the power to create our own happiness resides within each of us is, well, empowering. But before creating new happiness habits it’s critical to first eliminate habits that interfere with happiness.
“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.” ~ Lao Tzu
There are many habits that interfere with our ability to feel happy. The first step to experiencing more happiness is letting these things go:
The idea that life is hard.
If happiness is a choice, so is our belief that life is hard. Life is exactly as hard (or as easy) as we decide. This isn’t about minimizing obstacles or difficult circumstances. It’s about choosing the mantra life is easy.
We live in a cynical world and it can be hard to trust people. But distrusting others impedes our ability to be intimate and form the relationships central to happiness.
Comparing ourselves to others.
When we look at others to determine our own worth we’re biased – we take the worst we believe is true of ourselves, and compare it to the best we imagine in someone else.
Trying to control life.
Things seem to go more smoothly, with much less stress, when we allow a situation to unfold naturally instead of trying to force a result.
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