Everyone wants to be happy. Happiness is an emotion that’s difficult to describe. But generally speaking, it’s a positive mental or emotional state that can range from general contentment to joy. But this doesn’t really explain anything. Everyone’s experience of happiness is different, and what makes them happier is different as well.
That’s why any self-development work that you do to increase your happiness levels has to be tailored to you. There’s absolutely no point in following someone else’s programs, doing what they do, because chances are that it will just make you unhappier than ever. Everyone wants and needs different things in their life to make them happy. That’s why all these programs that promise to hold ‘the secret’ of happiness don’t work. There isn’t a single secret, there is only what works for you.
This truth indicates that finding happiness is a journey. It’s a process of trying things and discarding them, or adding them to your life. You will never be done with this journey either. As you grow and change, what you need in your life will change as well. And committing yourself to this journey is the only way to truly enjoy your life and continue to grow.
What do you need in your life to make you happy? And how can you have more of it in your day to day life?
The Myths about Happiness
Happiness is a simple word, but a complicated concept. Everyone knows what it feels like, and yet there are a lot of wrong ideas out there about it. The trouble with these myths is that they impede your happiness now. They make you feel as if you can’t be happy if you don’t meet certain criteria, or have certain things.
These myths need to be removed from your thinking. As Abraham Lincoln claimed “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” As this quote indicates, happiness is often a choice, so you shouldn’t let preconceived ideas of what happiness is or isn’t get in your way.
Some of the most common myths about happiness include:
“I can only be happy when I’m in a relationship.”
Everyone knows someone who believes this, who moves from one relationship to another because they aren’t happy alone. Unfortunately, research shows that the happiness boost that accompanies marriage only lasts about two years. And at this point, people who believe that the ‘right’ relationship will make them happy, end up divorced because they believe the dip in their happiness levels means that they’re in the wrong relationship.
“I’ll be happy when…”
You can put anything at the end of this sentence. You’ll be happy when you get that job, that car, take that holiday, or find that perfect relationship. A lot of people seem to be waiting for something to happen to make them happy. But the truth is that the happiness that does come from these changes doesn’t last. This is called hedonic adaptation. This natural process makes us return to our previous levels of happiness after a life change. So when you get that big promotion, you’ll be happy for a while, but then you’ll find yourself back to the same level of happiness you were at before you got promoted. And if you weren’t happy before, this can be devastating and leave you scrambling for the next thing to make you happy.
You can’t have it all
Happiness is a varied thing and there are many different types of happiness. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to have all the different types of happiness at once. In fact, some types of happiness may actually prevent you from knowing other types. For example, if you’re in a relationship you’re probably not enjoying the happiness of partying and taking last minute trips. To keep the happiness of your happy relationship, you need to give up some other types of happiness.
The Chemicals of Happiness
Everything that happens in your body is the result of chemical processes and hormones. Happiness is no different. There are four chemicals involved when you feel happy: dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin. Each of these chemicals plays a different role in happiness, which means that if you’re feeling down there are things you can do to improve your mood. Stimulate your happiness chemicals with the following ideas:
Dopamine is associated with anticipation. It’s responsible for the feeling you get when you’re striving for something you really want. It’s also strongly linked to the reward center of your brain, so when you achieve something you’ve been working towards you get a hit of dopamine. You can stimulate this part of the brain by setting goals and working towards them. Volunteering to help others in some way can also give your brain a dopamine boost.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, so if you’re in a good or bad mood, it’s probably because of your serotonin levels. Strangely enough, eighty percent of your body’s serotonin levels are in your stomach, which may explain why people get so angry when they’re hungry. You can stimulate your serotonin levels through exposure to sunlight, exercise, positive thinking, or through certain foods.
Endorphins are strongly associated with the fight or flight impulse and there’s a good reason for this. They help to mask bad feelings or pain so you can escape or fight when you’re injured. The easiest way to increase your endorphin levels is to do some exercise. In fact, studies show that moderate amounts of exercise every day can significantly improve the moods of clinically depressed subjects, so this strategy is extremely effective.
Oxytocin helps you bond to others. It’s that warm, connected feeling you get when someone you love hugs you or holds your hand. Unfortunately, it’s also the basis for certain drugs which simulate the intense high that oxytocin can give naturally. This chemical also stimulates dopamine and serotonin, which makes it particularly potent in improving happiness levels. It’s relatively easy to stimulate the release of this hormone. Just give someone you love a hug, stroke a pet, or otherwise cultivate warm and loving relationships in your life. Oxytocin is the king of happiness hormones, and if you’re generally unhappy in your life than you should look at your relationships first.
The Science of Happiness
There’s a lot of research on happiness and on what makes people happy. But one of the earliest and most profound modern researchers on the topic was Abraham Maslow. Before his work, psychology mostly focused on illness and pathology, but he focused more on improving everyday life. His work posited what is known today as the hierarchy of needs, the essential elements of health and happiness. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are:
- Physiological needs: food, shelter, sex, and water. If these needs aren’t met the body dies.
- Safety: This includes physical, mental and financial safety. You need to feel safe within yourself and in every aspect of your life to have this need fulfilled.
- Belonging: As social creatures, human beings can’t survive without belonging in some way.
- Esteem: If you have esteem, you feel as if you’re worth something, both in your eyes and in the eyes of the people around you.
- Self-actualization: This is the final need and only becomes important once the others are met. This is the need to be better, to learn and improve and reach your potential.
From this work comes much of the research on happiness and self-help today. Basically, this theory claims that happiness is only possible when these needs are met. So if you’re doing self-development work on happiness, it’s worth considering how you’re meeting these needs in your life and whether some levels could use some work before you start with more advanced techniques.
What do You Really Need?
There are lots of different theories about what people really need to be happy. None of them are as conclusive or as authoritative as a recent study performed by Harvard University. This study followed a huge group of subjects over 80 years of their life, measuring their happiness levels and their general satisfaction with life. The results of the study were astounding. They showed that close relationships were by far the most important predictor of happiness, helping participants avoid mental and physical problems. In fact, the number of close relationships a participant had was a better predictor of happiness than any other factor, including genetics, income and intelligence. This has important implications for your self-development work, and for human kind as a whole. If you want to be happy, you need to cultivate happy relationships first and always.
The Argument Against Happiness
Our society is obsessed with happiness these days, and yet there is evidence that people as a whole are becoming less happy. This seems counterintuitive. After all, in most western countries life is easier and more comfortable than it has ever been at any time in history. Most people have enough food, a greater degree of safety and security than ever before, as well as objects and machines that make life, chores and work easier than ever before. And yet the suicide rate is increasing at the moment, and is now at 125 percent of the rate of previous decades. This is a terrifying statistic and there’s no real evidence on what’s causing it.
Some researcher and thinkers have claimed that it’s the pursuit of happiness itself that’s causing this growing problem. There are studies that show that the relentless pursuit of happiness can make people feel as if time is slipping away without the results they want, which then makes them unhappy. This theory makes sense. After all, you’re not going to be happy if you’re constantly worrying about your unhappiness.
But the problem may go deeper than this. Choosing to pursue happiness itself may be the problem. Happiness is a temporary state, something that changes day by day and moment by moment. Thus, pursuing it may be doomed to failure. Some thinkers have suggested that changing your aim and choosing to pursue meaning through different strategies may be more effective. They suggest that cultivating meaning will give you a longer lasting sense of happiness and contentment compared to the idea of chasing happiness for its own sake.
How To Be Happier in Life
Whether you believe that happiness is the best overall goal or not, including more activities that make you happy can only improve your life. Some of the best and most effective strategies are as follows:
Stop buying stuff
Collecting things, cars or houses or jewelry, doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn’t help at all. Our culture is extremely materialistic. You only have to look at advertisements on television to understand the apparent connection between things and happiness. But this connection just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, and research shows that your emotional health actually decreases as materialism increases. So stop buying stuff to make you happy.
Focus on experiences
Studies show that experiences, rather than stuff, are far more likely to make you happy. When you spend your money on experiences, you have the anticipation, the experience and the memories, all of which can make you happy. Experiences are also more likely to connect you with other people, form part of your identity, and are free from many social comparisons that can decrease the perceived value of objects. So the next time you’re feeling down, plan to go and do something. And take some friends along with you.
Give and contribute
Volunteering your time to help someone who’s less fortunate in some way can activate the pleasure centers of your brain. This will help you create long lasting happiness and add meaning to your life. Just make sure that you’re not depleting yourself in your efforts to increase your happiness.
Take care of your body
Exercise not only releases hormones that make you feel happier, but it also protects your body against the negative effects of aging. This is a strategy that will improve and maintain your happiness over the long term.
Seek out Flow
Flow is that feeling you get when you’re doing something you love and you lose track of time. The idea of flow was first introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He claimed that it was:
“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
You may get flow when you’re writing, when you’re playing with your kids, or when you’re running around the park. But however you get flow, the positive feelings associated with it make the related activity extremely valuable to your pursuit of happiness.
Increasing your skills in any area of your life is an important part of being dedicated to lifelong learning. It can make you better at your job, help you have better relationships, and improve your sense of control over your life. So choose one area of your life that could use improvement and start working on a related skill.
Don’t expect social media to fill your social needs
Social media cannot replace real world relationships. Lots of people seem to assume that, because they have lots of friends on various social networks, they don’t need in person relationships. But studies show that overreliance on social media may actually increase loneliness levels. This doesn’t mean that you need to totally disconnect. But if most of your friends are online, it might be time to think about the effect this is probably having on your happiness levels.
The Most Important Element of Happiness
This brings us to the most important element for your happiness, health and life satisfaction, which is other people. Social connections aren’t just nice to have, they’re absolutely essential. This seems to be a nearly forgotten truth these days because people want quick fixes for their problems. They want easy ways to become and to stay happy. So they fall for every magic pill and guaranteed strategy and find themselves unhappier than ever.
Building healthy and happy relationships isn’t a quick fix. In fact, it’s extremely difficult. It means that you have to work on your friendships and your family relationships throughout your life. You will need to work on your communication skills, reach out to mend rifts when you’re angry and accept others’ mistakes as well as your own. You will never be done working on this part of your life, and that’s the way it should be.
Improving your social connections will enhance your life in a number of ways. Strong social connections boost mental, emotional and physical health. They boost the immune system and reduce stress levels. And more importantly, they’re the most essential element in creating long lasting happiness and life satisfaction.
How to Build More Social Connections
Lots of people don’t have enough in person social connections. Long work hours, social media, and the breakdown of community has resulted in social isolation for too many people. In fact, the percentage of adults in America who suffer from social isolation has doubled since the 1980’s, jumping to 40 percent. There is some debate about the effects of this social isolation, and about the statistics themselves, but it’s still a sobering idea.
If you don’t have enough social connections in your life, the following ideas may help:
- Ask yourself what you want from your friends, there’s no point looking for someone if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
- Get outside of your comfort zone. Try joining a team, a club or a class. That way you can learn new skills and meet new people at the same time.
- Look around at your life now. You probably have a few acquaintances in your life who would make great friends.
- Think of it like dating. When you start dating someone you go out and explore your connection to see if it’s worth pursuing. You need to adopt this mindset when you’re looking for new friends too.
- Try not to take it personally. Sometimes people will say no to your friendship overtures. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or not worth their time, it’s probably about their life and time.
How to Strengthen the Relationships You Have
The quality of your social connections is vitally important in determining your happiness. You might have lots of acquaintances, workmates or friends on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean that you have the close relationships you need to be really happy. Close relationships are honest, there’s an equal amount of give and take between participants, and there’s trust. When you have close friends or family, you know that they’ll always help you. They’ll be there when you’re down or need help. And that can be the difference between overcoming difficulties and problems, and sinking beneath them.
You should continuously work on your relationships if you want them to last. The following strategies will help:
- Invest the time. Everyone’s busy, don’t let this be an excuse for drifting away from your friends.
- Put the phone away. Nothing is more annoying, or toxic in relationships, then taking out your phone in the middle of a conversation. It makes the other person feel like you don’t value them. Put it away and ignore it if it rings. It probably isn’t urgent anyway.
- Add your friends to your schedule. This doesn’t just mean that you need to schedule catch ups or events, but write down significant events in their life. This will help you remember to celebrate with them, check in how things went, or commiserate on the anniversary of a sad event.
- Add value to their lives. Too often we think about what we can get from a relationship rather than what we can give. Think about how you can give value. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, even offering to run an errand for them can immeasurably improve their day.
- Work on your communication. You can always improve your communication skills and this will strengthen your relationships too.
- Make memories. Some of the best experiences in life are those that are enjoyed with friends. Don’t let your friendships become boring. Make great memories by trying new things together and laughing together when you stuff up. It’s all part of the friendship package.
Everyone wants to find happiness, but the truth is that this might not be a good thing. The central assumption of pursuing happiness is that you can’t be happy until you find it. That is, you believe that you aren’t and can’t be happy now, and this can markedly decrease your level of happiness in the moment. The past is gone and the future never comes, so the only way to be happy is to be happy now. Don’t save it until you win that important achievement or pass that marker in your life. Find ways to be happy now. And the most important way to do that is to evaluate what you pursue when you’re trying to be happier.
Fame, fortune, that big job, the best clothes or the best house. None of these work. Full stop. The end. Real happiness is tied to less tangible things. It’s tied to the people around us, to our sense of real life connection and community. So don’t stop pursuing other aims, but make sure your relationships are and remain the most precious things in your life and the aspect of your life that you work on the most.
What strategies do you use to bring more happiness into your life? Which worked and which didn’t? Share the strategies and the results with us in the comments below.