The Question of Happiness
Sometimes I have an absolutely amazing day where everything is going right. And I still don’t feel over the moon the way I would want to. And some days are so completely ordinary, where nothing special happens, and I am the brightest ray of sunshine. Why? Why is happiness so hard to figure out? Why do we seek it out over anything else? And how do we create more of it?
After a bit of research, I found that the general consensus is that around 50-60% of our happiness is determined by genetics and external circumstance. The other 40% is up to us! This means that although we cannot control ALL of our happiness, we do have the ability to make ourselves happier (by at least 40%). But how?
The most obvious of answers when we think about how to feel happier is to participate in things like exercise, breathing fresh air, eating whole foods, practicing gratitude, and nurturing relationships. All proven ways to create a happier mindset. Easing pain and stress is another way to increase happiness. This could be by setting up a plan to pay off debt or getting more sleep or getting a new job. All of these examples are well-known activities for creating happiness. But when we use these as the example of how to be happier, we start to conflate the concept of happiness with the concept of comfort or pleasure.
One of the problems with our idea of happiness as pleasure/comfort is that we then start to think of it as the absence of pain. But happiness is not always found in ease and comfort. Sometimes it is found in painful activities like apologizing, forgiving, or working towards a difficult goal (marathon runners for example).
So what the heck?! Happiness intuitively feels like it should be the absence of pain. And yet, it can be found in difficult times and it often includes painful activities. So how on earth are we supposed to seek it out? If we don’t even know exactly what it is and where to find it???
I have two answers for you.
One is that you just FEEL it. Whatever it is. You can just feel that happiness, the kind that feels like your soul is lighting up. SO start noticing it. Try to tune into what you feel when you do different activities. Skating make your heart sing? Girls night make you feel like a million bucks? Volunteering gives you butterflies? NOTICE the feelings when they happen and then try to do more of that thing!! (For more info on this, take a look at my Enjoyment Audit post).
This strategy of noticing when you feel happiness is really great for understanding what makes you PERSONALLY feel happy. It might be something as simple as watching Netflix at 3am or doing copious amounts of online shopping, and those activities (if they really make you feel joyful) are amazing – and you SHOULD do those things if they really and truly bring you happiness. The happiness that I feel when I am watching a Marvel Movie and cuddling on the couch with Josh is an important feeling and I am glad that I notice it and acknowledge my happiness. But happiness is not just about pleasure. It is not just about comfort or short-term relief. Happiness is also about the goodness we put into the world for others, as well as ourselves.
Intentionally seeking happiness is when we notice, and then act on those behaviours and actions that bring goodness into the world.
Everything we do either puts happiness or suffering into the world. My favourite TV show: The Good Place, uses this premise as the basis for their plot. And think about it. Think about the way you speak to people each day. Think about what you buy each day. Think about what your actions put out into the world every single day.
When I smile at a stranger, even if the stranger doesn’t smile back, the energy I am putting out into the world is happy & kind. When I forgive someone, teach someone something new, work towards a goal, celebrate my friend’s successes, celebrate everyone’s successes! All of these actions put happiness into the world.
Aristotle famously thought that happiness was the only thing humans seek for it’s own sake. Everything else we seek in order to get happiness. He also had a theory that there were different levels to happiness. The lowest being the happiness we get from material objects (new phone!!) and the highest being the happiness that comes from fulfilling your “calling” in life. This theory helps me answer why happiness is so hard to figure out! There are not only genetics, external circumstances, and our own mindset to consider, there are also different ways to be happy and different ways to express happiness – no wonder it can get confusing!
So yes, some happiness comes from watching Marvel movies, and to create more of that kind of happiness just requires some more couch & cuddle time on the calendar (and yes! This kind of happiness is important!). But there is also the happiness that exists in every action we take. Each and every day. From helping others, forgiving, following our calling, sharing time, or speaking kindly. This kind of happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate comfort or an absence of pain the way watching Marvel does. This kind of happiness is more about creating happiness around you – even if it feels uncomfortable or difficult. Don’t chase just one of these. Notice and enjoy the things that make you happy AND create more happiness for all those around you.