“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”- Abraham Lincoln
“I just want to be happy…” How often have you heard someone utter these words or even said them yourself? The pursuit of happiness is so important that it is mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence and is considered to be one of the “inalienable rights” that all Americans have. Few people ever attain lasting happiness and even if they do it may be almost impossible to hold onto. What makes happiness so elusive and what can be done to increase our potential to attain it?
The pursuit of happiness is not just something that is unique to 21st century living. Man has been chasing happiness ever since Adam took a bite out of that apple. During the time of ancient Greece and Rome, philosophers and sages pondered the question of how one can gain a measure of happiness and hang on to it for as long as possible. The pursuit of happiness is also a major focus of contemporary life as well as of modern social science. It appears that third century Greek philosophers and modern-day researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are in agreement on why happiness can be as difficult to grasp and hold onto as water.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded in the third century BC by an Athenian sophist named Zeno of Citium. The philosophy taught that humans experience “destructive emotions” when their thinking and desires are not in harmony with reality or virtue. To the Stoics, virtue meant living a life where a person’s behavior was in harmony with natural principles such as justice, fairness, kindness, and other pro-social values and behaviors. One became out of sync with virtuous living when they behaved in a way contrary to those values or desired something that was out of line with nature and what was possible. They were also in agreement with the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that some people, no matter what they possess, won’t ever be truly happy or will have difficulty maintaining the emotional state which we refer to as happiness.
The ancient Stoics taught a principle that they called hedonic adaptation which explained why some, no matter what they gain in life, will return to a basic level of happiness. According to the theory, no amount of money, fame, nor possessions will allow a person to maintain the elevated level of happiness which comes along with these conditions. Unmet desires and expectations rise along with the acquisition of these improvements, quite quickly resulting in the loss of joyful emotions and a return to their original state of happiness. We’ve all heard stories of lottery winners who blow through millions of dollars and return to their prior financial condition, pro athletes who lose everything from poor decision-making, and celebrities who self-destruct. People prone to these situations are victims of hedonic adaptation. Like I saw on the bumper sticker the other day, “Never Enough.”
Martin Seligman is an American psychologist and educator who has studied the pursuit of happiness over the course of the last 20 years. He and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Positive Psychology have done extensive research and concur with the Stoic idea of hedonic adaptation. Seligman proposes that people have a set point for happiness which they carried into adulthood. The setpoint is influenced by genetics, childhood events, a person’s successes and failures, and how they interpret and process their life experiences. The setpoint becomes their baseline potential for happiness. Seligman argues that all of us have a setpoint for happiness, just as we do for bodyweight. Unlike the Stoics however, Seligman believes that there are ways that a person can elevate this setpoint for happiness to avoid the inevitability of hedonic adaptation.
Seligman, author of numerous books on the subject, teaches a five letter mnemonic, PERMA, that provides guidelines for the adjustment of our setpoint for happiness. Here are Seligman’s five elements to well-being:
⦁ Positive emotion — Can only be assessed subjectively. What emotional states make you feel happy?
⦁ Engagement — Like positive emotion, can only be measured through subjective means. It occurs in the presence of a flow state where time seems to stand still and you are fully involved and absorbed in a meaningful emotional experience.
⦁ Relationships — The presence of friends, family, intimacy, or social connection, sort of like the John Donne “no man is an island” idea.
⦁ Meaning — Belonging to and serving something bigger than one’s self. For many, spirituality, religion, and transcendent experiences serve this purpose.
⦁ Achievement — Accomplishment that is pursued even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships. This is in line with what the Stoics would call living a virtuous life.
Seligman’s research found that people are most happy when their beliefs and action are congruent. Happiness is not just a state of mental well-being, actions and behaviors matter. Satisfaction with life is more likely to occur when people are engaged in activities that they find absorbing, meaningful, and significant, putting them into what positive psychology refers to as a “flow state.” While in this emotional state, people are truly absorbed, time seems to stand still, and people find themselves so in the moment that anxiety, worry, and fears, temporarily cease to exist. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/find-flow/ ) In addition, people possess what Seligman called “signature strengths,” positive behaviors and activities that are sources of pride and self-esteem. People that are happier find ways to use this strength more often.
People who are happy also are more grateful than most of us. They instinctively cultivate a daily attitude of gratitude which becomes a constant focus of attention. Anyone can be grateful for the big things that life sends our way, but people who are happiest are grateful for even the smallest things and they are grateful more often. No need to wait until the last Thursday in November to be thankful for what comes our way. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/attitude-gratitude/ )
Happier people also tend toward altruism, and are more other orientated. They tend to be less self absorbed and derive pleasure from engaging in positive behaviors for the benefit of other people. While we can’t always control what we receive, we can control what we give. This creates a feeling of happiness, coming from a state of empowerment and doing something that is in our control. Research indicates that positive action for others is the greatest way for anyone to develop a sense of self-esteem and a positive self image. This goes hand-in-hand with true happiness. ( See also http://mindbodycoach.org/groucho-marx-syndrome-and-how-to-build-real-self-esteem/ )
The happiest people tend to place less emphasis on material possessions. Although they may have a lot of possessions, they value relationships and positive actions far more than their material wealth. A minimalist lifestyle is by no means a necessity for a happy life, what is necessary is prioritizing those material things that give us happiness. There are many examples of wealthy people who find happiness and self-worth from sharing what they have with others. Bill Gates is a prime example, having quietly given away more than $28 billion through a charitable foundation he created to improve global health. For every Ebenezer Scrooge they are is a contrasting philanthropist who understands where true happiness comes from. For us folks of average means, being content with what we have is a key component of happiness. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/george-carlin-michelangelo-accumulation-stuff/ )
The bottom line on happiness appears to be this: happiness is an internal state which we create ourselves. It’s not guaranteed or granted to anyone. The Declaration of Independence mentions the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness. We have the right to pursue happiness, but happiness itself is not guaranteed. Ancient philosophers and modern researchers are in agreement that happiness is for each individual to define, pursue, and ultimately attain. Happiness lies within the journey, not the destination.
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”- Socrates
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