Are you happy? We all want to be happy, and we are all deserving of happiness.
Previously I’ve touched on what I believe happiness is. Unfortunately, happiness is not like a switch, where you are either happy or you aren’t. It’s more like a sliding scale where you can fall anywhere on the spectrum between happiness and unhappiness. But it’s complicated further because there are different areas in your life where you can be happy, and chances are good that you land on different spots in the “happiness spectrum” in each of those areas.
Think of some of the main areas of your life. I’m guessing most of us break our lives down into something like the following:
- Committed relationship (spouse or partner)
- Immediate families (parents, siblings, children, grandchildren)
- Extended families
- Social Networks (friends and acquaintances)
- Personal interests/hobbies
- Additional organizations/memberships
Those are the first things that came to my mind, and you can add and subtract from that list in whatever way best applies to you. If you think of all the different roles that you play, you can have a different level of happiness in each of them. For example, you may not be happy in your job (which will affect your overall level of happiness), but still consider yourself happy.
Looking at the different roles that you play, how can you really measure happiness? If you are largely happy, or at least content, then it’s probably not something you even think about as it’s just a natural state.
The Search for Happiness
If you characterize yourself as an unhappy person, it seems obvious that you need to do something about it.
It’s clear that you need to change something. But what should you change? It’s probably best to try changing the “small” things first. Maybe take up a new hobby, or join a club or a team. If there are people in your life that are bringing you down, try talking to them about it, and if that doesn’t work spend less time with them. The same applies to family.
But what if it’s something bigger, like your job or your relationship with your partner/spouse? If you aren’t happy in your job, you can (and perhaps should) change your job. If it’s your relationships, then there are some bigger questions to answer. A few posts back I talked about questioning your relationship, so I won’t go over that again (in summary you either communicate and try to work on things or you move on).
One problem is that people who are in search of happiness often don’t know how to go about trying to achieve it. To make matters worse, they often go about searching for it in the wrong way.
There are countless cautionary tales of people who have embarked on self destructive behaviors, or made questionable life choices in the pursuit of happiness. In the search of happiness people often start engaging in activities either to make them “feel good” or to mask the pain of the unhappiness they feel.
Things like shopping, comfort eating, gambling or sex become outlets that give them a bit of a high. People may also turn to an actual high through drugs and alcohol. A more recent trend is turning to social media, and measuring happiness by the number of friends, likes, or complimentary remarks to posts.
Unfortunately these things are only temporary fixes, ways of numbing the pain and emptiness that they are feeling inside. They are like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. And guess what? In most circumstances these people don’t actually end up any happier.
Happiness comes from within
One of the most difficult things about the search for happiness is that there is no magic pill; and you can’t “find it”. All the money and fame in the world can’t make someone happy. Just think of all the rich and famous people who make the news for things like addictions, behavioral issues or even suicide. Nothing can “make you happy”, you have to find it within yourself.
One problem with the pursuit of happiness is that I believe people aren’t actually pursuing happiness. They are really looking for meaning and fulfillment. There is a correlation between happiness and meaning, as people who find meaning in their lives generally are people who would describe themselves as happy (or at least leaning towards happiness on the happiness spectrum).
Ideally you find meaning in all aspects of your life – your committed relationship, your family, your social networks, job, and your personal interests. The reality is, very few people have a job that they love. Hopefully you find some fulfillment in your job, but many people find themselves in jobs that they don’t like, and they stay due to complacency and/or a need to pay the bills. Sometimes it’s worth taking a pay cut to find something more fulfilling, but if you have dependents then it’s easy to feel “stuck” in your job.
If you aren’t happy in one aspect of life (such as your job) it becomes especially important to find meaning in other areas. One of the most common areas that people neglect is their personal interests, and self nurturing. We all have talents and interests and it is important to take some time out for ourselves to nurture these. Often this involves engaging your creative side, such as music, art, writing, crafts, mechanical “tinkering” or cooking. It could also be things like volunteering, joining a sports team, or taking up some sort of regular activity.
I read somewhere that taking me time is necessary, as it provides the space needed to allow your relationships to flourish and grow. Without it you unfairly put all of your needs on your partner, and that holds them to a standard that they will never be able to meet.
That’s true, but there are different types of me time, and it is important that you choose things that provide meaning and help “feed your soul”. Taking time to watch your favorite TV show is great, and we all do it. But it doesn’t exactly provide the sort of fulfillment that will improve your happiness. Doing things to improve yourself is one of the best ways to provide meaning, and help build happiness from within.
In the workplace, employers have found that salary increases are ineffective tools for employee retention. Similar to drugs and alcohol from above, the effects are short lived. When someone gets a raise, they have an initial moment of excitement at the increased pay. But after a few pay periods that new pay becomes their norm. Unfortunately it is human nature to take the things we have for granted, and we do this in all aspects of our lives.
I live in Canada, and Canada is often cited as one of the best countries in the world by various measures. Wikipedia states that it “ranks among the highest in international measurements of government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic freedom, and education, and stands among the world’s most educated countries”. Sounds great right? And it is. But it’s also been my home for my whole life so it is my norm, and as a result I often don’t appreciate it for what it is.
When I finished university I went on a trip to Vietnam, and I stayed with a family in Ho Chi Mihn city (the locals still call it Saigon) for a month. It was an incredible experience and it was the first time I had ever left North America. There were good and bad moments on the trip, but they were all new experiences and I loved every minute of my trip. Well, maybe not every minute. Getting into an argument with a customs agent because I refused to pay a bribe and almost missing my flight home wasn’t so great. But that’s a whole other story.
One of the most important things about my trip was that when I returned it gave me a different point of reference and allowed me to see Canada in a different light. It allowed me to truly appreciate my home in a way that I never would have had I not gone on the trip.
Another moment that made me appreciate things in a different way was an early experience as a new dad with my son. I’ll never forget the first time I took him for a walk in the neighborhood. He had just turned one, and was still a little unsteady on his feet. It was summer, and it was his first time exploring the outside world. Everything was new to him and we had to stop everywhere. He’s ten now, but I can still picture the sheer joy on his face as he touched and played with grass, felt the texture of the bark on trees and watched ants walking down the sidewalk. I picked some up and let them walk on his arms (which was cute, until he tried to eat them). He even explored the cracks in the concrete of the sidewalk. It took us almost an hour to make it two houses down, but it was a beautiful magical hour.
I looked at the yard and I saw grass that needed to be cut and weeds that needed to be pulled. Looking at the sidewalk I saw the cracks as flaws, signs that the concrete would need to be repaired or replaced. My son saw those things, and I won’t pretend to know what was going through his head (he was one). But from his expressions, it was wonderment. For him the world was shiny and new, and experiencing it with him allowed me to see the world that way again. I had forgotten the beauty that we have all around us, and stopped seeing it. All I saw were the flaws and the work that needed to be done. That day my little man taught me a lesson I have tried hard not to forget.
Relationships and Appreciation
As we age we lose that innocence and we fail to appreciate the little things in life. We have all this beauty and wonder around us all the time. We have people who love us. And we don’t even see it or appreciate it. We take for granted what we have.
We stop to see the good because it has been right in front of us for so long that is has become our norm. Once that has become our norm, we don’t appreciate it and instead we see the problems and the flaws.
If you talk to counselors or look at relationship books, one of the most commonly prescribed things is to try to focus on the positive. They will tell you to do things like make lists of the positives in a situation or a relationship and remind yourself of them.
This is all about looking at what you have and trying to appreciate it again. Rather than focusing on the positive I think it’s more accurate to say that this is trying to find again the positive that we have taken for granted over time.
I generally focus on relationships, but I believe this applies to all aspects of your life. Chances are there is a lot of good that you simply have lost the ability to see.
Finding Inner Peace
People do deserve to be happy, and by no means am I suggesting that people should stay in relationships or jobs that make them unhappy. People should be free to pursue interest that make them happy, and be around friends that bring them joy.
But sometimes we have simply lost the ability to see what has been around us the whole time. Sometimes instead of seeing the good all we are seeing is the cracks, and the flaws.
Change can be very positive. But sometimes it can’t be undone. If you are unhappy and looking to make changes in your life, first look at the things you have in your life and try to see them in with new eyes. Try to appreciate the good and the wonder in the things in your life. Try to see the world through the eyes of a child again.
If you are a parent, think back to the wonder your children showed as they first explored the world. If you aren’t a parent then find a kid between one and two that you can borrow for a while. Just make sure you get permission first (local law enforcement tends to frown upon it if you don’t).
If you can’t do that, just go out on your own and slow down. Take your time to look at things again for the first time. Feel the texture of the grass, and the bark of the trees. Don’t eat the bugs though, because that’s pretty gross.
You won’t necessarily “find” happiness, but you can try to take pleasure in the little things in life and try to let happiness in again.