Today, CareerBliss delves into the subject of happiness; namely, what is it, how do you keep it, and what can you do to become more happy, starting now?
How to Think Yourself Happy
"Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be." So said Abraham Lincoln nearly two centuries ago, a sentiment which has been repeated in various guises ever since. But is it true?
Picture the scenario. You wake up in the firm belief that it's Saturday. You roll over and go back to sleep, only to awake with a jolt thirty minutes later when the horrible truth dawns - it's actually only Friday! You're now running late for work, so you skip breakfast and hurriedly prepare a cup of Columbian coffee which your friend gave you to try last week. It’s delicious, but you don’t have time to sit and savor it, so you hurriedly gulp it down and rush out of the front door.
Next comes the usual battle with rush-hour traffic, although luckily the lane you're in keeps moving, albeit at a snail’s pace. At work, you complete one long-standing project but your boss immediately dumps another assignment on your desk. In order to catch up, you decide to power through lunch at your desk, but noticing your lonely figure toiling away in the empty office, a kindly colleague slips you one of their home-made muffins. You get to leave earlier than usual as it's Friday, but so has everyone else and the homeward-bound traffic is as heavy as ever.
When you arrive home you get a warm welcome from your partner and children, but your dog gets over excited and leaps all over you, donating many doggy hairs to your dry-clean-only work clothes. And so ends another working week.
How would you describe the above day to a friend? Would you say, a) "I overslept and didn't have time for breakfast… traffic was dreadful… the boss dumped extra work on me so I had to skip lunch… then the dog jumped all over me so now my new suit is ruined. What a terrible day!"
Or would you say, b) "I slept in and tried that wonderful coffee you gave me for breakfast… traffic wasn’t too bad on the way in today… I finished that project that's been bugging me for ages… lunchtime was kind of busy so Jack gave me one of those yummy muffins he bakes himself… got to go home early and the family was happy to see me, especially the dog. What a great day!"
Choosing Happiness: It's Your Choice
Choosing to focus on the good rather than the bad events of the day can put us into a much happier frame of mind, and can affect how we feel, not only about the day but about our lives in general. And a cheerful mood is catching - the friend to whom we were speaking will feel happier too, and will be more likely to chat to us in the future, which in turn will add to our happiness.
Most days bring many small pleasures, so why do so many of us tend to focus on the negative aspects rather than the positive?
Of course, human nature is such that disasters usually make much better stories than events that go smoothly - you only have to watch the evening news for proof of that. Tales of other people's calamities (not our own, naturally) can make us feel better about our own lives. Missed flights, cockroach-infested hotels and appalling weather make far more entertaining vacation stories than the usual rhapsodies about sun, sand and azure oceans – photos of which on Facebook may inspire only jealousy.
But if the bad day or the vacation disaster is yours, the best way - the only way - to treat your ill luck is with humor, both at the time and in the re-telling.
Maybe the torrential rain meant that, instead of topping up your tan, you went to visit a banana museum (there's one in California - honestly!) and topped up your ‘amusing photo’ collection, much to the delight of your granddaughter. Maybe you gave the cockroaches names on your Honeymoon hideaway, laughing about Colin the Cockroach as you sip Pina Coladas on the beach with your new spouse.
You’ll be in the (happy) minority if you can try to think of a way to turn a bad news story around so that something positive comes out of it, but trust us – you’ll be much happier. Focusing on what makes us happy rather than on what irritates or annoys us does far more for our overall sense of well-being, and for that of the people around us.
Take Control of Your World - You're the Only One Who Can
Of course, we can all think of aspects of our everyday lives which most definitely don't make us happy. Sometimes these things are within our control, but very often, they're not. A feeling of powerlessness, of being done to rather than doing, can lead to real unhappiness.
Take your work life, for example. Now that the days of a job for life are a distant memory, the workplace is an environment where we often don't feel in control. Many working people live in fear of hearing the dreaded words "layoff", "downsizing" or "restructure", but it is often the fear, rather than the event itself, which does the most damage to our long-term happiness, and that is something which we can control.
Although such changes are inevitable for many of us, there is really precious little we can do about them until they actually occur, besides giving our job our all. Therefore, speculation is a futile exercise in the vast majority of cases. Try to deal with events as and when they happen. Living in fear of something that may never happen can end up causing more unhappiness than the event itself.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then draw up a concrete plan on paper listing all the steps you can take, right now, to overcome all the obstacles you foresee.
For instance, if you got laid off, perhaps you could work from home as a freelance writer, or maybe your Significant Other could throw you some book-keeping work from his/her company until you got back on your feet. If the feared event winds up one day becoming a reality, you can then immediately put your plan into action and take your next step with calm and confidence - action rather than speculation is a far greater contributor to overall happiness, rather than constant worry, which can cause anxiety, stress, and poor health in the long term.
Worrying about failure can also affect how happy we feel. But the risk of an occasional - or even frequent - mistake or failure is an inherent part of life. Attitude is all-important. "I have not failed", said Thomas Edison. "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." No-one is perfect - as Rashida Jones, screenwriter for 'Toy Story 4', points out: "The most intelligent, most talented people in the world have bad ideas. That's a good thing to learn."
So happiness is also about being able to cope effectively with the inevitable errors and failures in life, whether they be at work or in our personal lives; to be able to say to oneself: "Okay, I made a mess of it this time, but what can I learn from it so that I won’t make the same mistake next time?" If you own your failure and learn to move on, you will feel more in control than if you enter the "If only I had done this/hadn't done that" frame of mind, which - as we all know - leads nowhere but to the bottom of the ice-cream tub.
How to Find Reasons to be Cheerful
Even if the world seems all doom-and-gloom today, in innumerable ways, we are infinitely much better off than our ancestors, even than our grandparents' generation. We can look forward to better health, longer life expectancy, more opportunities for travel and leisure pursuits, and more choice in everything from career paths to material goods. Shouldn’t we therefore be happier?
However - as Richard O'Connor points out in his 2008 book 'Happy At Last' - there is no indication that we as individuals are any happier than our forebears three centuries ago; in fact, in the fifty-odd years since scientists have been measuring our day-to-day emotion with a reasonable amount of accuracy, happiness, as a currency, seems to be actually declining. Why is this?
The truth is that our bodies haven't evolved to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of change in society. Our brains and nervous systems simply weren't designed for life as we know it today. In a myriad of ways, the modern world wrecks havoc on our unsuspecting primate bodies. Artificial light deprives us of natural sleeping patterns while cars deprive us of exercise.
The post-industrial working culture means we are expected to stay focused on one task and stay in one place (and one chair) for at least eight hours a day, usually longer, especially here in the U.S. where a 50-hour working week is considered normal. Urban sprawl takes away the greenery and lushness of nature we need to gaze upon rejuvenate mentally, while replacing the parks and open land with concrete ugliness and ever more strip malls and chain supermarkets to cater to our exploding population – feeding our bodies while killing our souls.
Moreover, our bodies weren't designed for the abundance of rich, calorie-laden food which many of us now consume; we're inherently grazing animals, programmed to forage all day and use sparse resources efficiently. Not only are our diets full of artificial additives and chemical ‘flavors,’ our relationship with food is something which would be incomprehensible to our ancestors. We no longer eat merely for sustenance - eating can now be done purely as a social activity, as a mindless accompaniment to other activities such as watching TV, as a comfort to ease stress or anxiety, and even as a source of guilt (which often follows the comfort), and thus a simple natural need becomes emotionally charged as a contributor to both happiness and unhappiness.
Think of yourself as a complex nervous system designed to live in harmony with nature. You have evolved to sleep when it gets dark rather than when your favorite TV program ends; to eat only whenever scarce food becomes available rather than at set mealtimes. Your inbuilt flight mechanism is to enable you to flee from danger, but instead is activated when - say - six different bosses descend on you with six different projects; however, you're stuck at your desk, so flight is transformed into anxiety and strain, and plenty of tooth marks on your favorite pen. No wonder stress is the cause of so much mental and physical ill-health when we are forever suppressing our natural instincts!
Why People Need People
Emotionally, we also live in an unnatural state. In Western societies especially we have increasingly cut ourselves off from our "tribe" i.e. our extended families, thus losing the close-knit social support which insulated earlier generations from loneliness and depression. Neighborhoods - an important part of society half-a-century ago - are slowly dying as paranoia and fear lead us to view our neighbors as foes rather than as friends, leading to an increase in alienation and a decline in happiness.
As Richard O'Connor describes it: "We leave our air-conditioned homes in our gated communities and drive in our air-conditioned cars to the air-conditioned mall and back home again, but without (meaningful) human interaction. Or we go online and buy electronics and games that will mean we never have to leave the house." We are social animals, so our self-imposed isolation leads to a loss of the basic elements of human happiness - intimacy, community, touch, communication and empathy.
To put it simply, we need others in order to flourish. Ed Diener, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois and a world authority on the science of happiness, states that the links between happiness and social contact are so strong that many psychologists think that humans are genetically wired to need one another. We function much better when we are part of a social network which offers mutual cooperation and support. If we’re going through tough times, we physically feel better after a (real) hug from a friend rather than a (virtual) Twitter message of support.
In fact, the World Happiness Report 2013, a major global study, found that two of the strongest factors for national well-being were levels of social support, and generosity. Our feelings of success and contentment directly depend on seeing each other as a source of support rather than a source of threat. So cooperation, rather than competition, is where true happiness lies.
How to Be Happier Every day – Starting Now
Firstly, the most important step you can take is to simply make time for yourself. "Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time", said Marthe Troly-Curtin, author of the classic novel 'Phrynette Married'. That was in 1912, and that advice still holds good today. It doesn't matter what you do - learn to juggle, play the ukulele, knit a scarf, go for a long walk with your dog or immerse yourself in a book. Richard O'Connor tells us that focused attention and practice change the brain - the neural circuits that correspond to, say, the motions of a guitarist's fingers become enlarged and enriched over time. So taking up a pastime you enjoy actually does make you a happier person, on the inside as well as the outside.
Next, accept that you can't be happy all the time. We are conditioned by television, the movies and social media to believe that if we’re not feeling happy, right now, there’s something wrong with us. Sadness, disappointment and pain are part of life. So is boredom and periods where nothing is actually wrong, but you still feel unsatisfied or as if your life could be better. Bad times are inevitable, so accept what you can't control, such as grief, or illness.
And learn to forgive yourself - failure is also a part of life. Research from Adam Grant, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, shows that "givers" - those who help others without wanting anything in return - are more successful and happier overall than "takers" - people who seek to maximize their own benefits, even at cost to others. So focusing on others is one of the keys to being happy.
Most importantly, re-think your attitude to happiness. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment". It's most definitely not a constant state of joy and euphoria - to expect that would be unrealistic, even irrational. Nor is it a fixed state or an end goal; it's an ongoing process which ebbs and flows, and which can appear full-force at the most unexpected and trivial of moments. The trick is to learn to recognize it whenever it occurs.
As Richard O'Connor astutely observes: "Happiness is smaller than you think."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Rhodes is a passionate scholar and advocate of happiness, both at home and in one's career. After working for over a decade in education, including adult literacy and special needs tutoring, she now divides her time between blogging on the subject of careers and work/life balance, and finding her own happiness curled up at home with a good book and a mug of tea. Her idea of true happiness is waking up one day to find that every apostrophe in the world is finally in its rightful place.