The Pursuit of Happiness: Your Inalienable Right
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD
Over the course of the past two years, This Emotional Life has invited us to consider happiness in our lives. The definition of happiness most agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, economists, positive psychologists and Buddhist Monks is not of happiness as the state of bursting with glee but of happiness as a sense of well being, contentment, the feeling of living a meaningful life, of utilizing one’s gifts, of living with thought and with purpose.
Researchers like David Lykken and Sonjya Lyubomirsky have informed us that happiness is a “many factored thing.” From their research with genetic twins they report that we each have a happiness set point that determines 50% of our happiness no matter what else is going on in our lives.
But there is more to the story: 10% of our happiness is considered to be a function of life circumstances, something that we may not be able to control but for which we often adapt or find ways of coping. The final 40% of our happiness is directly in our hands; it is a result of our intentional activity.
With this in mind, it is worth considering some of those elements – be they attributes, strategies, coping techniques or behaviors that have proven to be valuable in the pursuit of happiness.
Engagement in Life
Engagement in the form of sustained attention, effort, passion and purpose in something is an indispensible ingredient to happiness. Engagement may take many forms and be more intense in one dimension of our life be it work, family, recreation, spiritual or creative endeavors. It may be the determination to achieve a degree; the commitment to caring for three young grandchildren; the passion to enhance one’s skill on the piano; the determination to expand a food pantry for the poor; or the determination to run a marathon. Our engagement will often change across time.
Key to engagement is to use your own personal strengths, passions, talents and interests to lead the way.
An important ingredient in our sense of happiness is our capacity to relate to others and the connections we share. Some people need more social connections than others, but most people need to feel they matter to someone. Crucial to the motivation to go forward in life is the belief they you provide “added value” to another – whether a spouse, a parent, a friend or a child. In turn, most people also need to feel the affirmation, love and connection of others to them.
Marriage &Committed Relationships
Marriage and committed relationships are not instant happiness enhancers. No one just shows up for a good marriage. It is the continued effort to respect, affirm, trust, problem solve, show intimacy, argue, forgive and laugh that makes for the fabric of a meaningful relationship. It means never taking the bond you share for granted.
Underscoring our relationships is our own self-esteem, the sense of value and personal worth we feel from recognizing our strengths and talents and pursuing our interests and goals. The easiest partner to love is one that has a positive view of self. On the other hand, continual self-doubt and criticism not only undercuts your feelings of happiness – but the feelings of those who love you. Addressing personal unrest or doubts by seeking help or engaging is self-help groups or activities is a gift to all.
Most people will tell you that their children are the greatest source of joy and happiness in their lives (as well as the greatest source of worry, sleep deprivation and high tech information). Most people will leap tall buildings for their children. Most people watch and worry about the happiness of their children.
What we sometimes miss is that our children are also “watching and worrying about us.” Self care and pursuit of well being by parents is an extra security blanket for a children.
As humans we are one of a few species that laughs and our laughter spans age, gender, language and culture. Laughter is not just a by-product of happiness. Given the body-mind connection, the very act of laughter changes body chemistry to our advantage.
Laughter enhances happiness.
When we laugh, our brain releases endorphins – the feel good hormones of serotonin and dopamine that foster a sense of well-being. Accordingly, laughter has been associated with reduction of stress, and improvement of mood, self-esteem and coping skills. Research finds that laughter can improve diseases like asthma, cancer and heart disease by reducing the physiological stress response that exacerbates these conditions.
Laughter is a crucial ingredient to the intimacy between partners or friends. Laughter means risking being touched by another. It is restorative in the aftermath of trauma, anger or pain – a way of saying “We are still connected.” It is a mutually shared moment in time.
There is some real wisdom to the nightly ritual of many couples that watch a silly sitcom together and share some laughter.
There is no sound more hopeful in life than the laughter of children. One of the incredible gifts that our pets give us is a “daily dose of laughter.”
Holding on to Positive Perspective
It is easy to feel happy, content and hopeful when things are going well. What about when life becomes stressful? How do we hold on to positive feelings in the face of the unexpected diagnosis, the child with special needs, the job that disappears, or the deployment of a spouse?
There is no question that negative feelings of stress, pain or concern are warranted at certain times of life, sharpening our focus and protecting us from danger. Overall, however, positive feelings like joy, interest, contentment and love have been shown to enhance our coping by “broadening and building” on our momentary thought–action repertoire.
Positive feelings foster action, spark the urge to explore, to savor the moment, to be creative, etc. As such, they mediate negative feelings, build up our reserves for coping at the rough times and may even serve to undo the negative physiological effects associated with negative emotions.
Exercise: A Key Physical and Psychological Well Being
We have considerable evidence that adding exercise to our lives improves our body and mind. In addition to pulmonary, heart, endocrine and orthopedic benefits, exercise offsets anxiety, depression and has even been associated with smoking cessation. Overall it improves mood, sense of mastery and self-esteem. The question that many raise is not whether they should exercise but how to get started in the face of depression, weight problems or low energy etc.
Recent research in the field of positive psychology informs us that feeling gratitude, the awareness and appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, has many benefits including positive mood, enhanced physical health and optimistic outlook. Actually expressing gratitude has proven to have even greater benefits in terms of personal happiness.
Given our human tendency for adaptation and expectation, it is not surprising that we often take for granted or overlook those who may have helped us. Gratitude shakes up this adaptation. In the very consideration and expression of thanks to another, we not only give the gift of appreciation – we make visible to ourselves someone or something very positive in our life.
Happiness is neither a simple goal nor a place we try to find. It is a way of living your life.
It ebbs and flows over the course of life’s journey. It feels different in childhood then in the aging years. Working to make happiness an essential dimension of your life is you right and privilege. This is your emotional life!
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD Bio
Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.Learn More