Author’s Note: I wrote a couple of weeks ago about sadness, so I figured it was probably time to write its counter-point on happiness. Sadness is hard, in that it’s difficult to work through, but happiness is hard too–because often we don’t even know what the word means.
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I often feel like I’ve spent my life chasing after happiness. In college, I took a probably-unreasonable number of undergraduate philosophy classes, fascinated by the definitions ranging from Aristotle (“human flourishing”) to Schopenhauer (a wish that is satisfied only to give way to a new wish). I took a slew of Psychology classes, wanting to figure out how people tick. After college, I read book after book after book about how to live a happy life, hopeful I’d find the answer for myself.
To be honest, part of my fascination probably stemmed from the fact that I never had a real “happiness role model.” As a tribe, my family is a group of the funniest people you’ve ever met–like, side-holdingly, cheek-achingly hilarious people. But that humor hides such pain and sadness. If you were to ask me to name ten happy people from my past right now, I don’t know that I could do it.
My parents have always seemed stressed and unhappy–between having children too young, a lack of money, and bad luck health-wise, they’ve always struggled to meet the bare necessities. Full-on “happiness” was never even talked about. We were just trying to survive. Other people in my life struggle with depression, lack of opportunity, poverty… all things that make “happiness” a difficult goal.
I became determined to break the mold. If the idea of happiness exists, I thought, then that means happiness is possible, and that means it’s possible for me. I thought making the “right decisions” was all I needed to do. Then I became convinced having a satisfying career would get me there. No, it was about giving everything I had to a romantic relationship. Shoot, that didn’t work, maybe good habits were the key? No… maybe it was about making the most of my hobbies? Wait, it was about giving back to my community.
But none of these answers ever seemed quite right.
The Pursuit of Happiness
I’ve sometimes wished that when Thomas Jefferson promised Americans “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he had included a footnote as to what he meant by happiness. For a time in my life, I assumed that the pursuit of happiness was the pursuit of positive emotions. And to a certain extent it is. If you look up a list of the basic human emotions, happiness is on there.
This is such a dangerous, narrow view of the word, though. When I was functioning under this belief, I found myself assuming that if I was experiencing any negative emotion in the moment, it meant that I wasn’t a happy person overall. I took the transitory definition of the emotion happiness and applied it as a label to my entire life. But emotions change, while happiness as a quality of life should probably have more stability. A happy life can’t disappear in a poof because you got stuck in traffic this morning, but your mood can sure be shot down by it. Emotions and quality of life are therefore not the same thing.
Some people subscribe to the idea of happiness being synonymous with cheerfulness. Perhaps this is because cheerful people help improve the mood of other people, increasing happiness-as-an-emotion in those people’s lives. But a single person can be both sad and cheerful, putting on a brave face for other people. (I’m thinking in this case of Robin Williams, or a slew of other comedians who have struggled with depression.) Demeanor and quality of life are therefore not the same thing.
If happiness is neither an emotion nor demeanor, then, what is it? In her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
What Makes You Happy?
If we accept this as the definition of happiness, the next question is what can you do to help yourself be satisfied by your life? What can you do to help make yourself happy? My friend Campfire calls this the Happy List, and he’s constantly asking me if I’ve worked on mine recently. (I have the best friends, y’all. Really.)
I first drafted my Happy List when I still understood happiness to be an emotion, and so it. My list focused on lessening negative experiences and emotions in my life. I worked on my mindset. I practiced mindfulness. I gave up the idea of controlling every aspect of my life. I learned new ways to self-comfort.
And all of that was great, obviously. It definitely helped improve my day-to-day experiences and stabilized my mood and emotions. But it didn’t necessarily help me feel like my life was good, meaningful, or worthwhile.
The Secret to Happiness? Figure Out Which Form of Happiness You Want
If you’re struggling with your own happy list, I have news for you: happiness is different for different people. In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Dr. Martin Seligman writes,
‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.
He explains more here, starting at 8:54:
Living a Pleasant Life
The most important thing is to enjoy your life – to be happy – it’s all that matters.” – Audrey Hepburn
The Pleasant Life is probably what most people want for their children. They want to raise their kids to have happy, pleasant, stress-free lives… because they hate the idea of their children suffering in any way. (Author’s Note: my mom once told me she can’t read this blog, because it’s too painful for her to have to read how much pain and suffering I’ve had in my life. (Author’s Note on the Author’s Note: in no way have I lead a painful life compared to other people. I think my mom just doesn’t like the idea of me suffering at all. She wants me to have a pleasant life.))
Some people absolutely want this for themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If a pleasant life is what you imagine for yourself when you imagine happiness, the good news is that there is a lot you can do to maximize your pleasantness:
- You can live each day deliberately, with a focus on minimizing stress and maximizing happiness
- You can practice mindfulness and gratitude
- You can foster connectedness with other people
Living a Meaningful Life
True strength lies in submission which permits one to dedicate his life, through devotion, to something beyond himself.” – Herman Miller
While we want a pleasant, care-free life for our children, however, we often want something else for ourselves. We want meaning. On the other side of Dr. Seligman’s spectrum is the meaningful life. This is what I’ve always thought I was “supposed” to be doing: dedicating myself fully to a cause greater than myself. I’ve spent years judging myself for not having that “greater than myself” cause to throw myself into.
Meaningful lives aren’t all roses and accolades, though. While Schopenhauer may have argued that “Life without pain has no meaning,” perhaps what he should have said was, “Life with meaning has pain.” If you’re truly dedicating yourself to a cause greater than yourself, your life is going to have hardship. You will make sacrifices other people don’t understand. You will be uncomfortable. You will be stressed. But it will still drive you, and you’ll still be chasing that definition of happiness that doesn’t have much to do with living a pleasant life.
If you’re the kind of person who needs to live a meaningful life, I bet you are already doing so. You probably can’t help it. For example, I have a friend-of-a-friend who’s a successful world-famous oncologist. He’s crazy smart and crazy successful. He’s one of the youngest doctors at his hospital to seek the board. He travels the world lecturing. He’s fucking saving people’s lives, y’all. If that’s not the deepest of meanings, I don’t know what is.
But this friend-of-a-friend is doing all of this at the expense of his own personal life and health. He doesn’t get to spend that much time with his children or loved ones, because he travels and works so much. His health is so bad that he’s been ordered by his own doctor to either slow down or have his colon removed to lessen his own chances of getting cancer. And do you know which option sounds better to him? Having his colon removed. He doesn’t want to slow down. He can’t. He has too much to do.
That’s dedication. He’s an amazing human being, and he’ll probably leave a “bigger” impact on this planet than most other people (including me). But you know what I recently realized? I don’t want that kind of life. That isn’t my form of happiness. I’ve spent years wishing I had that drive without really having the desire to sacrifice other areas of my life.
I don’t want a meaningful life, by Dr. Seligman’s standards. But I’ve never known what my other options were.
Living an Engaged Life
So we can’t all be Mother Theresa. What are the rest of us supposed to do?
When you work too much, you are boring – that is possible. But to have a happy life, if you can do several things in the correct way, that is perfect.” – Diego Della Valle
What I never understood until recently was that there’s an option between hedonism and complete dedication to a cause at the expense of all others. This is what Dr. Seligman describes as living an engaged life. It’s about finding balance, about spreading your gifts and your energy and your skills in different areas of your life. It means having eudaimonic motives, which Dr. Seligman describes as individuals who are “pursuing personal growth, development of their potential, achieving personal excellence, and contributing to the lives of others,” but in multiple areas of your life.
You guys. You guys.
What’s funny is that I’ve always instinctively lived my life in this way, I’ve just never respected it as a path to true happiness. I have always viewed my life as a Venn Diagram — work, friends, family, romance, hobbies — and struggled when any one area wasn’t perfect–hile simultaneously judging myself for not having “the ovum” to chuck everything and move to South Africa to fight AIDS. Now that I have a model of happiness I understand, I’ve been able to focus on bringing balance to my Venn diagram instead of seeking overall perfection or a single way to channel all my efforts.
Identify Your Strengths and Live Your Best Life
The problem with pursuing the engaged life, though, is that it’s a little fuzzy. It’s easy to tell if you’re living a pleasant life, and it’s easy to tell if you’re dedicating every ounce of yourself to a goal greater than yourself. But how can you tell if you’re achieving balance in “work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure”?
Dr. Seligman recommends identifying your key character strengths and then actively and mindfully applying them to all areas of your life. Click here to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths Dr. Seligman mentions in the video.
For example, when I took this quiz, my key strengths came back as:
- Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
- Curiosity and interest in the world
- Zest, enthusiasm, and energy
My Happy List now is a little different than it was a year ago. Now my Happy List is about how I can use critical thinking, curiosity, and enthusiasm in all areas of my life. Of course, this isn’t meant to be guidance for anyone else, because my Happy List (and my life) is going to look completely different from anyone else’s.
The great thing is that now I’m much more likely to end each day with a feeling of satisfaction, because I ask myself if I was able to use my strengths. If I can manage to do so in pursuit of my own personal core values, there’s nothing else I can ask of myself or my life.
So what’s on your Happy List? – Lindsay