Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.
I believe I’m a reasonably happy person, whatever that means. Sure, I’ve had ups and downs and dealt with disappointment, failure, illness, stress, loss, grief, and death. Most of us have. In retrospect, however, I’ve been mostly satisfied and content, felt good about things and stayed positive. Is that happiness? I wasn’t certain I had a good answer – until now.
On the flip side, I clearly know when I’m not happy. I was not happy through my failures, in stressful situations, and when I lost loved ones. I’ve grieved. I’ve cried. I have felt alone. I was anything but happy then! We read and hear a lot about unhappiness these days. I often see people around me who clearly are not in a frame of mind that I would call happy.
I thought about all this and began to ask: what is happiness? How does one become happy? Can one acquire happiness and stay happy? I’m here to share the results of my research and reflections with you.
I began by looking up happiness in the dictionary.
“The state of being happy,” it read.
So much for dictionaries! The word ‘state’ in this definition was a clue, however. After some more reading, I concluded that we typically use the word happiness to describe a mental or emotional state that derives from our perception of our circumstances at any given time. We assign a value to that perception; when this value is positive, we are ‘pleased’.
Our feelings move into the spectrum of pleasant emotions, somewhere in the range from being satisfied or content, through a feeling of joy, to intense pleasure. By this definition, we can be happy one instant and unhappy the next. The change from a happy to unhappy state occurs at the speed at which our perception of our circumstance changes. Material gains fuel a feeling of happiness for a while but can soon feel hollow. Adding that second scoop of ice cream to my bowl satisfies my urge for dessert, and makes me happy until I think about its impact on my blood glucose level! We can be in a ‘state of happiness’ for a few fleeting moments until our perception alters.
While this conclusion is not very reassuring, we shouldn’t downplay the importance of this kind of happiness. It’s good in general to be in a positive or ‘happy’ state as often as we can, provided that state is not the result of misperceptions. We also need to understand this kind of happiness, and its role in the context that I describe next.
Another way in which we often use the word happiness is to describe something other than a transient emotion or state of mind; we use it in the context of our overall well-being. This is a different ‘state’ of mind that relates to our assessment of where we are now, or where we are likely to be at some future point in our lives; we use the word in the context of our life satisfaction. Happiness flows from a feeling of accomplishment. This subjective assessment of our state of life is central to driving our ‘state’ of happiness. By altering our assessment, we can arrive at a different conclusion.
Does that mean that we can choose to be happy? A choice made by adopting a different view or perspective of our circumstances?
A review of scientific studies provided further clues. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Psychology at UC Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, is a leading authority on this subject. She has studied happiness, and how and why it can shift over time. While happiness is defined in different ways for different people, she says, it is “a combination of frequent positive emotions, plus the sense that your life is good.”
Geneticists and neuroscientists have shown that genetics and heredity play some role in determining “baseline happiness” and subjective wellbeing. For instance, around 50% of cases of major depression are attributed to genetic causes, while the rest stem from psychological or physical factors. The general consensus in the scientific community is that your happiness is only partially determined by your genes; most of it comes down to lifestyle and other environmental factors that you can control.
What are the factors and how do you control them?
A branch of psychology known as Positive Psychology provides answers. Coined by University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Martin Seligman, one of the influential thinkers in this area, Positive Psychology studies the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond just surviving to flourishing. Researchers have identified several key ‘elements’ of a good life and practices for improved life satisfaction, wellbeing, and happiness: build healthy relationships and learn to express your thoughts and feelings. Cultivate kindness. Exercise regularly and adopt a healthy diet. Do what you like doing and pursue a goal – find your ‘flow.’ Discover spiritual engagement and find meaning in life. Identify and use your strengths. Adopt a positive mindset: be optimistic, practice mindfulness, practice gratitude. Learn to forgive. Get involved in community and service.
Happiness is not a goal; it’s a life-long process that is in our control.
“Happiness takes work,” says Professor Laurie Santos, Head of Silliman College at Yale, “You don’t just hear about the science of happiness and instantly feel better. You have to change your behavior. It takes effort every day.”
The quest for happiness dates back more than 2500 years to Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and others. In his fascinating book Hiding in Unnatural Happiness, Devamitra Swami points to the teachings of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that happiness “comes to the completely enlightened, self-realized soul.” Today’s scientists are rediscovering much the same insights!
If we look outward in our quest for happiness, we are looking in the wrong place. We will find lasting happiness only if we seek it within ourselves!
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. He is also a columnist for India Currents.
With sincere thanks to Zac Durant at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.