No doubt about it. We humans are pleasure seekers. But how many of us are true pleasure finders? We look for it everywhere; millions of us thinking we’ll find it with pockets of cash, fame, recognition or really great sex. Interestingly, a 75 year (yes, 75 years!) study done by Harvard University beginning in 1939, proves conclusively that those things won’t bring us happiness. Maybe a little pleasure perhaps, but not real happiness. And that’s what we truly seek, isn’t it? Isn’t pleasure just a precursor to happiness? And sometimes, pleasure doesn’t lead to happiness at all. Think of casual sex with a relative stranger. Pleasure was probably part of the equation, but did it lead to happiness? No guess is no. I think of pleasure as a temporary state of experience, while happiness is a state of mind, a way of life, perhaps even the ultimate goal. After all, didn’t the Dali Lama say “The purpose of life is to be happy”, and Bobby McFerrin who advised us to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? It’s the sweetness we all seek. Pleasure may sometimes be the first course, but happiness is the whole meal.
What will make us happy? Well, losing a few pounds can’t hurt, or saving money for retirement, or spending more time outdoors or with friends. Perhaps cutting back on alcohol will make us happier, or upping our intake of vitamins. No doubt being in treatment with a psychotherapist will help us discover the holy grail of happiness, or at least help us deal with those purveyors of our unhappiness…the bad boss, the abusive sibling, the controlling boyfriend, the ghosts of our traumatic childhoods etc. Yes, if we can just learn to handle the difficult people of the world, just learn to manage our own inner and outer demons, happiness will be ours. Well…not exactly. I think all of this falls into the category of “necessary but not sufficient”. We do actually need to learn coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult people and would benefit greatly from better self-care and financial responsibility. Letting go of destructive addictions will undoubtedly set the table for less volatile mood swings and the depression that usually follows the “high”. But a nicely set table is not the feast.
So here are six things that we need to consider in order to be truly happy:
1. What makes us most happy over the course of a lifetime, according to Dr. Robert Waldinger the 4th director of the Harvard University Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult development ever done, is good relationships. This is the conclusion after 724 men were studied (and are still being studied) over 75 years. Some of the original men are now deceased, some became presidents, CEOs, and one actually became POTUS. Others became teachers, small business owners, physicians, lawyers. Lots of power and money and recognition among their ranks. But still, it was the quality of meaningful relationships that consistently made them the happiest. The study found that it’s not the number of friends or relationships one has that lead to happiness, but the quality of those relationships. People who you can count on when the going gets tough. Relationships in which we are loved and accepted for who we are, not for who someone else wants us to be. So lean in to your friendships, cherish them and realize that they are not only making you happy but prolonging your life, protecting your health and increasing the cognitive and memory functions of your brain.
2. Happiness results from being in the present. The truth about happiness has been written about by wiser, more articulate, renowned people than I. But truth is rarely heard the first hundred or so times it reaches our ears. Truth bears repeating. The truth of this is that the present is all we have. Think deeply on that. Meditate on that if you will. It may take lifetimes of contemplation to really understand the profound nature of the present. It is ALWAYS NOW. We spend our lives forgetting this, fleeing it, when all we have is the present. By forgetting and fleeing, we cease to be fully alive. And to be happy, we must be fully alive. We can’t be happy in the future if we can’t be happy now because the future eventually becomes now. Living in the present requires attention and mindfulness. Pay attention to this moment, be mindful of what’s going on inside and outside of you in the present. As I sit at my computer looking out at the closing of the day, I am mindful of the birch outside my window. Lovely. I am aware that I am nervous that what I write here might be misunderstood…but that’s in the future. Right now I’m enjoying the light and the writing. Future thinking has brought me anxiety. Living in the present has brought me beauty and satisfaction…happiness. It was possible just now to drop a future worry and enjoy this moment. Today I want to do things to be doing them, not to be doing something else. I do not want to do things to sell myself on myself. I don’t want to do nice things for people so that I will be thought of as “nice”. I don’t want to work to make money. I want to work to work. Today I don’t want to live for anything in the future or because of anything in the past. I just want to live. As a very wise soul, Baba Ram Das, once said, I just want to “Be Here Now”.
3. I’ve personally come to realize that I am more likely to be happy when I do what I say I’m going to do; in other words, when I accomplish my will. It doesn’t necessarily matter what my will is, but rather that I set my intention and DO IT. This could be something as simple as reading for an hour, or exercising or writing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering. Conversely, doing something I have determined NOT to do, makes me unhappy. I feel weaker, subservient to my ego, lazy, subject to whims and distractions. We are the creators of our lives and in order to create, we need to employ WILL. Happiness is the realization of ourselves as the creator of our own experience. We always have control over our attitude about what happens to us, if not the actual events that happen. Otherwise we are just victims and victimhood is not a hood any of us want to live in.
4. The next key to happiness is an expansion of the notion of being in the present and that is, pay attention. Now I’m not talking about paying attention to every minor irritation, personal failing or the inadequacies of others. I am talking about paying attention to the beauty and grace that always surrounds us. I’m a singer and as such have sung in many choruses for most of my life. One of my favorite pieces from the choral literature is from the oratorio Elijah by Mendelssohn called “Lift Thine Eyes”. It is a brief and rather simple piece, often sung by children, I think because of its’ innocence. “Lift thine eyes, oh lift thine eyes…to the mountain, whence cometh help”. This Bible verse from Psalms 121 is about looking to God for help. While I don’t dispute this, for me its’ meaning has been even more literal. Look up, pay attention. Comfort is all around us, whether you see this as God or nature is not important. Because if you actually pay attention to nature, you will be filled with joy and happiness. This happiness can be found walking in the mountains or at the ocean, gazing at flowers, birds or myriad creatures that share our world. It can be the appreciation of a tree in your own yard or neighborhood. The natural world is astounding and I believe it’s there, in part, to help us cope with the difficulties of life. It’s a freebie that nature offers to assist in our happiness. Rushing through our lives, looking at screens, eyes cast downward more often than not, deprives us of the gift of nature. Lift thine eyes!
5. Control of the mind is another key to happiness. How can we be happy when we are led around by what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind”? Monkey mind worries, frets, judges, fears and distorts. Yet we often think we are the mind, but we are not. Mind is our tool. We need to be master of it if we are to find deep happiness. In my practice of psychotherapy, I’ve seen literally hundreds of people who had depression and anxiety. A component of this was almost always the inability to control the mind and to realize that the authentic self is not the uncontrolled thoughts that pass through our consciousness. Reality, to a very large degree, is what we think it is. If we think we are inadequate, not good enough, that is what we will experience. If we think someone else is “out to get us”, fear and paranoia is what we will experience. If we think that happiness is not possible in this world, then that too is our experience. There are many ways to learn to control your mind. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a secular training, meditation is a spiritual one. But happiness will always elude us if we can’t control our thoughts. I’m not naively suggesting that one simply “think happy thoughts”, although that’s not a bad idea if you can do it. But first, attempt to only entertain those thoughts which you actually want to have. For example, do you really want to think “I look awful today, I’m so fat!”? You might begin with simply refusing to think about how you look as there are more important things to think about. Once you’ve mastered that, you can substitute thoughts that affirm your SELF, your looks, your weight. From that place you are actually more able to do something about your physical fitness if that’s what’s called for. Or, you may discover that being self-critical in this way was simply a bad thought habit.
6. Finally, much empirical evidence has shown us that people who have spiritual or religious beliefs are happier than those who don’t, no matter what those beliefs actually are. Positive Psychology is a trending philosophy in current psychology. Essentially, this is a system that looks at why people are happy and what they can do to attain that. Positive Psychology talks about meaning and its’ relationship to happiness. Certainly those who have spiritual or religious beliefs have a leg up on the subject of meaning. Religion teaches that life has meaning and that things happen for a reason. Whether this be the will of God or Karma, to teach a lesson or have a particular experience, things are not random and meaningless. This gives humans enormous comfort. We seem to need this to ward off fear, dread and existential crisis. This broader perspective that spirituality offers, reassures us that life is not just randomly chaotic. Religion also provides assurance that someone, be it God Himself, one’s Guru, or the spiritual community to which one belongs, has your back. In the case of God, belief is that you are unconditionally loved, or at least have the possibility of forgiveness if sought sincerely. Another added bonus of belief in the divine is that in the end, all will be well. This might be the “end” of a particular life phase or experience or the actual end of life. This allows us to relax into life, knowing that the story ends well, regardless of how the chapters or scenes played out.
Religion and happiness have a high correlation because religion provides a social network. In fact the correlation is so strong that some studies haven’t been able to ascertain what well-being was most attributed to, social support or belief. But the community aspect of religion’s relationship to happiness is very strong. There is definitely something about being in a community of like-minded people who have a moral code that all can ascribe to and who will support you in time of need, which increases happiness. This consideration brings us back to the first point I made about the Harvard study informing us that the one thing that most correlates to happiness is good relationships.
Happiness is such a simple word, one that has been celebrated, commercialized, overused, trivialized and hyped. But in actual truth, happiness is profound and the contemplation of happiness can lead us down many paths worth traveling.