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What is happiness? Why are some people happy and others are miserable, in the same circumstances? What do the ‘happiness elite’ do that others do not? Which of the factors related to happiness can we control? What can we do to raise our levels of happiness?
Some ‘psychologists’ have described happiness as a form of ‘mental illness.’ I wonder if such pronouncements inspired Oscar Wilde to observe of people: ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.’
If happiness is a mental illness, it seems to be one that most people seek to contract, and those who have developed an advanced case of it, joyfully avoid any cure.
‘What everyone want from life is continuous and genuine happiness,’ said Baruch Spinoza. Almost everyone seeks happiness. That seems as true today as it has been throughout history.
What is happiness? There are many definitions, even in leading dictionaries. Here is one from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The state of pleasurable contentment of mind; deep pleasure in or contentment with one’s circumstances.’
Even the best definitions are, frankly, less than definitive. From the above, which is it: deep pleasure or contentment? They seem very different.
One difficulty in defining happiness is deciding what level of emotional intensity it involves. We can be happy with the colour of an item, meaning that we accept it without any negative associations. Or, at the other extreme, we can be happy to the extent of elation. Yet we use the same word for both extremes.
Another difficulty in defining, and therefore understanding happiness, is separating the logical from the emotional component.
Wealth, power and fame, have all led to misery, as have their opposites. Many people are very happy in circumstances that others would describe as horrendous. Happiness seems to be based on something other than circumstances. The facts, the reality, of a person’s life, seem to play only a small part in their level of happiness. There could be an intervening variable.
Shakespeare observed the mediating variable with his usual eloquence: ‘Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
It seems that happiness is created mostly internally. Perhaps having less of an external world accessible to her, enabled the blind and deaf Helen Keller to see that truth: ‘Your success and happiness lies in you.’
Many people are aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy; the phenomenon where belief in a future event leads to behaviour which causes the event.
Could it be that there is a self-fulfilling upward spiral at work in those people who achieve high levels of happiness, and the same downward spiral for those who create a life of misery for themselves. Helen Keller again pinpointed it: ‘No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.’
Many observers of the human condition noted that some people’s happiness seems to come from within, for example: ‘The greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.’ Martha Washington.
There does seem to be a small genetic component to happiness; some people who have happy parents grow up to be happy people. The genetic components of happiness may be small (around 15%) compared to learned, behavioural, societal, and cultural factors.
Over and over again the places in the world that come out on top of the happiness surveys are the ‘Nordic’ countries, in the broadest sense of the word: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. Among the explanations of why those countries are happier than other parts of the world, is that the people there take self-responsibility for their happiness. Such an idea is far from new, and has often been advocated by thinkers throughout history, for example:
- ‘Happiness depends upon ourselves.’ – Aristotle
- ‘It is ridiculous to think that somebody else can make you happy or unhappy.’ – Buddha
If happiness is based on self-responsibility, what do the happiness elite do that others do not? The happiest people have learned what actions can make them happy. Helpful as knowledge is, it is not enough:
- ‘Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.’ – Benjamin Disraeli
To be able to take the actions necessary to be happy, there must be other supporting factors. For instance, social and cultural acceptance of those actions; a shared awareness that taking action to create happiness is beneficial for all.
Knowledge of techniques, to enhance happiness, and social and cultural support for taking action, are still not sufficient. If someone wants to be happy, it starts with one essential internal act, described by Aeschylus in 500 BC: ‘Happiness is a choice.’
People who are happy, have chosen to be happy, and then taken the action necessary to be happy. That action, is mostly internal; thought based. The choice to be happy leads to other choices, one of which is what to focus on. We all have a choice of what to focus on when we behold a rose bush. Unhappy people are more likely to focus on the manure, the thorns, and pests, while those who have chosen to be happy focus on the flower, the rose, the scent.
That is not to say that there is no happiness to be found in the thorns, manure or pests. There too, happiness can be found with the right choices and focus.
Learning how to create the right mix of soil and manure, how the thorns enable the survival of the rose, and how to minimise the effect of pests brings much happiness to countless numbers of gardeners. There, too, happiness is a choice.
Happiness is not just in our action, or in our focus; it is also in how we choose to perceive that upon which we focus. Indeed, almost every aspect of our happiness is based on the choices we make. ‘Happiness is a journey, not a destination.’ Buddha
The last quote goes to someone who gave the freedom to choose happiness to millions of people: ‘Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.’ Abraham Lincoln.
What can we do to raise our levels of happiness?
- Choose to be happy.
- Focus on what brings you happiness.
- Take action that induces happiness.
- Surround yourself with people who have made the same choice: to be happy.
How happy do you choose to be?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.