Can we achieve a lasting state of happiness?
What is happiness? It’s a huge question, isn’t it? Many clients will say to their counsellors "I just want to be happy", yet when asked what that might look like, they have no idea. They often know that it is not 'this'; this feeling of anguish, sadness, unhappiness.
Is happiness a feeling of peace, contentment, excitement, or joy? These are all just emotions after all, and as we know, emotions can be fleeting. For instance, no one says "I just want to be angry".
We know that we may, from time to time, feel anger and then, usually, the feeling leaves us. But happiness? People seem to want to be permanently happy. Is this even possible?
A few years back my world fell apart. Yes, I know that is a cliché, but that accurately describes the many negative events that invaded my life. My marriage broke down, and I was left near penniless with three kids to care for. The result, after trying so hard to keep it all together, was depression. And Prozac. So, I understand what deep unhappiness, anxiety, and depression feel like - they feel like being in a deep, dark hole with no way of getting out.
Except, I did get out.
I began to meditate, run five miles daily, and cut out the alcohol I had taken to using. With the meditation came the observation of my thoughts and emotions, and this led me to become more self-aware. I came off medication, and each time I felt myself slipping back into darkness I meditated on why - allowing myself to feel the emotions instead of numbing them through medication and alcohol. I took a post-graduate course in counselling and psychotherapy and became qualified.
It was a six-year journey and it hurt... a lot. It taught me all about unhappiness, despair, anger, and sadness, and it made me ask lots of questions about what happiness is.
I remember saying to myself "this will get easier, all things pass. Remember, nothing is permanent", like a mantra, almost daily. This helped me to understand that all things do eventually change and the despair would eventually leave. But would it leave me to be replaced by happiness? How could I achieve that state?
First, we need to explore what being happy means to us as individuals. To me, happiness means being in a state of peace where there is no anxiety, anguish, or worry. It means noticing that right now, in this very moment, I am OK. This feels like a crucial point, as many of us tend to worry about events that have not yet happened. But right now? Ask yourself, are you OK right now at this very moment? It’s surprising that, oftentimes, the answer will be yes.
In her 2007 book, 'The How of Happiness', positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as, "the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile".
That’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. Life is not always good or meaningful. There is often adversity to overcome, and certainly, for many of us, our childhood may have been filled with adversity that we have carried into our adult lives. For those who have experienced childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma, it may be difficult to feel any sort of happiness. So, can we alter our state of mind, despite adversity, to embrace happiness as a habit or a way of being?
Can we create a permanent state of happiness?
Many Buddhists believe that we need to look inward for our source of happiness, not outward. If we believe that money will bring happiness, we also know that money can cause suffering, so that is not the true source of happiness.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, in 'How to Transform your Life, A Blissful Journey', states that, "happiness and suffering are states of mind, and so their main causes are not to be found outside the mind. If we want to be truly happy and free from suffering, we must learn how to control our mind". This begins with noticing where our mind takes us in meditation and being mindful of our thoughts.
Our thoughts can create much suffering. Think about those days when you are in a bad mood and then reflect on the type of thoughts you are having. "I can’t believe that idiot cut in front of me! Who the hell does he think he is? Oh God, I’m going to be late for work and that means I’ll have to stay late tonight...". At the same time, our imagination has taken us on three different stories of stopping the car and hitting another driver, working late in an empty building, then being late home for dinner where your partner will sit fuming, and so on and so on. Thoughts like this can go on all day.
Now, the question to ask is; do these thoughts create our bad mood or is the emotion of being angry, sad, or frustrated creating these thoughts? If we can reflect and notice what is happening in our minds, can we stop the negative thinking before it sets us off on feeling awful for the rest of the day? If we do this, we are creating good thought habits; we are catching our thoughts before we begin on the negative spiral that can cause us to feel despair and unhappiness.
Research has shown that our genetic makeup partially determines our happiness' 'set-point'. The other factors that determine our happiness are external circumstances; lifestyle, work, social engagements, etc. A large percentage of our happiness though is determined by our choices, the things we do, how much control we feel that we have, and our ways of thinking. Cognitive behaviour therapy encourages us to notice our thinking and alter the story.
An identical situation, viewed by two different people, can mean two entirely different things according to the meaning and thoughts that either person brings to the situation.
For example, think about an argument between partners. It’s an argument precisely because each person sees the same situation from entirely different perspectives. Say the couple had been in a bar, and one had been chatting to a stranger of the opposite sex. The partner gets annoyed and feels rejected. The situation can be viewed from all angles but it’s still the same scenario. Yet the meaning that each person brings can be the cause of the argument. One person might feel rejected because the situation has triggered suffering stemming from early childhood, whilst the other feels angry because they felt the situation was not their fault. The result is much suffering due to thoughts and emotions such as jealousy, sadness, anger, and rejection. Phew, that’s a lot happening just from one small misunderstanding! The result is deep unhappiness and confusion.
Researchers have shown that connections with other people are vital to our happiness. Much of depression is about a deep disconnection from our friends and family. Not feeling a part of a group or a tribe. In 'Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the unexpected solutions', Hari talks about how when we feel disconnected from people, we become lonely and depressed. He states that it is the way that we live now in society. People can go from day to day without having any meaningful conversations or sharing ideas or thoughts with anyone meaningful; this can eventually lead to depression.
Meaningful work also creates happiness. Without feeling that we are contributing to the greater good in some way, we can be left feeling dissatisfied and wondering what is the point to our existence.
There are many factors to consider in our pursuit of happiness - points that are worthwhile reflecting on - including;
- Is your career or work bringing a small amount of happiness in your life? Do you feel that your work is meaningful? And if not, can you change it?
- Do you feel connected to friends? Do you have one or two friends that you can have meaningful conversations with? Do you feel part of a group?
- Are you watching your thoughts? Notice how many of your thoughts each day affect your mood or emotions. Can you notice your thoughts and alter them to create good thinking habits?
- Do more of what you enjoy doing! Write a list of all the things that you enjoy and start scheduling time in to pursue these things. This might range from drinking good coffee with a friend to skydiving. Whatever it is that floats your boat.
- If there are relationships in your life that are making you unhappy, it might be worth looking closely at those relationships and putting in some boundary work.
These are just a few suggestions worth exploring in your pursuit of happiness, but we have to start somewhere. Mostly, it will take some soul searching and self-reflection, which isn’t always easy.
Altering some of these things slightly will take time and effort, but may contribute towards a greater sense of well-being... isn’t that worth pursuing?