Accepting you feel happy enough, as opposed to constantly pursuing an ephemeral idea of what happiness might be, is the route many now choose to greater well-being.
Remember that old REM hit, Shiny Happy People? In it, the lyrics encouraged you to put “it in your heart” where “tomorrow” and “gold and silver shine”. Okay, let’s not set too much store by a pop song, but it illustrates something important about modern culture:
Happiness seems to be shiny, attractive and – like gold an sliver – material to some extent.
In fairness to the songwriters, happiness is something that we might observe in others. The so-called shiny people of the song – if not ourselves.
Now, a jangly rock anthem may not really be the best route to understanding what happiness is conceptually, but it certainly reveals the way many of us think about it on a day-to-day basis. However, the pursuit of happiness, like the pursuit of anything material, can lead us in the wrong direction. This is what today’s psychologists refer to as the happiness trap. Let’s examine what this trap is, how you can identify the extent to which you might have fallen into it and – perhaps most importantly of all – the measures you can take to get out of it.
The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, happiness involves activity and exhibiting virtue but the word he chose to describe it was eudaimonia. Often translated as happiness, this term is probably better described as human flourishing. We seem quite removed from that sentiment when you consider how contemporary mass culture depicts happiness. Think of all the happy messages the mainstream media bombards us with just to begin with.
Ask yourself how many times a day that you might hear that you can be happy – will be happy, even – if only you choose these clothes, that form of transportation or this particular adornment.
There again, the pursuit of happiness might be marketed as being concurrent with the pursuit of other goals. For example, you may have heard you’ll be happy if you pursue your youth – with an anti-wrinkle cream, of course. Or that you will be happy if you pursue greater wealth by choosing one investment product over another.
Eudaimonia has little to do with any of that. Over the ages, spiritual leaders have taught us to abandon the relationship between happiness and material wealth. Bear in mind that it is not so much that material aggrandisement won’t bring you happiness, rather than the detriment it can cause to your perception of happiness. Although the current generation of Westerners are, by and large, richer than ever before the variation of how people perceive their level of happiness is high, to say the least.
Are You in the Happiness Trap?
Feeling unhappy or sad is perfectly natural and all humans will go through mental states like this from time to time. However, a general malaise in your sense of happiness may reveal that you are, indeed, in the happiness trap. If you think that your personal happiness ties in with the images you might see on TV or in lifestyle magazines, then that is a sure sign. Equally, if you are constantly comparing the level of happiness you feel with that which you perceive in your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues, then this may also indicate your entrapment of a false perception of happiness.
Psychologists now write with increasing frequency on the downside of happiness. Essentially, they are posing questions about
- when happiness is appropriate
- what level of it is best
- whether there are ‘wrongful’ ways of pursuing happiness
Indeed, despite the oft-noted benefits of happiness, some leading authors are posing the question as to whether there are wrong types of happiness that might be better avoided. If you think you might be in the happiness trap, then you are certainly not alone. Modern scientific thinking may well agree with your self assessment.
Cognitive and Behavioural Strategies for Feeling Happy Enough
So far, we have focussed on whether we have our priorities right with happiness and whether there is an over-connection to material considerations when pursuing happiness. Now let’s turn our attention to being able to feel happy enough. If you like, this is the ability to accept with gratitude the happiness you feel. Then to have the strength to resist the temptation to seek more.
Identifying and accepting the state of being happy enough is the key to getting out of the happiness trap.
If you feel happy enough, then you won’t feel the need to carry on pursuing the false idols of materialism or of keeping up with the Joneses.
Deciding to feel happy enough may be easier said than done given our materialistic culture. Indeed, a 2003 psychological study by Schooler, Airey and Loewenstein suggested that pursuing happiness as a goal was doomed to failure anyway. Thankfully, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and others offer some cognitive and behavioural tips, you can follow to offer you the best chance of avoiding that empty sensation of not feeling happy enough.
Setting Aside Time
With so much that contributes to modern life pointing you towards the happiness trap, it is a good idea to simply set aside time to recall moments of gratitude. By doing this regularly, you are much better positioned to see past the short-term nature of such messages and to keep an eye on what really contributes to your happiness. You could, for instance, keep a journal where you can count your blessings. For example the love of people close to you or your general health. In addition, writing letters of gratitude can help to reorientate your perspective on to what really counts. There is something about the mental activity that goes on during the act of writing that helps to rebalance our cognitive processes and application of this can shape your feelings surrounding happiness.
Positive Mentality Strategies
As mentioned, writing can have a beneficial effect on the way we think about a range of circumstances, including the way we feel about happiness. However, it is not the only positive mental strategy that you can use in a self-regulatory manner. Positive thinking about oneself can come in other reflective forms. You can have a look back through old photos of heart-warming and cheerful life events. Or you might prefer to talk about your happiest and unhappiest moments in life with a loved one. Another possibility is to have a discussion about your life goals for the future with your partner or a trusted friend. By focussing positivity in this way, you naturally engage less with shorter term aspirations and material objectives.
The Power of Altruism
Studies have shown that practising altruism can help you to feel more satisfied with your level of happiness. Helping you to understand what is good about your life, altruistic acts are also of benefit to their recipient. Simply making the decision to be kinder and more understanding in your everyday interactions is a good first step. You might consider doing something practical, too, such as donating your blood. By routinely committing to acts of kindness or trying to make a loved one happy, you will end up feeling more empowered about how happy you feel and less reliant on what other people think about you.
Reaffirmation of Your Values
Refocussing on your most important values is another key step in accepting the level of happiness you feel. Think of it like restating your marriage vows – if you ever made them, that is – as a means of getting back to basics. By reaffirming the true person you are, it becomes possible to shake off sometimes years of misguided happiness that has become more and more reliant on a false idea of perfection. One that is modelled on an ‘ideal’ life as depicted in modern culture so much. Take a step back to focus on what makes you tick and reaffirm your commitment to it.
By taking the time to savour positive experiences in life, rather than rushing on hedonistically to the next chance of happiness, you are more likely to enjoy the moment. Think of a greedy diner who, enjoying their food gulps it all down rapidly only to feel disappointed. Compared with someone who savours every mouthful to the maximum. Both might consume the same food but gain very different experiences from their meal. Slow down. See the whole picture. Focus on the positivity of any given situation in order to feel happier in yourself.
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