In Pursuit of Happiness

Do a quick Amazon search for books on happiness, and you’ll have 60,000 options to consider. It is a big chunk of the over 100,000 self-help titles available to you on this particular platform. Seems like a lot of us are searching for happiness.

But do we even have a handle on what happiness is?

Many people, dictionaries included, define happiness as a feeling. A lot of the time we actively search for this sort of happiness. We want to feel pleasure, we want to feel good, we want to feel better. Sometimes we do things that feel good in the moment but lead to misery later on (hangover anyone?).

But happiness has another, more relevant dimension. Less about a passing feeling and more about a sense of wellbeing – a sense of contentment within one’s whole life. Psychologists (and Greek philosophers) call this eudaemonia: the feeling that our life has meaning and value, that it is going in the right direction, is consistent with our innermost values and is fulfilling.

Life is a series of ups and downs. Feelings come and go, changing as circumstances (and hormones) fluctuate. But real happiness, I think, is about an inner sense that life is worth living.

The need for meaning, for a sense of purpose and connection with others, is a human need. But frequently we misplace “success” with happiness. We buy fancy cars and Botox our faces, we climb corporate ladders or live our #bestlife on Instagram in the hope of accolades and love that we’ve come to associate with success = happiness. The plethora of unhappy “success stories” played out by celebrities everywhere are testament to the fact that happiness is not about success, fame, fortune or wealth, as we’ve come to understand it in today’s consumption driving world.

Clearly, taking the time to sit back and reflect on one’s life is key to long term happiness. That level of self-awareness doesn’t come easily, nor is it a simple exercise despite book titles tempting you with short cuts and quick fixes. It involves evaluating your beliefs and your values; and identifying and questioning assumptions about what you need in order to be happy (because what you need is not going to be what everyone else needs). This is, as they say, “hard work”.

Most of us are not predisposed to the hard work of mentally rewiring ourselves for happiness. It’s not that we are lazy, but rather we have brains that are super keen on efficiency. Your brain loves a short cut. It is a pattern making, habit forming machine, and it does most of that stuff without your conscious input. Your brain is constantly making assumptions, grouping things into beliefs and knowledge structures based on how often things occur together. The neurons that fire together, wire together, as a lecturer once pointed out. But, until the part of your brain responsible for conscious decision making gets involved, the brain is not programmed to do any evaluating on whether something is true or not, or whether it is helpful to you (or the rest of the human race) or not, or whether it will really make you happy. We very seldom question our innate beliefs about the world, because we are very seldom even aware that they are questionable.

As a result, a lot of the things that lead to happier humans are counterintuitive. We think, for example, indulging ourselves leads to happiness, but in actual fact evidence is strongly supportive of the opposite – it is giving to others that increases our own wellbeing. We think money and fame and being loved by as many people as possible will make us feel better. But for many people, it’s amped up emptiness. It is meaningful connections and meaningful work that contributes to our wellbeing. We think watching the news and checking up on social media is an important part of our lives, but in fact, constantly diving into the mountains of entertainment on your device leads to missed opportunities to connect with people around you. And, these connections – incidental ones with strangers in queues or meaningful ones with family and friends – are proven happiness boosters.

Alongside the hard (but rewarding) work of finding the life that makes sense to you (your purpose, as self-proclaimed self-help gurus are wont to put it), there are lots of things we can do to make ourselves happier in our day to day lives – even if we are stuck in jobs we might not like. It all comes down to mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to hack the brain’s short cut routines and build new habits that lead to longer term wellbeing. Being mindful allows us to be purposeful.

So, choose to be present. Choose awareness. Put away your phones, your devices and switch off your TV. Make eye contact and conversation with the people around you. Take a walk in nature and feel the sun on your face or the wind at your back. Actively seek out things to be grateful for. Do something that makes someone else’s day better. Find a hobby that has no higher purpose than enjoyment and give it space in your life. When you can, seek work that you value (and that values you), and when you can’t, commit to doing your best work all the same.

Mostly, really, being happy is deciding you are worth it and choosing to walk the path of life with a little more self-awareness, a little more choice in the direction you are going and a little courage to take the next step.

Sharlene Zeederberg (Oct, 2020)

Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash