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Act well, feel well, be well

Four Habits of Happy People

How to work, play, love, and pray unhappiness away

Although the USA is considered by many to be the greatest nation in the world, believe it or not, as far as overall life satisfaction goes, it doesn't even make it into the top ten. In fact, according to recent data from the OECD Better Life Index (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), more than a dozen countries (including Iceland, Canada, Israel, and Mexico) out score the USA when it comes to the general contentment of its citizens.

The OECD takes many factors into consideration, including housing, jobs, education, safety, environment, healthcare, and income. Anecdotal information, however, suggests that life satisfaction can be distilled down to four fundamental zones that define and provide meaning to our lives. Namely, Work, Play, Love, and Pray. For most people, these are the pillars on which rest a stable, balanced and fulfilling life. Evidently, a lot of people in the United States have not struck the balance among these areas that many foreign people have. Perhaps this post will help.

Work is an essential dimension of human experience that, one hopes, allows for productive, mentally stimulating, socially interactive, structure and routine. Regardless of financial factors, people need these kinds of consistent activities to imbue their lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. Thus, provided one’s job is not a toxic, soul-sucking, thankless chore, work is vital for overall satisfaction and fulfillment. 

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Play is also a crucial part of life. Just as a good work ethic is important for occupational success, a good play ethic is equally important for successful fun. Obviously, play means different things to different people but the common denominator of all play is having fun. This is usually what we mean by “down time,” or recreation and leisure. Basically, play involves various enjoyable activities that tap into one’s inner child. It is important to note that indulging one’s inner child is not the same as being childish. Childish behavior is typically irresponsible, selfish, and potentially dangerous (e.g., excessive drinking or drug use). Childlike fun involves a zest for life, often physical play, silliness and being in the moment (e.g., making a sand castle, tossing a ball around, arts and crafts, music, reading, etc.).

Love is another fundamental aspect of a happy life. Indeed, perhaps one the most important things in life is to love and be loved. Simply put, love (and affection) is vital emotional nourishment that feeds our soul and fortifies our physical wellbeing. Keep in mind that love does not have to be romantic or sexual. Very meaningful love can come from any reciprocal, intimate sharing with family and/or friends. Even (sometimes especially) pets can provide the deep bond of love and affection that seems necessary for true emotional satisfaction.

Pray does not necessarily mean literally praying to God or a higher power. Nor does it have to involve any organized religious practice at all. Rather, in this context, “pray” denotes a deep seated sense of connectedness to the universe, an existence bigger than ourselves, or a spiritual awareness of oneself as more than a purely physical entity.

Interestingly, church goers seem to live longer on average than non-church goers. While the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear, it is not necessarily belief in God, deep faith, or the power of prayer, per se. Instead, the camaraderie, singing, prayer recitation, fellowship, consistency of social involvement, and meditative aspects of some church rituals might be the reason. Also, people who believe in God and have a faith based life probably have less existential stress and worry than “non believers.”

Nevertheless, even entirely nonspiritual, atheists require at least the three zones of work, play and love to be as happy as possible. Metaphorically, work/play/love can be thought of as a tripod that anchors one’s life to a solid foundation of secular fulfillment. Indeed, like a strong and stable tripod, the "legs" of work, play and love can support and stabilize a purely secular person in his or her life, too.

Clearly three legs give something a great deal of strength and stability to bare up under weight or pressure. Two legs are okay and allow for some balance and solidity. But a life with only one “leg” is inherently wobbly and not very stable. Hence, the three leg model is vastly better than two or one, right? And what can be even stronger and more stable than a tripod? A structure with four strong and well proportioned legs, of course.

The reason that plugging into all four zones is best is because it provides for more sources of participation, involvement, and potential rewards. What's more, when one encounters difficulty, stress or strife in any one area, there are a few others to take solace in. For instance, if work is rough or unsatisfying, one can drink deep at the wells of love, leisure activities, and spiritual connectedness. Or, if one is experiencing hassles at home (usually a place of love), having work as a consistent routine can be a haven, and so on. Thus, the more zones one is involved in the better.

Of course, it's unrealistic to assume that all four quardrants will be equal at all times. In fact, the thesis of this post is based on the idea of dynamic equilibrium which means that on the whole things are strong and balanced even if at a given time the specific "legs" are unequally thick. Sometimes work might require a lot of time and effort so the other zones can't be as present.  At other times (like on a vacation) play predominates so work is (or best is) totally deemphasized. Nevertheless, as long as all four (or at least three) zones are always nearby, if not present to some extent, life has the potential for stability, strength, balance, and fulfillment.

So, while this post offers only a mere peek through the keyhole, it seems fair to say, in keeping with the overall paradigm of CBT, you can work, play, love, and pray unhappiness away.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., is Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute.

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