Some people have automatic negative responses when they hear “happiness” because the word frequently spurs the desire to attain and cling to something. It can trigger us to want more: more positive feelings, more success, more stuff, more prestige, more control, and even more peace and insight – a fact thoroughly exploited in all kinds of businesses. Nevertheless, I have made peace with the word. I am an ordinary person who wants to make sense to other ordinary persons. Also, it’s a lot of fun to take the word “happiness” out of Hollywood’s grip and explore the deeper meaning it holds for a great many people.

In order to understand what happiness means, I analyzed hundreds of written expressions on the subject. I also interviewed about 100 people, beginning with, “What is happiness in your opinion?” It was striking how few people looked at happiness as an experience reserved for the privileged. The 1996 study of Diener et al. is much in alignment with this initial finding, showing that when Americans are asked about their happiness, 1/3 rate themselves as “very happy” and the majority as “pretty happy.” The study was replicated in many other countries with the same result, with the exception of the poorest whose basic needs are unmet [1].

According to my research, most people don’t associate happiness with a state of “having,” but with an experience of “being,” frequently described as fulfillment, flow, and engagement. There were definite differences on what exactly the writers and interviewees focused. But in one way or the other, most of them likened happiness to a sharpened sense of life or aliveness, bringing forth examples of relationships with other beings, with a wonderful goal, or with life directly. I concluded that happiness to ordinary people goes beyond wanting more and is looked upon as an experience of participation in life, an experience of “being here.” [2]

However, understanding and evaluating happiness are cognitive functions. The question is how we can turn our cognitions into felt realities. How can we turn “I know of happiness, including in my own life” into “I am being happy – I am being here”? There are so many ways to answer this question, one of which is that throughout our lives we grow bad habits that obstruct our sense of life. Another one is that we fail to learn pertinent skills. [2]

But then there is a way to answer this question pointing to the drum-beating of culture of which you may or may not be conscious. The drums speak and repeat a message that’s pounded into us, greatly hampering the realization of happiness. I don’t think it is possible for you not to have heard this message which says something along the lines:

You can only be happy as in experiencing “being here” when you reach a certain state which is not “here” but “there,” that is far, far away from you.

The message creates a paradox, making us feel there must be something wrong with us. It becomes more specific with the drummers, often contradicting each other. Health care providers want us to reach an optimal state of mental and physical health. We are asked to work towards being symptom-free, becoming perfectly balanced, fully integrated, cured and in control. Spiritual leaders and religions make the following a prerequisite to our happiness: enlightenment, sainthood, purity, unconditional contentment, absolute consciousness, perfect harmony with and surrender to nature, energy, or God. I won’t even list the many materialistic goals propagated.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t strive for health, transcendence, or even for some material comfort. We live in this concrete world in which everything is impermanent and fragile, necessitating exertion and growth. Yet, this does not mean that we can actually reach a perfect state. No person has ever acquired it. There is no way that we can learn or unlearn anything so well that our brain cells rigidify and stay that particular way. If they did, they would be dead. We can neither reach perfect health nor control nor enlightenment. Along the same lines, we cannot reach a state of happiness. Our brains just don’t work like that.

If your basic needs are not being met, please take care of yourself and get help the best you can. But never wait for a perfect state. The moment, not you, becomes perfect when you look at it as such. You can experience happiness now, fresh, again and again. By allowing yourself to be open to your reality right now, you are “being here” and becoming fully alive.

To shake off hampering cultural messages, I suggest you write down how you are impacted specifically:

One: Question

Question the particular cultural message to which you are subjected.

Two: Explore

Explore if you are being obstructed by a belief that you first have to be “X” or reach “Y” in order to experience your happiness today.

Three: Imagine

Imagine yourself as being already here. If you let go of the idea of having to be a certain way or of having things be a certain way, what would you be feeling?

Let me conclude with the wise words of Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh:

The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.” [3]

[1] Diener, E. & Diener, C. (1996). Most People Are Happy. Psychological Science 7, no 3, 181-4.

[2] For more information about the research, please refer to (Chapters I-II in The book offers practical advice of how to learn pertinent skills to invite happiness and unlearn bad habits that keep us from the experience.

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh (1999). The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books, p. 3.

NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2014 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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