When most of us think of what makes us happy, we tend to focus on the “things” in life that we crave. These things may be concrete consumables or they may be intangible resources, such as “time,” “inner peace,” or “true love.” It is often way too easy to create a list of what we want the world to give us rather than thinking in terms of the opposite equation—what can we give back to others in our lives?
We live in a world of conspicuous consumption, whether it is firsthand through the acquisition of 48 pairs of uniquely different black shoes or vicariously through an obsession with following every move of the Kardashians or Taylor Swifts or Trumps on planet earth. It is amazing how many “things” everyone seems to have in their homes—and how many more things we might desire that we think will make us feel even better about ourselves or our positions.
It is perhaps the paradoxical desire to divest that has created the new Facebook obsession with “tiny houses” or stories of individuals who live off the grid or who make do in life with possessing only 100 items or less. “Downsizing,” “right-sizing,” or decluttering all reflect the same basic fact—things won’t make us happy. Happiness is a state of being, not a pile of stuff.
The Big Four Happiness Factors
Researchers have explored populations around the globe and it turns out that the four qualities that bring satisfaction and peace are pretty similar no matter where your McMansion or Tiny House is built. The Big Four are friendliness, cheerfulness, compassion, and gratitude. Let’s break these down.
The old saying about people who have “never met a stranger” describes people who meet the world with a happy temperament and an openness to new people—regardless of who may be standing in their way that day.
Friendliness is about offering warmth and good humor to those around you. It is about being willing to make the first move socially while recognizing that the rewards for friendliness are not always immediately enjoyed.
As a vibrantly healthy woman in her sixties once shared with me, “every day is a new opportunity to add to my collection of friends.” Humans are social creatures and being kind is a lot more likely to help you build your “tribe” than offering rudeness to those from whom you might someday need support or assistance.
There are enough old songs that encourage us to “put on a cheerful face” or “smile when your heart is breaking,” that many of us may that we should practice lying to ourselves. Actually, there is a Zen koan that encourages us to “practice smiling while peeling carrots.”
Being able to offer a sunny disposition to the world, regardless of our inner state, actually encourages us to feel better. Smiles are contagious and if we are able to muster up the energy to offer our own smile to others, even when our inner world is falling apart, we are likely to begin feeling better ourselves when our smile is returned. Seeing someone offer a genuine smile is emotionally and mentally healing; actually, imagining being smiled at by someone you love is just as powerfully healing.
Another reason for being cheerful? Research has shown that when patients grimace during medical treatments/procedures, they feel more pain than those who do not.
Offering compassion to others is another charitable act that positively influences the giver. When we accept others’ shortcomings or cut others slack for their wrongs or missteps, we are valuing humanity over someone’s personal flaw.
Most of us truly are doing the best we can at any given moment—sure, some days our “best” is far from “enough,” and there are days when we know that we are guilty of giving less where we probably should have given more. No one is perfect or 100% at their game every day. If you accept the shortfall of others, the windfall for you is a happier life.
For those of us who might imagine that we always give 100%, prove this to yourself by giving others a little compassion when they don’t measure up to your standards. That’s what someone who truly “gives 100%” would do, no doubt.
Lastly, bring a sense of gratitude to your life. Whatever you have in life and wherever you are, you can find some reason to be grateful. Acknowledging your own good fortune—no matter how slight—can actually enhance your overall wellbeing.
Researchers have found that being truly grateful for what you have can have important physical benefits—we sleep better and enjoy better relationships. Not only that, but researchers have also found that your level of gratitude is inversely proportional to your level of depressed feelings. The more grateful you are in life, the better the chances are that you will actually enjoy what you have.
Why Be Happy?
In closing, I feel it is important to note that being happy is about more than just wearing a smile, making friends, caring about others, or writing gratitude lists. It is about choosing—and, clearly, happiness is a choice—to engage in health-promoting behaviors that positively influence your life as well as the lives of those around you. In fact, happy people live longer, enjoy less stressful lives, and are somewhat protected against some forms of heart disease. Plus, you’re a lot more fun to be around.
You don’t have to win the lottery, find the perfect job, find true love, raise perfect children, shoot a perfect game, bowl a 300, or live a perfect life. You just need to meet the world with a positive attitude, smile at and befriend others, cut us all some slack, and be consciously grateful for all that you do have rather than whining about what you don’t.
Optimism can be learned—focus on what’s gone well for you in the past, take time to journal about a past positive experience, and listen to some music that brings up good feelings. Don’t focus on what you are still trying to do—savor your current and past successes and your future mindset will be predisposed to positive expectations about the future.
Why be happy? Because those of us who see the world as a good place get to enjoy the present moment more fully and will typically have a few more moments in our own lifespans to enjoy than the curmudgeons around us. Be happy. It’s what brings our lives to life.