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What Stands in Our Way of Being Happy?

Teacher and writer Tal Ben-Shahar on the routes and hurdles to happiness.

Key points

  • Happiness can be much more within people's reach—if they can break it down into its elements.
  • Happiness comprises of spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional elements.
  • Perhaps the best way to pursue happiness is indirectly.
Asier Romero/Shutterstock
Source: Asier Romero/Shutterstock

Happiness is among the most enduring of human wishes. Often, it’s also the most elusive. The sunny spells that brighten the hum of our day-to-day existence dissipate as promptly as they appear. As with all noteworthy projects, we prefer to see our undertaking of happiness to completion and to hold the validating receipts in our hands. Ideally, something more lasting and substantial than a scattering of gratifying moments here and there.

Tal Ben-Shahar has been immersed in this project for decades. He writes best-selling books and teaches courses on happiness (among them, the largest course in Harvard’s history). Yet, despite his initial hopes, his expertise has not led him to a worry-free life, immune to sadness, anxiety, fear, and envy. “Only two kinds of people don’t experience painful emotions: psychopaths and dead people,” he says.

Happiness, as he now understands it, is “whole person well-being.” Wholeness connotes inclusivity. It embraces our hardships, along with our innate resilience to grow from them. It opens space for a multiplicity of elements that comprise happiness, allowing us more possibilities to experience it.

As for chasing the happily-ever-after, Ben-Shahar suggests a wiser, more sustainable quest: strengthening our psychological immune system. “A strong immune system doesn’t mean that we won’t ever get sick. It means we get sick less often, and we recover more promptly.” Here, the science of happiness can offer key insights.

Source: CDD20/Pixabay
Source: CDD20/Pixabay

Here’s Dr. Ben-Shahar on the routes and hurdles to happiness.

What is happiness?

Happiness, as I see it, comprises five elements: spiritual well-being (meaning and purpose), physical well-being (nutrition, exercise, sleep), intellectual well-being (curiosity, deep learning), relational well-being (quality time spent with others; kindness and generosity), and emotional well-being (embracing painful emotions; cultivating positive emotions). As an interdependent aggregate of these five elements of SPIRE, happiness is about much more than experiencing pleasure.

Why is happiness regarded as crucial for what it means to be human?

As Aristotle put it, happiness is the ultimate purpose of life. This means that how we spend our day-to-day lives is ultimately guided by what we think would make us happier. This is not a good or a bad thing. It simply is, like the law of nature. Even people who are tirelessly working for an important cause, for example, to eradicate world hunger, are doing it because they find their work meaningful. Meaning is an element of happiness.

What stands in our way of being happy?

One barrier to happiness has to do with the expectation that happiness is an unbroken chain of positive emotions. Paradoxically, this expectation prevents people from experiencing happiness because painful emotions don’t go away when we reject them. They only grow stronger.

The second barrier has to do with equating happiness with success. It’s a commonly held belief that happiness can be attained by achieving certain goals, like money, fame, or accolades. People tend to think that if they finally find success, they will automatically become happy. That’s not the case. Thus, if happiness is their concern, people are often chasing after the wrong things.

Source: Pezibear/Pixabay

The third barrier has to do with the way people pursue happiness. We want to be happy for many reasons. After all, we are constantly told that happiness is good for our health, relationships, and work outcomes. It also feels good to be happy! Yet, if I wake up in the morning and decide to pursue happiness explicitly, I will become less happy.

What is the best way to pursue happiness?

Indirectly. Consider the analogy with the sun. Imagine you go outside on a beautiful day. If you look up at the sun directly, you’ll hurt yourself. But if you take the same sun rays and break them down using a prism, you’ll be able to enjoy the colors of a rainbow.

Similarly, pursuing happiness directly can hurt us; pursuing it indirectly—by breaking it down into its metaphorical colors (such as the SPIRE elements)—can contribute to our well-being. Spending more time doing things that are meaningful to us, starting a meditation practice, exercising, performing acts of kindness, learning something new, or expressing gratitude for what we have, are all indirect ways of pursuing happiness.

Happiness can often seem like a grandiose idea. Yet, it is much more within our reach—if we divide and conquer. If we break it down into its elements.

Why are we so misinformed about happiness?

It’s because of the stories we are told by our caretakers, media, advertising, and self-help books. The message that we are often sold is this: If you want to be happy, you need to get X (for example, a partner, job, possessions, money). This model of happiness depends on acquiring what you are lacking and promises consistent happiness on the condition of filling up that lack. These false beliefs lead us astray by misconstruing what it really takes to be happy.

What would be a truer promise about what it really takes to be happy?

First, being more humble about what we can expect. Second, recognizing that it takes hard work to cultivate happiness. People often think that it’s enough to read a book or attend a workshop to master happiness. But if someone wanted to learn to play the piano or to play tennis, would they believe that reading a book on the subject would turn them into great musicians or athletes? No. A book is just the first step in a much longer journey.

Just as you need to spend time on the court or in front of the piano, you need to spend time honing your happiness muscles and cultivating that skill. As with all things, we need to put in the work. This “happiness work” not only leads to wonderful outcomes but in itself is often wonderful. Effort is part of our nature; it’s what makes our lives fulfilling.

Source: CDD20/Pixabay
Source: CDD20/Pixabay

How is happiness simultaneously universal and culture-specific?

There are three levels through which we can explore happiness. The first one is the universal level. The SPIRE elements are universal. Throughout time, people everywhere have needed a sense of meaning and purpose in life. People everywhere need to move. Nutrition affects us all. We’re all curious and need to learn. Relationships are critical everywhere. We all experience sadness and joy.

After we acknowledge the universality of our human experience, we need to consider the cultural level—especially when prescribing happiness-inducing practices. There are real cultural differences in our experience. What constitutes a healthy relationship might vary across the world, as does what people find meaningful.

Finally, there’s the personal level. Two people who are raised in the same culture by the same parents can be radically different. Exploring the personal level requires me-search, whether through reflection, journaling, or observation. All three levels are important for understanding human happiness.

What can we learn from other cultures about how to be happy?

In a world where everything is blue, there is no blue. We can only perceive the color blue in the presence of other colors. In other words, we need contrast to learn. Travel offers an opportunity to learn about ourselves, discover what’s universal, and learn from the differences. For example, if I come from an individualistic culture, I can learn about the benefits of not having to distinguish myself all the time and of seeing myself as part of the collective.

Travel encourages us to experiment and try out new things. This applies to food as much as to ways of being and thinking. From meditation practices to foreign books I turn to for consolation in difficult times, my own happiness quota includes many things that I’ve picked up from my travels.

Many thanks to Tal Ben-Shahar for his time and insights. Dr. Ben-Shahar is a respected positive psychology expert, a lecturer at Columbia University, and the co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy.

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