Happiness and Contentment: Still Not Available in a Pill
Happiness is a byproduct of the journey, not the destination.
Posted Feb 02, 2018
A lot of research on happiness and subjective well-being has been done over the last fifty years or so—seems like everyone wants to figure out how we can grab a slice of the happiness pie that we feel life is supposed to offer. While there will never be a specific prescription for attaining happiness, there are some important findings that are excellent guidelines that, if followed, might increase the likelihood that we get our own fair share of joy in life.
Here are five prerequisites for finding satisfaction or experience happiness in life:
- Human beings need relationships to enjoy optimum well-being and happiness. This is a simple truth—we are born with a strong drive to establish connections with others. While many of us think that we will be happy when we find “true love,” or whatever we feel approximates that, it is NOT romantic relationships that are required for happiness. Simply having good friends who encourage and support you will contribute just as much to your overall feelings of happiness and contentment in life.
- Being kind to others is essential to finding a sense of personal happiness. Our human brains are wired so that we feel joy when we behave in altruistic ways. Just making plans to do something nice for others—whether it is throwing a party for a friend, volunteering your time for a worthy cause, or planning a monetary donation—will give you a boost and generate a sense of satisfaction and well-being.
- Acknowledging the abundance of your own life—no matter how austere or extravagant it might be—and experience gratitude for these people, experiences, and things also positively contribute to a sense of well-being. The drive to attain more and more is counter to the expression of gratitude and a feeling of contentment with who and where you are in life. The pursuit of “things” only has value if you cherish the pursuit more than the “thing” it might yield.
- Finding a sense of meaning and purpose in your pursuits in life are necessary to contentment and happiness. Believing that you are contributing to something beyond yourself and being a part of something larger than your individual existence are also necessary to experience a feeling of peace that is a part of happiness.
- Making healthy lifestyle choices in terms of your basic needs—sleep, nutrition, and exercise—also contributes to your happiness in life. There are many research studies that show that regular exercise—even just a daily walk—is effective in reducing depression. Contemplation activities, such as yoga, meditation, reflection, also are proven to reduce stress and promote well-being. Depending on your age, many people think a good night’s sleep is “optional,” but research shows that poor sleeping habits lead to greater stress, increased risk for cardiovascular illness, and even weight gain. Sure, you can “sleep when you’re dead,” to paraphrase a movie title, but why would you want to risk an earlier demise than you would otherwise need to? Regarding nutrition, healthy diets really do affect your overall health. And your physical health affects your happiness significantly. A recent research study has shown that including fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet also reduces depression and anxiety. Trading the short-term convenience of addictive processed foods or the pleasures of overindulgence of alcohol or nicotine or others recreational drugs may bring that fleeting “high,” but the crash that follows not only affects you the day you feel it, but has a lasting negative affect on your long-term health and long-term happiness.
If you think about what brings you happiness in life, if your answer is related to acquisition of possessions, think about the let-down you feel once the novelty or thrill of the purchase is over. Perhaps you are imbuing a lot more power into a material object than it warrants. Thinking about your most treasured and successful romantic relationship . . . was the satisfaction based on simply “possessing” the person or the experiences and feelings that were benefits of the relationship?
Many of us enjoy the hunt or the pursuit more than we do the acquisition of a particular thing. Often, you will hear couples reminisce about the days that they struggled in their relationships—and too many couples will break up after they “make it” in life. It is the experience of striving and working together that bonds us with others. When we reach a point in life that we feel that we “have it made” and have no more goals to work for, then we are apt to find little value, satisfaction, or meaning in life.
The Biggest Misconception We Make when it comes to Happiness
Perhaps the biggest misconception we have is a belief that happiness is a “destination” or that happiness can be “bought.” It all sounds trite and a bit corny, but it is our journeys through life and our experiences along the way that will truly yield feelings of contentment and satisfaction with our lives.
Has the Human Race Always Been So Hungry for Happiness?
Generations ago, happiness was not quantified or assumed to be a specific “place” that could be reached. People had less time and resources to devote to “personal enrichment,” they just got up each day, did what they were raised to do, and then got up the next day to do it again. Contentment was found in successfully doing what was required of them. Relationships, families, and communities (including spiritual/faith communities, neighborhoods, etc.) also played a larger part in an individual’s lives.
Today, the value of individual achievement has created a society that seems intent on personal success above the greater good. Thus, people are somewhat “on their own” as they seek out ways to bring meaning to their lives and find happiness, however they define it. Unfortunately, humans need healthy, authentic relationships and a support network of those who will love them unconditionally. We also need to feel that there is purpose in our existence and that we are contributing to something larger than ourselves. Without that sense of meaning, a connection to others, and appreciation for what we have in life at this moment, contentment and happiness will never be experienced.
What’s Up with the “Happiness Industry”?
Many of us spend time seeking that perfect “happiness prescription” that will deliver the kind of satisfaction and contentment we long for. Unfortunately, these two goals, satisfaction and contentment, are by-products of life, not “targets” or “places” that can be entered into a GPS to be found.
People who are unhappy often seek professional help and yet the two core reasons that people are not happy come down to two very basic relationship-centered states —either they have no relationships to others, at all, or they have poor relationships with others. To find contentment and happiness, we need to have people in our lives with whom we can be ourselves—vulnerable, imperfect, and striving to live a better life. Selfish people will never find true contentment—there will always be something just out of their reach that they cannot attain—and they are unable to find joy in the pursuit, only the possession of a goal. And once that goal is possessed, it loses its value, and they look outwardly again to seek the next “thing” they think will bring satisfaction. It is a never-ending cycle of wanting what is just out of reach rather than taking pleasure in “what is.”
The “happiness industry” is the result of our belief that we are masters of our lives and that we should be able to hold control over our emotions and states of being. Unfortunately, anything that truly brings lasting contentment or authentic gratitude is more than likely not a “thing,” but an experience.