A lot of research on happiness and subjective well-being has been done over the past 50 years—it seems like everyone wants to determine the exact formula for joy. While there will never be a universal prescription for attaining happiness, some important findings offer guidelines for all of us. Here are five prerequisites for finding satisfaction or experiencing happiness in life:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Acknowledging the abundance of your own life—no matter how austere or extravagant it might be—and experiencing gratitude for what you have contributes to your 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.
4. Finding a sense of meaning and purpose in your pursuits in life is necessary for your 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.
5. 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, and 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 processed foods or the pleasure of overindulgence of alcohol or nicotine or other 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 effect on your long-term health and happiness.
When you think about what brings you happiness in life, if your answer is related to the acquisition of possessions, think about the let-down you feel once the novelty or thrill of the purchase is over. Perhaps you imbue 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 on the experiences and feelings that were benefits of the relationship?
Many of us enjoy the hunt or the pursuit more than we do the possession of a particular thing. Often, you will hear couples reminisce fondly about the days that they struggled in their relationships—and too many couples will break up after they “make it." It is the experience of striving and working together that bonds us with others. When we reach a point when we feel we “have it made” and have no more goals to work toward, then we are apt to find less value, satisfaction, or meaning in life.
Happiness Shouldn’t Be an Industry but a Personal Practice
As a counselor, I know that people are often seeking that perfect “happiness prescription” that will bring them the kind of satisfaction and contentment they long for. Unfortunately, I also know that these two goals 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 many people are not happy come down to two very basic relationship-centered states—either they have no relationships with 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 or attainment of a goal. And once that goal is reached or possessed, it loses its value, and they look outward 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 control 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.
Decades Ago, Happiness Wasn’t Considered Something to Be “Bought”
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 life. We are supposedly guaranteed the "pursuit" of happiness, but intrinsic emotional states cannot be "guaranteed" any more than one can guarantee freedom from fear.
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 an appreciation for what we have in life at this moment, contentment and happiness will never be experienced.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about happiness now is the belief that happiness is a “destination” or that happiness can be “bought.” It all sounds trite and a bit corny, but it is our journey through life and our experiences along the way that will truly yield feelings of contentment and satisfaction with our life.
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