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Happiness Is Personal

We find and define our own happiness.

Key points

  • No one can tell you how to be happy.
  • You can discover your own happiness by making good choices and making the most of them.
  • Being happy is a process of becoming happier rather than an end state.
  • My “prescription” is finding a personal pathway that makes the most of where you are with the end in sight.
Kyoto Station
Source: PICRYL

No one can tell you how to be happy. It’s too complex, too transitory to be subject to precise directions. It comes and goes. It depends on how your life evolves.

Maybe you were happy in college, but then law school, a job, and a mortgage left you wondering: Where’d it all go? In fact, Albert Camus mused that just looking for happiness (and trying to define what it is) keeps you from being happy. For him, happiness sort of happens, without self-consciousness, without investigating possible states of being. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

But here’s the catch. This sense of a cosmic toss-up could itself make you unhappy. So, are we stuck in a logical bind?

Not really.

While I can’t prescribe what might make you happy, I think you can (with some help) discover happiness. You can make choices that fit your own needs. You can ramp up your self-awareness as you begin defining what happiness can be—specifically, your own. And with a nod to Camus, you can embrace the notion that happiness is often the reward for delayed gratification: We’re not happy, and then finally we are, partly because it’s okay to let up on trying so hard. Thus, any happiness “prescription” starts with helping each person to find their own way.

This emphasis on how each person gets to be happy—that is, on the process, rather than on the ultimate, individualized state—is what sets my approach apart from others that tell you, point blank, what it takes to be happy. While you can learn from a set of curated directions, I am not convinced that formula, however well-intended, can carry you through the many dimensions that you traverse as you grow, change, and wrestle with unpredictable challenges. Simply put, one size doesn’t fit all. If you look closely, in fact, most theorists don’t even agree on what happiness is.

Some, such as Daniel Kahneman, suggest that happiness is a sort of prevailing sense of satisfaction— an affect, what you experience here and now. Others find it has more to do with appreciating the quality of your life as a whole. But such notions are slippery. You could, for example, construct an approach where the two coincide: imagine feeling giddy because life turned out so well. Do you see where this is leading?

Straight into a semantic tangle (even Kahneman suggests that overall satisfaction is more important than what you feel right now).

But my point is even more fundamental: You could define happiness a hundred different ways but still emerge with someone else’s idea, which, for better or worse, you’re being asked to map onto your own situation. This may sound like guidance, but it feels constricting.

So, in my practice I approach the question without reference to formulas. I start with the individual—not with the prescription—and then work outwards towards how each person, in context with their own specific concerns, can make a go of working towards contentment, peace of mind, a measure of joy (whatever makes them happy in context with their circumstances).

My approach is harder than saying, “Okay, if you can check these boxes, you’ll be fine.” But it is based on my work with real live patients for over twenty-five years. I’ve studied how they come to me with issues and, finally, work towards feeling good about themselves (or, at least, much better) in some area of their lives.

If you’ve just parsed the preceding phrase—“some area of their lives”—you’ve begun to see how my approach works. I do not contemplate happiness per se so much as the contextualized, situational types of happiness that we try to achieve at different times in our lives through different types of relationships. Sometimes, we are concerned about happiness at work; at other times, sex and love matter most, or family, wellness, or getting old. We can be really happy at work, but our love life can be awful. We may be fighting with family or friends but having great sex.

People learn how to find happiness in areas of their lives where it’s lacking. Of course, if you’re unhappy in one area—for example, your health—you could easily be unhappy in others. But even in these complex situations, you work through specific challenges based on your particular situation; you don’t pursue some generalized, amorphous happiness that someone down the block may be chasing as well.

So, my “prescription” is about finding a personal pathway, sometimes multiple pathways, towards making the most of where you are when one or another of these situations is challenging. Picture yourself as a Venn diagram. At the center is a type of syncretic happiness, defined by intersecting circles that represent various sources of happiness such as those I just mentioned. How you draw these circles toward some sort of beneficial coherence is crucial to whether you actually can.

But perhaps you’re thinking: Can’t your concept of “happiness” accommodate at least some (semantically challenged) guideposts, so we have something to hold onto? Yes. When people are “happy,” they can expect to be content. That is, they can feel they are in sync with what life has to offer at their stage of life, and in relation to their overall circumstances. Such happiness is a type of equipoise (i.e., a balance of factors) unique to each individual.

So, as I have already suggested, I’d encourage you to think primarily about getting to happiness, i.e., becoming happy. As with so many goals (for example, a good education), it is the journey that counts. How do you actually become happy? What are the steps, the process? Happiness is not just some state that exists independent of each person’s particular, deliberate attempt to achieve it. The goal is less about happiness than about how to achieve it. It’s about finding your way. Each of us has to deal with personal issues and overcome problems. But we can still work towards a certain contentment.

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