There’s a great deal of cultural confusion about what happiness is and how to find it. In a culture of consumption, we are seduced into believing that happiness comes from a life of ease or by acquiring things. This is known as hedonic happiness, which actually only has very limited staying power. If your belief is that happiness comes from acquisitions, you are likely doomed to disappointment. So, how does happiness originate? The answers may surprise you. Here’s the latest from happiness research.
First, let’s look at what light neuroscience can shed. Neuroscientists have discovered that happiness is not something you can directly pursue. Instead, it is derived from having a sense of purpose, feeling useful, and working towards meaningful goals. It turns out that there is no happiness without challenge, risk and growth. In the brain, maximum positive feelings are generated, and negative feelings turned off, not after reaching a goal, but in the approach to a challenging goal. If you want to maximize your potential for happiness, neuroscience research suggests pursuing a goal that you are not 100 percent certain you can reach, one where you have to muster all your resources and stretch.
Another answer to how to derive happiness comes from psychologists. These researchers have found that while happiness is a feeling, in large measure it is actually a reflection of how you think. You are consistently engaging in automatic patterns of thinking about your experiences, although you may be unaware of these patterns. Yet it is these thoughts that pitch you into a positive or negative mood. Your underlying propensity to happiness or depression is a function of the assumptions about your experiences and beliefs about yourself.
Check in with yourself to see if you are unwittingly erecting barriers to your own happiness.
- Do you filter information, focusing exclusively on the negative details of a situation?
- Do you catastrophize by assuming the direst outcome from one negative event?
- Do you attribute all setbacks to fate?
- Do you believe everything is under your control?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you have a tendency to distort reality and perhaps set yourself up for misery. Instead, focus on changing these negative, destructive patterns of thought. Replace these distorted beliefs with empowering beliefs.
- Look for the positive aspects in all events. This does not mean you are putting a happy sticker over negative events. Rather, it means acknowledging what is while intentionally looking for the positive aspects.
- Practice “positive what if’s” instead of catastrophizing events. Imagining the best possible outcomes is just as easy as worrying about the worst. The choice is yours.
- Remember that everyone has setbacks. Happiness does not come from a magical power to escape setbacks but from the ability to rebound from them.
- No one has control over external circumstances. But you do have control over your responses, interpretations, and assumptions about these events. Focus on choosing thoughts and responses to external situations in your life that put you on an upward spiral.
To sum up, the latest research suggests that happiness requires some work on your part. It means finding and pursing a goal that pushes you outside your comfort zone. It means monitoring your thoughts for those that lead to negative attributions and replacing them with ones that put you on an upward spiral. So if you want to be happy, don’t worry. Make choices that maximize your capacity for finding happiness and enjoy the ride.
Source: Psychology Today, May/June 2011, pp. 59-60.