The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence states, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” making the pursuit of happiness a fundamental right.
However, even if you dedicate yourself to the pursuit of happiness, there is no guarantee that you’ll achieve it, nor are there any instructions on how to do it.
The results of our national obsession with pursuing happiness have actually been less than stellar. This year’s World Happiness Report ranked the United States at #18, which is down four spots from last year (our worst ranking since the report started, and we’ve never cracked the top 10). If we start with the premise that the United States is one of the best countries to live in, why aren’t we collectively happier?
I believe it’s because we’re approaching it all wrong!
Let’s start with the idea that happiness is something that can be pursued. This isn’t accurate; happiness is not a thing that you can hunt or capture. You cannot find it in a new job, city, relationship, career, home or car. It won’t suddenly appear when you lose 10 pounds or when you finally make partner at your firm.
The Pursuit of Happiness is Futile
Our culture teaches us that if we work hard, become successful, then we’ll be happy.
In reality, it’s not that simple.
If success led directly to happiness, then every student who receives an acceptance letter to their dream college, or employee who gets promoted, or anyone who achieves any goal of any kind should automatically be happy. But there is always the next thing to achieve, which leads to an endless cycle of searching for happiness around the next bend.
Think of pursuing happiness like a dog chasing its tail. He’ll never catch it. But (here’s the important point) he doesn’t have to since it’s with him all the time.
Happiness is not something that you find or obtain. It is a mindset. A way of thinking. A perspective. A choice.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
But knowing that happiness is a state of mind can still present challenges. When I’m in a funk, pissed off, and stewing in misery, having someone tell me that happiness is a state of mind isn’t helpful (and will likely just piss me off even more). I want to feel happy, not be told why I should be happy.
We need to know how to shift to a happy state of mind, not be told about it.
To do this, it helps to first understand our brains a bit more.
Our Brains LOVE Drama
Studies show that our brains are hardwired to scan for the negative. This means that even when all things are equal, the things with a more negative slant (have a bigger impact than neutral or positive things.
This negativity bias beats positivity in both emotional impact and in how we view the loss of resources. In this study it showed the loss of resources, such as money, was more important (even if it didn’t actually happen but we feared it would happen), than the gain of resources, even when the amounts are similar.
When it comes to happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a positive psychology researcher, found that our happiness is roughly determined by the following:
- 50% by our genes (predetermined)
- 10% by our life circumstance (out of our hands)
- 40% by our daily activities (totally in our control)
Regardless of your genetic or life circumstances baseline, you still have a large say (40%) in your level of happiness.
Do You Recognize Happiness?
In addition to our brains being wired for the negative, many of us wouldn’t recognize happiness if it planted a big wet kiss in the middle of our faces.
Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
It’s not the state of elation, which seems to be the few times we recognize happiness. Instead, it’s a much softer, quieter sense of contentment and living in purpose. Something we often don’t recognize or acknowledge is occurring unless we create time to pause and reflect on the current state of being. I think happiness is more about a baseline of satisfaction.
If you were raised to think “satisfactory” was anything but satisfying, or that it’s synonymous with mediocre, then you might struggle. This is because your version of happiness is closer to excitement and elation, both of which are exhausting and nearly impossible to maintain.
The brain is constantly normalizing the world around it by getting used to the things we are exposed to most frequently. This is how people can live in extremely horrible conditions and continue to function. However, the brain also normalizes positive events and situations. In other words, our brains will eventually normalize situations that once gave us excitement and elation. It’s in this way that being content may actually be a much better, more sustainable, experience than you realize.
How To Be Happy
Being happy has advantages. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and businesses.
Happy people are more creative, more likely to get married (and have fulfilling marriages) and have stronger relationships with family and friends. And, to top it off, they are better at coping with stress and trauma, more resilient, have stronger immune systems and live longer.
So how do we shift our mindsets to be happier?
Here are a few of my favorite tips and resources:
1. Breathe – deeply, slowly, and quietly. You’ll immediately feel calmer, more content, and then happy. Build your practice of breathing to meditation and, over time, you’ll actually grow the left prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the part of the brain responsible for feeling happy.
2. Connect with someone. Laugh. Repeat. Laughter gives such an amazing boost in any situation and brings in lightness. It gives us the room to take a step back and not take the situation or ourselves so seriously. And laughing with someone builds connection.
3. Move around. Exercise. Do it regularly and consistently. There are many studies that show it increases happiness and self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and can even lift symptoms of depression. You’ll start to fall in love with how you feel afterwards.
4. Find something to look forward to. The anticipation of the event is often the most enjoyable part of it, and releases endorphins into your bloodstream.
5. Infuse positivity into your physical environment. Your direct environment impacts your well-being and includes what you allow to permeate your mind. Start with watching less TV and getting rid of clutter.
6. Create some time for positive reflection. Think about what’s going right. What are you grateful for? This practice will strengthen the positive lens (and confront our negative bias).
7. Commit conscious acts of kindness. Acts of altruism contribute to enhanced mental health and decrease stress. Besides, it take 3 positive interactions with a co-worker to counter each negative (even if we see it as neutral) and 6 positive interactions with a loved one for every negative/neutral interaction. Surprise someone with a nice treat or act today, it’ll boost both of you!
Take a Happiness Quiz?
Remember, happiness comes to those that make it, not those who try to find it. We can all move closer to more happiness if we continue to practice.
Do you want a partner to help you shift your mindset? Do you want to start living in happiness and get out of your own way, if so, I’m here for you.