How to be happy? This is a difficult question, which many people have tried to answer before. Can you find happiness in external things, like a nice house, a shiny car, or a new laptop? Or is happiness to be found in our relationships with others, the time spent with family, friends, or colleagues? And what to do if you are not happy? Is there a quick fix or clearly laid out steps we can follow to increase our well-being? I have set out on a quest to find answers to these questions, and found out some remarkable things about happiness.
First, let’s make a distinction between happiness and meaning. They are not the same, although they are often intertwined. People find meaning in many different things; be it their job, their family, or their hobbies. Doing something meaningful often increases well-being in people, but not always. A recent study, conducted by Sonya Lyubomirsky of the University of California, reported higher levels of overall happiness in people with children as compared with those without. Parenting is often associated with meaning, so in this example doing something meaningful relates with feeling happier. That this is not always the case is evident, because parenting, as well as certain occupations like working in a non-profit or running your own company, might be meaningful but also increase stress and anxiety, which are typically associated with lower levels of happiness. We might conclude that meaning and long-term
happiness often go hand in hand, but not all the time.
What is the difference between long-term and short-term happiness? Short-term happiness can be described as positive emotions experienced in the moment. Having a laugh with friends, watching a nice movie, and enjoying a delicious meal are all examples of short-term happiness. This is different from your long-term happiness, which is your overall well-being; your base happiness level across a longer time period. Finding meaning and a purpose in your life, feeling accomplished in your work, and long lasting love all contribute to long-term happiness.
So now you know what happiness is, and what contributes towards it. However, it is also important to know what to avoid in order to prevent becoming (or staying) unhappy! Overanalyzing your emotions doesn’t seem to work well, and has a mostly negative effect on your overall well-being. When you feel joyful and you start thinking “now I feel joyful”, the feeling more or less fades away. Trying to maximize your feelings of happiness throughout the day also works counter-productive, as emotions cannot be forced. A lot of our mental problems nowadays are due to our excessive focus on pleasure. We try to feel good all the time, and at the same time, prevent feeling bad at all costs. This produces a counter
effect; increasing frustration, anxiety, and stress when we do – inevitably – feel bad, and lessening the effects of pleasurable activities because they have become commonplace.
So then, how to actually be happy? As meaning and long-term happiness often go hand in
hand, it would make sense to focus on doing something that makes you feel your life has meaning. However, this is easier said than done; and sometimes you don’t have an immediate opportunity for this. This is also true for feeling accomplished in your life and being in a loving relationship. It is great when you can experience this, but when you don’t, should you feel unhappy? Of course not; there are tested and tried ways you can do right now to increase your long-term happiness. The best way to increase your happiness, is by increasing your emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence – EQ -- is all about the way you handle your emotions. You can see it like this; all emotions are data, they are chemical signals used by the body that can help us handle threats and opportunities. When you know how to interpret this data and use it to improve upon yourself, you are bound to increase your long-term happiness.
To be able to interpret your emotions effectively, you need to have a solid amount of Self-Awareness. This is nothing more than being able to notice, control, and handle your emotions. When your mind is cluttered with worries, when you are easily distracted; you are not focused, and when you are thus not able to make sense of your feelings, you will not be able to effectively handle your emotions, and thus use them to increase your own well-being. This all boils down to being in the moment and having a clear mind, and the most effective way to do this is by increasing Mindfulness.
Being mindful is a way of living. It entails knowing where you are, knowing what you are doing, and being non-judgmental towards yourself and others. It’s about directing your thoughts and feelings, and responding to them in the right way. Of course, this is easier said than done and requires a lot of practice. One of the most popular techniques to increase mindfulness is through meditation, but it is not the only way and if you are not comfortable with it, it is not necessary. I will be elaborating about mindfulness, the scientific evidence about the positive effects, and the techniques you can practice in the next article. Till then, a good way for being mindful is asking yourself these questions: “Where am I?”, and “What am I doing?”. This way you force yourself to be in the moment and you bring yourself
back from being lost in thoughts.