What’s it mean to live a happy life?
by Ari Yeganeh
We live in a happy-obsessed society, constantly bombarded with happy smiling faces on TV or billboard ads telling us their version of happiness.
Even worse than this, we see our own friends on social media posting photos of their ridiculously happy lives; but never sharing any raw feelings of what’s really going on in their lives.
It is an unspoken law that we all want to be happy but the reality is that most of us have not thought about what happiness means for *ourselves*.
I used to think if only I had the right kind of job, the right group of friends and the right partner, then I would be happy. I worked so hard chasing these goals. I saw happiness like reaching the peak of a mountain…
All I had to do was work really hard, achieve all my goals and then I’ll be happy.
And that’s exactly what I did. I worked really hard and got to the top of the mountain. But at the top, I didn’t find what I was looking for…
What I actually found at the top of the mountain was disappointment. I had worked so hard to conquer my goals and the realisation that I still wasn’t happy made me even more unhappy. But little did I know it, I had no idea what happiness was.
What on earth is happiness?
There are probably as many definitions of happiness as there humans on the planet but broadly speaking, modern psychology categorizes happiness in two parts:
1) HAPPINESS AS AN EMOTION
Experiencing positive emotions like joy, pleasure and excitement
We are all familiar with this type of happiness – good food, great sex, new clothes, walks on the beach, hot oil massages and puppies, lots of puppies. This is what’s constantly advertised to us and what we think of when we see our happy smiling friends on Facebook.
2) HAPPINESS AS LIFE SATISFACTION
Living with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment with life
We are less familiar with this type of happiness as it is not as straightforward as getting a massage or hugging a warm puppy. Rather it involves a deliberate process of self-discovery and cultivating the right mental attitudes to live a happy life despite the ups and downs of everyday emotions.
Let’s explore these…
1) HAPPINESS AS AN EMOTION
Chasing positive emotions
Imagine if there was a machine you could plug yourself into that made you feel pleasure and joy 100% of the time. Better yet, you wouldn’t know you were plugged in so you would have no feelings of guilt. Would you plug in or stay in your current life?
(image credit: waitbutwhy.com/table/the-experience-machine)
The answer you give this question can reveal a lot about how you feel about happiness as an emotion.
If you asked me this question shortly after I had finished climbing my mountain of happiness, I would have almost certainly said yes. This is because I saw happiness only as an emotion that I had to feel on a regular basis. If I was not experiencing emotional happiness in the form of pleasure or joy regularly, my conclusion was that I’m not happy and that something is wrong.
This is why I chased goal after goal, mountain after mountain pursuing the good feelings a new job or new travel destination gave me. But the good feelings didn’t last. Before long, the emotions of joy and excitement would dissipate and I was back to where I started looking at an even bigger mountain to experience more joy in my life.
This is a common path to happiness for many people. “If only I have *fill in the blank*, then I’ll be happy”.
The obvious problem with this approach is what psychologists call hedonic adaptation – the idea that no matter how good something makes us feel, “most of the time we drift back to where we started, emotionally-speaking. One often-cited study famously showed that despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later. The same tendency to return to “baseline” has been shown to occur after marriage, voluntary job changes, and promotions—the kinds of things we usually expect to change our happiness and well-being for the better in a permanent way.” Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
This is not to say we shouldn’t enjoy the pleasures of life, we absolutely should celebrate getting that new job and we should cherish every moment of the honey-moon period of a new relationship. However, we should be conscious that experiencing these short term emotional highs does not equate to long term happiness.
Running away from negative emotions
Another unfortunate consequence of seeing happiness only as a positive emotional state is that we ignore or suppress any other emotions that don’t make us feel good. We all want to feel joy and avoid pain, this is normal. What’s not normal and is rather unhealthy is persistently avoiding or suppressing difficult or negative emotions.
The reality of life is that we all experience difficult emotions and circumstances. People get sick, we lose our jobs, relationships fall apart, things break, shit happens.
Put more elegantly by Murphy’s law “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”
In his book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris writes:
“The more we try to avoid the basic reality that all human life involves pain, the more we are likely to struggle with that pain when it arises, thereby creating even more suffering.” – Russ Harriss
Similarly, in Buddhism it is believed that “life is full of suffering” and that our suffering is caused by our “attachments” – ideals we hold in our minds about how life ought to be. And one of the biggest attachments we have is the desire to feel happy all the time. This unhealthy desire to feel happy all the time ironically leads to suffering and unhappiness in the face of inevitable adversity and Murphy’s law. We feel unhappy because we feel we shouldn’t feel unhappy.
In my own pursuit of happiness, I found the more I chased happy feelings, the more i neglected dealing with the difficult or negative emotions in my life. But these difficult feelings were not going away and only started to accumulate…
Even worse than suppressing these emotions was judging myself for having these unwanted emotions. “Why am I feeling down? I should be happy right now”.
But rather than judging or suppressing difficult or negative emotions, what helped me immensely was just accepting my emotions and letting go of my expectations that I need to feel happy all the time. Rather than turning a blind eye to my box of unwanted emotions, I sat down, opened the box and listened to what each emotion had to say.
And the more I started to accept these neglected emotions, the more at peace I felt with myself and the less pressure I felt to feel happy; which paradoxically made feeling happy much easier.
Whilst none of us want to experience sadness, it is a fact of life that we will. Accepting sadness or difficult emotions is not the same as wallowing and indulging in them. Rather it’s learning to recognise that it’s healthy to experience the full range of emotions as a human being. And that these emotions don’t have power over us. We can observe emotions but we are not our emotions. And in due time, every emotion will come and go. No state of mind is permanent. Clinging on to positive or negative emotions is a fool’s game.
Note: Experiencing negative emotions is part of life, however if you are experiencing emotions like sadness, hopelessness or anxiety persistently on a regular basis, we recommend you reach out and seek appropriate help to better understand the root cause of your emotions.
2) HAPPINESS AS LIFE SATISFACTION
Happiness as an emotion is easy enough to grasp. We are taught from kindergarten:
“if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”
What’s more difficult to understand and express is:
“if you’re satisfied, content and grateful for your life and you know it, clap your hands”
It’s difficult because life satisfaction is determined almost entirely by the contents of our minds with no visible indicators on the outside world. It’s possible to be a raging success on the surface and feel completely dissatisfied with life, but it’s also possible to have nothing in the material world and be completely satisfied with life.
Philosophers, psychologists, spiritual gurus and that uncle at every dinner party have all their views on what gives us satisfaction in life but the reality is that life satisfaction is a cake you need to bake yourself. There is no cake out there with the perfect list of ingredients that is going to satisfy everyone’s taste buds. You need to go on your own self-discovery journey to find what brings you to satisfaction and contentment.
I found my list of ingredients through a combination of reading books (see resource section at the end of this article), reflecting for long periods of time in silence, traveling and speaking to wide range of people from teenage backpackers to ninety year old monks about what gives them satisfaction in life. Whilst no list can ever capture every aspect of life satisfaction, below are some of the most powerful ingredients that have transformed my satisfaction with life and may help you on your journey:
INGREDIENT #1 – MEANING
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” – Carl Jung
A lack of meaning in life can bring great dissatisfaction, as I’ve personally experienced. For a lot of my 20’s I struggled with a deep hollowing feeling of meaninglessness. On the surface I would keep myself busy with chasing after goals and achievements but deep down I had a sense that something was always missing. There was no meaning, no clear sense of purpose in my life. I spent years working in large companies climbing the corporate ladder. But I never got any sense of purpose from what I was doing. I kept thinking to myself, there has to be more in life than building colorful spreadsheets and powerpoint slides.
This is not an uncommon scenario in our society, especially in the younger generations: doing a job that pays the bills but provides little to no sense of meaning or purpose (for a deep dive into this: read our comprehensive post on purpose here).
For me personally, I chose to quit my job in corporate and take time off to reflect on what I found meaningful. After a year of traveling and reflecting, this journey lead me to what I’m working on now: co-founding conscioused.org, an open source, self-organised alternative to university. (more on this here: conscioused.org/about)
But deriving a sense of meaning doesn’t just come from work. We find meaning in relationships with loved ones, through parenthood, spirituality, contributing to others or simply through the fact that we are alive. Ultimately each one of us is responsible for creating our own meaning.
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ―Anais Nin
The beauty of going on this journey is that we are all in it together. Not a single human came into being because of their own choosing. No one asked you if you’d like to be born. Your parents brought you into the world, and your parents were the result of their parents, and so on. In a strange cosmic sense, every human alive today is in the same boat. We all ask ourselves: Why am I here? What’s the meaning of my life?
INGREDIENT #2 – GRATITUDE
I always thought gratitude was reserved for blindly optimistic or wishful thinkers who couldn’t get what they want in life so they were forced to be thankful for what they do have. I thought intelligent, driven people don’t need gratitude, they just need to work harder and reach their dreams.
This was until my mum dropped this bomb shell on me:
“If you can’t be grateful for what you have now, you’ll never be happy”
This came as a shock to me because at the time I was busy chasing yet another mountain of goals, only focused on the life I wanted to create for myself in the future; only focused on what I didn’t have…
When I made the decision to practice gratitude daily, I felt as though a new world had opened up to me. I could suddenly see things that were invisible to me before. The more I practiced gratitude, the more I started to observe the beauty and blessings I had in my life and the more I felt content with my life.
I started with writing 3 things I was grateful for every morning when I woke up. This simple task made a significant difference to how I felt about my life. I found my mind was constantly looking for things to be grateful for so I could write them down the following day. Gratitude slowly became part of my mindset, something I did without conscious thought.
Without gratitude, it’s difficult to imagine a life of satisfaction. No matter where we are in life, we will always desire something more. Gratitude involves taking a step back in our life and acknowledging and being thankful for all the people and situations that we are blessed with.
Being ungrateful is easy. Take being alive. How much money is your current level of health worth to you? If the richest person on the planet offered to buy your arms from you, how much would you sell them for? What about your eyesight or your sense of smell?
I’ve asked countless friends these questions the answers generally range from a few million dollars to “No amount of money could buy that”. Yet it is so easy to take for granted what’s right under our nose.
INGREDIENT # 3 – PRESENCE
“It’s the moments that I stopped just to be, rather than do, that have given me true happiness.” Richard Branson
Think about the voice inside your head who’s reacting to the words you’re reading right now. I’m speaking to the narrator in your head, yes you!
“What narrator are you talking about?” is exactly what the narrator in your head would say.
It’s estimated we have between 20,000-50,000 thoughts every single day; but don’t worry you’re not crazy (or maybe we are all crazy). 2500 years ago Buddha called this phenomenon: monkey mind. He observed that the human mind is filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, all clamoring for your attention. You just have to sit silently for a few seconds so you can hear them.
This is not to say that having thoughts is bad and we should have less of them. Our huge brains are the primary reason we are alive today. Thinking about the past gives us immeasuarble opportunities for learning and growth and thinking about the future allows us to imagine and create our desired visions. The problem arises when we are over-thinking or worst unaware that we are thinking and have let the monkeys go wild in our minds.
When our mind wanders, we lose touch with the present moment and go into endless thought loops about the past or future.
“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.” Eckart Tolle
Empirically, we spend at least 50% of our waking time mind wandering not focused on the present moment; and the impact of this on our self reported level of satisfaction is clear..
(Watch this TED talk for more research on this)
We have come a long way since Buddha, yet his teachings on meditation remain one of the most effective ways to calm the monkeys in our minds and gain more presence and satisfaction in life. There are now hundreds of studies proving the physical and mental benefits of meditation and other mindfulness practices. We have written a guide complete with stick figures on how to form habitual mindfulness practice here.
“If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead.” – Buddha
BAKING YOUR OWN HAPPINESS CAKE
Ultimately each one of us is responsible for making our own happiness cake; one filled with ingredients that gives us true satisfaction and contentment.
But even with this perfect life satisfaction cake, we are bound to experience sadness and pain in our life. This is part of the human experience. Equally, we are bound to experience immense joy and pleasure in our life. True happiness is not about being caught up in these emotional highs and lows of life. Rather it’s learning to enjoy the highs with gratitude and accept the lows with self-compassion.
Last but not least, no matter what cake we choose to bake, let us not forget to share happiness with another 🙂
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha
We would love to hear from you about your own happiness journey in the comments below. What’s inside of your happiness cake?
Resources that contributed to this post:
* The Happiness Trap – Russ Harris
* The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson
* Radical Acceptance – Tara Brach
* The Happiness Hypothesis – Jonathan Haidt
* Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
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