Happiness is hard. As a species, we’ve been trying to figure out how to reliably live happy lives for thousands of years. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) proposed that happiness was the purpose of life (2). While not all philosophers since then have agreed that it is the most important goal, it certainly has remained a central focus of human endeavors across the centuries. But have we advanced our knowledge of how to be happy in the same way we have, say, our knowledge of physics? Most of us want to be happy, but we’re not sure how to do it.
Part of the difficulty is confusion over what happiness really is. Popular culture presents happiness as simply positive emotion or a pleasant mood: feelings like cheerfulness, comfort, satisfaction, and excitement. When we feel those emotions, we say simply: “I am happy.” But what we really mean is “I am happy right now” not “I am happy with my life.” Thinkers who really delve into the subject, from the ancient Greeks to today’s positive psychologists, tell us that happiness as a life condition should not be confused with mere mood. It is about pursuing a life that is satisfying and fulfilling, which contains but is not limited to experiences of pleasant emotion. If you are satisfied with your life on the whole, then it can be said to be a happy one even if you’re not cheerful at every moment.
Following this approach, a happy life is about what we do, how we do it and how we appreciate it along the way. It is the pursuit of meaningful activities, in which you are deeply engaged and that result in feelings of enjoyment or pleasure.
Because our emotions can have such a hold on us, it is easy to get wrapped up in hedonistically seeking pleasure or fearfully avoiding difficulty. The issue with just trying to optimize for emotion is that we end up following our whims. And while these urges can be helpful indicators about the emotions a course of action will bring, they are not well-calibrated to be a good guide for building a happy life. They overemphasize the near term by seeking a release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine. We often “feel like” eating a bag of chips and watching TV rather than working out. But while snacks and a good show can be fun, always choosing them over exercise would lead to poor health and fewer opportunities to be fully engaged in your life. Exercise, on the other hand, has been repeatedly demonstrated to boost happiness and is even as effective as Zoloft in fighting depression (3). This finding, that what we want to do now might not be what we want long term, can be generalized beyond just television versus exercise and is a key to why happiness can be elusive. Feeling good about our lives is trickier than always doing what we “feel like.”
Another issue with getting caught in optimizing short-term mood is that we often avoid challenges out of fear: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of discomfort. But a happy life is not something that happens to us. We have to create it. And in order to create, we must confront our fears and conquer challenges along the way. Seeking a happy life by following your fears to inaction is like seeking a happy relationship by giving into your fears of rejection and never approaching the person you’re interested in. You may avoid rejection, but you avoid the possibility of ever having a relationship as well. Like it or not, there is just no effortless path to a fulfilling life.
So if following our urges to optimize mood isn’t the path to life satisfaction, what is?
First, seek experiences of meaning and engagement. Are the things you do important to you? When you’re doing them, do you get wrapped up in and carried along by the experience? Seek those activities where you feel intrinsically motivated and effortlessly focused.
Second, don’t expect everything to go “right” all the time. Events will take a wrong turn and people will treat you differently than you want. You’ll behave in ways you disapprove of in hindsight. Bad things are going to happen. Given that we know we are going to face obstacles, setbacks and disappointments, we have two options: we can indulge in feelings of frustration every time something differs from our ideal. Or, we can accept difficulties as part of creating the life we want. That does not mean I have to be cheerful in the midst of a challenge. However, I also don’t need to indulge the part of me that constantly feels slighted, complains of unfairness and rails against what is. Instead of “how is this different than what I expected?” ask “Now, what am I going to do and what can I gain from this experience?”
Third, cultivate awareness to reprogram your urges. In my early 20s, I was working in management consulting and followed my urges to a rather fun, but emotionally limited life. I worked, slept occasionally and went out on the weekends. I enjoyed my work and had fun at the parties, but I’d also almost completely eliminated hobbies from my life. At some point, I noticed that a weekend of going out left me exhausted, but I felt energized and refreshed after hiking with friends, running in a race or reading a book. After this realization, I saw that my urges – what I thought would bring me a positive mood – weren’t actually a very accurate predictor of how good I would feel. Rather than force myself to exercise instead of watching TV, I simply paid attention to how each activity felt. Over time, my attention naturally shifted to the activities that actually resulted in a positive mood rather than the activities my impulses yearned for. As a result, my impulses themselves began changing to reflect these new insights.
Fourth, choose processes not outcomes. It is easy to get focused on outcomes. For example, a person who wants to lose weight may be so focused on achieving the outcome that he forgets to design a good process, one that he will enjoy along the way. Exercise takes many forms, some of which are very fun and some of which are quite tedious. Diets imply changing what you eat, but do you focus on missing the things you crave but can no longer eat, or do you find meals you really enjoy within the bounds of your diet? An effective process approach to achieving the weight loss outcome would involve designing a fun exercise regime, like playing pickup basketball rather than running mindlessly on the treadmill, and searching for delicious meals that fit the diet. While you have to put in effort to achieve goals, there is often a lot more latitude to make the effort enjoyable than we initially think.
Finally, learn the art of savoring. Have you ever, after a long week and feeling like you deserve a treat, sat down to a hearty meal and gobbled it up without even noticing? You look around at the end of a meal and think “who ate my dinner? Who drank my wine?” Savoring is simply paying close attention to pleasure when it happens. Like any skill, savoring takes practice. But as you hone your ability to appreciate what is, you’ll find yourself increasingly able to do it in all situations. You’ll learn to experience sights, sounds, feelings and flavors more deeply. But more than just that, you’ll learn to shift your focus from the frustrating elements of a given situation to the rewarding elements.
A master savorer truly lives in the experience of a great meal while she’s eating it. She also shifts her attention to and finds delight in the company of friends when a meal is sub-par. In the midst of crisis, she’s not obsessing about how she wishes things had gone differently, she is alert and focused on what she can gain from the experience. In learning to savor, she learns both to appreciate good things and to direct her limited conscious attention to the part of each experience that is most valuable, enjoyable or interesting. For her, pleasant mood is the reward she enjoys for seeking a life of meaning and engagement rather than something external that she demands of life.
References and notes:
(1) The Mood, Meaning, Engagement framework was originally proposed by Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness. He later expanded the theory to include Relationships and Success in Flourish, which I account for as two potential avenues for success or making an impact.
Photo credit: Ginny, “A few pieces of pepperoni later,” adapted