“I just want my kids to be happy”
In the United States Declaration of Independence, the unalienable rights of man are:
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
Look deeply at what you really want in life, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be:
Happiness is one of those terms that gets thrown around quite often. Everybody thinks they can define it but few people can explain exactly what it is or tell you specifically how to be happier than you are now.
You shouldn’t take my word for it – Ask someone next to you what happiness is. Then ask them how you can be happier.
If you’re satisfied with their answer then stop reading and act on their advice right away. If they start looking up, down or around and telling you that they’ll know it when they see it, share this article with them and read on together.
So what is happiness and how can we be happier than we are now?
I’ve read a number of books and articles on happiness and the one that best matches reality is described in Flourish by Martin Seligman. He provides 5 pillars that make up the framework for what most people call happiness (he refers to it as “well-being”). When you know what these pillars of happiness are, you can specifically strengthen each one to increase your own happiness.
Feel Positive Emotions
This is what most people think of when they think about being happy. Feelings such as joy, optimism, hope, delight, satisfaction, appreciation … you get the point. Positive emotions are manifested physically by the ever popular smile (with crows feet of course).
But happiness is more than just feelings.
An olympic athlete that trains hard every day is probably not experiencing positive emotions during practice. It is not until he wins the gold medal that he displays his happy feelings. Positive feelings usually come AFTER a lot of hard work, not during.
Think of a time when you were practicing for something (a performance, a competition, an assignment, etc.). Really bring yourself back to that moment when you were just repeatedly doing the same thing over and over with mixed results. Would you say you felt happy during that practice? Probably not but at the same time you did experience something “good”. The “good” that you experienced is one of the other pillars of happiness.
Before we explore the other pillars, let’s look at how we can increase positive emotions in your life.
Emotions come and go and can be triggered by your memories of the past, the circumstances of the present and your expectations for the future. Unless you’re great at meditating (self-control of the mind), it’s very difficult to control your thoughts and emotions. So how do you experience positive emotion at will?
Adopt the physical aspects of positive emotions – smiling, acting energetically and looking at the bright side of everything.
The body and mind are connected and they take turns leading each other. Try feeling happy while frowning or depressed when you put on a genuine smile. Remember: focus on smiling with crow’s feet. Don’t make room for “This is not working” to creep in. Your conscious mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time.
Another way to feel good right away is to do something kind for someone not expecting it. (Try it before you doubt it.)
So if feeling happy is not the only determinant of happiness, what are the others?
Have you ever lost track of time because you were so absorbed in an activity?
You were so focused on the activity that you couldn’t recall your thoughts or feelings?
Thinking back, did time seem to stand still yet pass quickly?
If so, then you were also probably happy.
When you are engaged in what you are doing, you experience happiness.
Sports fans call this being “in the zone” – a magical place where everything you do is right.
For many people, being engaged is their happy place. They don’t need to be smiling or feeling any positive emotions. They just recognize that they are happy.
So how can you be more engaged in life?
- Identify your preferred strength by taking the Values in Action Strengths Test at Authentic Happiness for free
- Put your strengths revealed to the test by gauging how excited and enthusiastic you are when using the test
- If you’re still not sure, you may want to pay someone to assess you with an aptitude test
- Once you confirm your top strengths (the ones that give you the most energy and excitement), find new and more frequent ways to use it
Build Great Relationships
Research and experience show that connecting with others and building and keeping strong bonds make people happy. Our sense of belonging is a key indicator of our happiness. We all want to belong to a group and our happiness correlates with our status within that group. Think about your happiness level the last time you got accepted to a group you really wanted to join (your company, a sports team, a certain club).
In this age of social media, it’s easy to have a lot of “friends” and “connections”. As with all things, quality is more important than quantity. A good way to test quality is to make a list of people you feel comfortable calling at 3 o’clock in the morning knowing they’ll be genuinely interested in helping you out.
The more names you have on that list the better. If you’re not sure whether a friend of yours makes that list, you can always test your results by calling them at 3 am. Don’t be surprised if your list gets shorter after you explain to them you were only “testing” them.
Build stronger relationships by giving without keeping score. Listen to what people want and find ways to help them get it. Also, be there for them if they call you at 3am.
Live with Meaning
Many people see life as a zero-sum game and they live life accordingly. They see someone else’s fortune and luck as taking away from their own fortune and luck. Not surprisingly, people who feel this way are suspicious and selfish. They also tend to be less happy even if they are already well-off.
If you want to be happy, give your life meaning by serving or belonging to something bigger than yourself. Join a cause you believe in and get involved.
Most wealthy and successful people become heavily involved with philanthropy in the second half of their lives. They give their time and money for the greater good of others. The desire for meaning is what makes people go through beatings and arrests as activists. Volunteers that give up paid opportunities are no less noble. No matter the group, they all do it to benefit someone other than themselves.
One word of caution on being selfless. Don’t overdo it. When you sacrifice yourself, you burden those who care about you because not only will they worry, they will eventually be forced to care for you.
Here is some life wisdom from the in-flight safety program:
Put on your own oxygen mask first, then help those around you.
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
This is an excellent example of good intentions gone wrong.
If you want someone to be happy, tell them to win because the pursuit of winning, success, mastery and achievement for its own sake makes people happy.
This is why you have happy workaholics. As long as they keep moving up, they’ll put up with almost anything. It is for this same reason that those who hit the glass ceiling, quickly become dissatisfied with their lives especially if they’ve sacrificed the other pillars of happiness.
So what can you do to strengthen this last pillar?
Do your best always.
Strive for excellence.
Achievement = Skill x Effort
Skill is something you have and can be further developed but it is not something you do. Fortunately, you can control your effort which will boost your achievement by multiples.
So there you have it. The pieces that make up happiness.
So what can you do to be happier?
Step 1 – Rate your own happiness using the five pillars
- How often do you FEEL happy?
- When was the last time you were “in the zone”?
- How many people will be there for you at three in the morning?
- What are you doing for the greater good?
- How successful are you?
Step 2 – Strengthen each pillar
- Smile often and do kind things for people who don’t expect it (Positive Emotion)
- Identify your strengths and find ways to use your strengths more often in your life (Engagement)
- Build stronger relationship by giving to others without keeping score (Relationships)
- Think abundance and find ways to do something that benefits the greater good (Meaning)
- Win. Master something. Be a success. You can achieve these goals through deliberate practice (Achievement)
Step 3 – Balance each pillar
How do your pillars compare with each other? Is one pillar longer than the rest?
Are you someone who is constantly in a good mood but not achieving much? Are you a workaholic who doesn’t have many quality relationships? How much time do you devote to yourself? How much time do you dedicate to a cause bigger than yourself?
If you don’t want your happiness to suddenly fall over, balance the five pillars. If one of the pillars gets damaged, the other four can still support it.
What are some techniques that you use to increase your happiness?
What other pillars do you think are important for happiness?
What will you do today to be happier?
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
– Dalai Lama XIV
Share this article with someone you are looking to build a relationship with. Let them know they can count on you to pick up the phone at 3 in the morning for them.
Photo by Nazer K
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.