“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
“What’s your goal in life?”
If I’d ask you that, what would you answer?
Every person usually has a different answer:
- Some people say they want to find the love of their lives.
- Others want to get healthy.
- Yet others want to start their own business.
- Still others just want to make a lot of money.
- And then there are those who want all of the above.
Whatever it is for you is fine. But let me follow up with another question:
“Why is that your goal?”
With a question like that we begin to dig into your deeper motivations. Your answer might be that…:
- You want to find a soulmate…
- You want to get healthier so you can run faster…
- You want to retire early…
And again, that’s all well and good… But why do you want that?
Your next reply might be that you want to get married, run a marathon, spend more time with your family, etc.
But once again, ask yourself:
“Why do I really want that?”
The interesting thing is that if you keep asking yourself ‘why’ for long enough, you’ll generally find yourself ending up at the same answer most people do:
Whatever it is you’re pursuing in life, you probably believe it will ultimately make you happier. In the end, it turns out we’re all taking different paths in life in pursuit of the same experience:
Happiness… preferably the lasting kind.
But if that’s so, then why are so few people really happy with their lives?
This article explains why, and gives you clear insight into how to really create the kind of durable happiness you’re looking for:
- We’ll first identify what keeps a lasting sense of happiness at bay.
- After that, we’ll explore what really brings durable contentment and fulfillment… and it might just be different from what you think!
So let’s begin…
What Block Lasting Happiness?.
Why is most of the happiness we do experience fleeting at best?
How do we sustain it so that it becomes the dominant nature of our life experience?
And how can we get the happiness we experience to keep expanding to greater levels each and every single day?
Those are the kinds of questions that a special branch of psychology called the ‘science of happiness’ tries to find the answers to. It’s part of a relatively new research field known as ‘positive psychology,’ which has taken a bit of a detour from psychology’s traditional orientation.
Prior to 1998, almost all psychology was about trying to figure out how to get people who had something wrong with them ‘back to normal’ (whatever that is).
But strangely, few researchers ever bothered to examine what would in fact make ‘normal’ people happier… until this branch eventually came forth.
In general, it turns out there are two main reasons why we’re unable to reach, let alone sustain an ongoing sense of happiness in life:
Reason #1: Subconscious disturbances pull us out of happiness.
First of all, it’s next to impossible to maintain a state of happiness when we’ve got pressing subconscious issues that keep pulling us out of it, or even prevent the whole experience of happiness in the first place. (This is the focus of this and this article and what the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ helps you deal with – among the many other things it does.)
A good example of such subconscious pulls is the (very common) phenomenon of ‘happiness anxiety,’ which expresses itself through internal voices saying things like: “I don’t deserve this,” “it will never last,” “I’m riding for a fall,” “I’m killing my mother and father by being happier than they ever were,” “happiness is only an illusion,” or “nobody else is happy, so why should I be?.“
In short, part of the ‘trick’ of being able to reach and maintain a state of happiness on the conscious level is to harmonize the subconscious imbalances that keep pulling you out of that state.
Let’s explore what you can do on the conscious level for a change, which brings us to the second reason we find ourselves unable to establish durable contentment in life…:
Reason #2: We misdirect our focus into areas that don’t really bring us happiness.
Most people don’t do the right things on the conscious level to reach and maintain prolonged states of happiness. This is primarily because what we think will make us happy usually doesn’t.
“Let’s explore how and why this happens…”
What Moves Us Away From Happiness.
There are two ways in which we consistently and persistently misdirect our focus, both representing a state that earlier articles referred to as ‘reactive mode:’
1. We’re very bad at predicting what will actually bring us sustained happiness.
Most people go through their lives thinking:
- When I get [this and this], I will be happy…
- When I achieve [this and this], I will be happy…
- When I eliminate [this and this], I will be happy…
However, research explicitly indicates that the kind of happiness that results from this type of pursuit is fleeting at best, and tends to fade away very quickly.
To illustrate, you’ve probably heard of studies done on lottery winners, which compare their happiness right before winning to what it’s like just a measly year later.
Even though prior to the event people often see winning the lottery as their ship coming in and guaranteeing the kind of contentment that lasts for the rest of their days, these studies generally find that their degree of happiness reverts back very quickly to whatever it was like before the big win… and sometimes sinks even deeper.
For most people, finally achieving what they always thought was their main goal in life (whether it’s making a certain amount of money, finding the love of their life, eliminating a discomforting physical ailment, and so on) does not bring them the sustained happiness they thought it would.
And yet, most people spend their entire lives in pursuit of such goals.
Of course, we may get a temporary boost from achieving them, making it seem like we’ve tuned into ‘the real thing’ for a while… But it hardly ever guarantees happiness in the long run.
(In fact, as it turns out, it’s usually the other way around: achieving sustainable happiness first – as you’ll learn how to do soon – increases the chances of achieving such goals! More on this later…)
And this brings us to the second way in which we tend to misdirect our focus…
2. We usually can’t even tell what we really want without placing it in a context of comparison to something or someone else.
We hardly ever define happiness in its own, absolute terms, but rather in relative terms, like ‘more than,’ ‘less than,’ ‘better than,’ ‘bigger than,’ ‘smaller than,’ ‘no more,’ etc.
In this context, Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, once ironically defined happiness as follows:
“Happiness is proportional to your salary divided by your brother-in-law’s salary.”
Of course, he didn’t propose this as the true definition of happiness, but meant to illustrate the disproportionate importance we give to context in considering what would make us happy, while we hardly ever define it in its own right.
At the risk of stating the obvious in clarifying what he meant:
While your own salary may be good and may cover for all the things you ever want to buy (thus providing a solid basis for happiness in that area in its own right), the context of it being lower than your brother-in-law’s salary might decrease your overall happiness to a degree that you still want more and can’t feel happy until you do.
Now you may not even have a brother-in-law to begin with, but the point I’m making is the fundamental mistake of contextualizing happiness:
“We tend to judge our ‘happiness’ by our degree of unhappiness, and our achievements in relation to externally imposed symbols that society decrees to be the essentials of ‘success.’”
The problem with this orientation is that it pulls us into a state in which we’ll be forever in pursuit. In other words, as opposed to being happy, we’re constantly in pursuit of it. And that status quo of ‘being in pursuit’ by definition keeps the actual state of happiness at bay.
As an example, take James Hong. James Hong is the kind of person that has made more money in his life than many can even contemplate, and he hangs out in circles of highly successful entrepreneurs who make and deal with the kind of capital that few people can even imagine.
He’s a Silicon Valley-based engineer best known as co-founder of (at least what used to be) a famous dating and rating website called ‘HotOrNot.com.’
His personal friends include the likes of Max Levchin, co-founder of Paypal (one of the largest online platforms for global e-commerce money transfers).
All fine and dandy, but Hong is one who eventually came to understand the point I’m making here, and decided to step out of his own vicious cycle of contextualizing happiness through an initial symbolic act of replacing his Porsche Boxster for a Toyota Prius.
He told the New York Times:
“I don’t want to live the life of a Boxster, because when you get a Boxster, you wish you had a 911, and you know what people who have 911s wish they had? They wish they had a Ferrari.”
Now obviously, James Hong does not need our pity.
There are no doubt plenty of people who think they’d be more than happy with things far more modest than a Toyota Prius, and there are probably even more who just wish for a hot meal and a place to sleep during the winter, but it’s the structural mentality that’s important here.
Hong’s story is a good example of how the state of constantly being ‘in pursuit’ can still apply even if you already have more than what the average person thinks they’ll ever ‘need’ to be happy.
It illustrates a major pitfall to happiness that many of us fall in:
“The more we have, the more we want.“
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with ‘wanting stuff’ – in fact, it’s fine, as long as it doesn’t become the sole determinant of your sense of happiness, self-worth, and/or success.
It’s simply not what brings you sustained happiness, because you’ll always want something more, better, bigger, fancier, etc…, Or if that’s not it, you’ll find something you’ll want to get rid of before you can feel content.
This way you’ll never actually be happy, but you’ll always be in pursuit of it.
So having explored what pulls us out of happiness and what keeps it at bay, it’s clear that ‘reactive mode’ is never going to get us where we want to be. But then what is?
“Let’s dig in…
What Brings Us (Lasting) Happiness?”
The starting point is obvious:
Don’t look so much at what you don’t have or want to get rid of, but be grateful for all the things, capacities and abilities you do have… and remember that you’re a unique living being with a mind of your own and an amazing ability to shape your own destiny.
But while it’s important, there’s more to durable fulfillment than being grateful.
For sure, happiness is an intimate experience. It resides in the core of our being and is what we ourselves project, not what something or someone else gives us or thinks of us.
This simple fact can hardly be overemphasized. Think about it:
- I can be loved by my family, my mate, and my friends, and yet not love myself (and therefore feel unhappy).
- I can be admired by my associates, and yet regard myself as worthless (and feel unhappy because of it).
- I can project an image of assurance and poise that fools almost everyone, and yet secretly tremble with the sense of my inadequacy (and feel unhappy as a result).
- I can fulfill the expectations of others and yet fail my own (and thus still feel unhappy).
- I can win every honor and yet feel I have accomplished nothing (therefore feeling unhappy regardless of all my achievements).
- I can be adored by millions and yet wake up each morning with a sickening sense of fraudulence and emptiness (and thus unhappiness).
As such, as opposed to any form of ‘reactive mode,’ the key to sustainable happiness is what I call ‘creative mode,’ in which happiness is defined in its own terms, made specific to our own requirements as a unique being in this world, and actively cultivated.
In this context, the science of happiness proposes two general frameworks of happiness that help us come up with more personal, independent and creative definitions.
Let’s explore both constructs in more detail for some pointers:
HAPPINESS CONSTRUCT #1
In the first framework, happiness is built on four pillars, each of which is important to focus on for our own sense of ongoing happiness:
Pillar #1 – Perceived Control:
This is the feeling that we can in fact determine our own destiny, and that we do in fact have the power to actively make a difference in our lives.
All it requires is that realization and following through on it by taking deliberate actions in order to make happen what you envision.
You may not know exactly what you want with your life yet, but at the very least you’ll have some ideas for things that you think will make you happy.
As such, you can get started by deliberately taking the first steps in that direction.
By the time you’ve completed the first steps you’ll have a better idea of what you want next, or otherwise, you’ll realize along the way that you really want something else, at which point you can redirect your focus and start taking conscious action towards whatever that is.
“All this is under your voluntary control.”
The great thing about following through on this insight is that you’ll instigate a self-fulfilling prophecy that will break any vicious cycles of passivity, and will bring you more and more happiness as a result:
“your taking action will give you an ever-growing sense of control, which in turn will inspire you to take even more action, which then goes on to increase your perceived sense of control, and so on.”
And besides helping you move forward, deliberate action steps are also expressions of what I refer to as ‘implicit intent,’ which has an almost ‘magical’ effect of shaping your circumstances in a way that will strongly support the actualization of your visions.
Pillar #2 – Perceived Progress:
This is the feeling that you’re actually moving forward.
A sense of happiness in this context is often not even so much about actually achieving all your goals, but rather about the feeling of moving forward itself, i.e. the feeling of growth and evolution.
This mirrors the nature of life itself, of which growth, evolution and expansion through experience are fundamental attributes.
As such, we could say that the sense of happiness experienced through perceived progress is ultimately driven by a core urge to realize growth as an individual, and that this type of happiness is already experienced by the mere perception of moving forward.
“This too is something that you can voluntarily and very easily control.“
Pillar #3 – Connectedness:
We’re not alone, you know? It’s common knowledge that our experience of happiness is far more intense if we’re able to share it with others.
‘Connectedness’ is a function of both the number of your relationships and their depth.
Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, concludes that happiness doesn’t come primarily from within, but rather from between.
Like the other pillars discussed so far, this is also an area you can actively engage in yourself, by taking deliberate steps to connect more and more deeply with like-minded spirits and the people you care about.
Pillar #4 – Vision/Meaning:
The last pillar in this framework is having a sense of ‘vision’ and/or ‘meaning.’
Generally speaking, the idea of contributing to something bigger than ourselves beyond personal gain alone can bring a significantly increased sense of happiness and fulfillment to our lives.
– “In fact, this last ‘pillar of happiness’ corresponds to the most powerful concept in the next happiness framework we’ll explore, which gives us its own constructive sense of direction…”
HAPPINESS CONSTRUCT #2
This framework distinguishes three dimensions of happiness that give us additional insight into where we best direct our focus for sustainable happiness:
Dimension #1 – Pleasure:
‘Pleasure’ is seen as a dimension of happiness that’s about always chasing the next ‘high.’ But in order to sustain the ‘high,’ we need to maintain a constant flow of the stimuli that provide it.
This dimension of happiness is therefore very hard to maintain, and often requires a fast and restless lifestyle that we can’t keep up for prolonged periods of time.
Research has confirmed that of the three dimensions of happiness of this particular framework, this one is the most fleeting and shortest lasting.
After all, as soon as the stimulus of the ‘high’ goes away, your happiness levels drop immediately, and that makes it an inappropriate focus if durable contentment is what you’re really after.
Dimension #2 – Passion:
‘Passion’ is an experience of happiness that you can get caught up in for longer periods of time compared to the dimension of ‘pleasure.’
Most of us have had this experience at some point:
There may be things you can do for hours upon hours without getting bored, and after a while you ‘wake up’ and wonder what happened to the time.
Such an experience is otherwise also known as ‘the flow,’ where ‘peak performance’ meets ‘peak engagement.’
Sports people often call this ‘being in the zone.’ It’s a state where our minds are free of clutter, we’re fully and passionately engaged in what we’re doing, and time flies by.
It’s an amazing feeling, and it lasts longer than pleasure. But you still tend to ‘pop out of it’ relatively soon, and it’s not a state that’s easy to deliberately jump back into once you’re out, and this leaves us with one last dimension…
Dimension #3 – Higher Purpose:
This is the dimension that corresponds directly with the ‘vision/meaning’ aspect of the other happiness construct we discussed above, and the idea of being part of something that extends beyond our personal gain and that gives us a sense of contribution to the well-being of our fellow man.
Consistently following through on a sense of higher purpose is what ultimately provides the longest-lasting experience of happiness, as it becomes a fundamental attribute of the overall nature of our life experience
– “in other words: a sense of durable fulfillment.”
Most people go through their lives mainly chasing the ‘pleasure’ dimensions of happiness.
This keeps them in ‘reactive mode,’ because they make themselves dependent on external stimuli.
Their (implicit) reasoning comes down to this:
- “Only once I’m able to sustain the stimulus (or stimuli) needed for a more consistent experience of that dimension of happiness, only then will I be able to explore any options for leveraging the next level of ‘passion.’”
- “And if I ever get around to it (which hardly ever happens because this fundamental orientation rather keeps happiness at bay), I might at one point even look to see if there’s a higher purpose for me.”
But this goes directly against what the science of happiness has taught us about how to really achieve lasting happiness in life:
It appears that the proper strategy to achieve ‘sustained’ happiness is to first figure out and pursue the higher dimensions happiness (i.e. passion and purpose), and then layer other, more fleeting types of happiness on top of that… with ‘pleasure’ being the last dimension to focus on (at least on a structural basis).
True enough, starting out from an orientation towards a ‘higher purpose’ can be a pretty far stretch when you have absolutely no idea whatsoever about what could be an appropriate higher purpose for you (although many times we do have an inkling, but are simply afraid to admit, much less surrender to it)…
And in addition to that, it’s worth exploring what brings you happiness at the level of passion.
You can get hints by asking yourself questions like:
- What are my strengths?
- What do I excel in?
- What are my unique talents?
- What can I do better than most others?
- What are my passions?
- What makes my heart sing?
- What can I do for hours that makes me lose track of time and fills me with energy and joy?
- What would I do anyway regardless if I get paid for it or not?
- How would I spend my time if money wouldn’t even be part of the equation? (For example, just for the sake of stretching your mind, what would you be doing on a daily basis in a world in which money didn’t exist?)
“Whatever answers you come up with, deliberately make time for that in your life on a regular basis!”
This will get you ‘in the flow’ more often, and that experience tends to create the kind of ‘mental space’ that allows intuitive hunches and flashes of inspiration to pop in, which may hint you at a higher purpose that’s appropriate for you.
And even if that takes a while, at the very least you’ll have increased the frequency and intensity of your experience of happiness until it does!
– “Now let’s recap on what we learned…”
In summary, for a prolonged, sustainable, and ongoing sense of contentment and fulfillment in life, the ‘science of happiness’ gives us the following areas to focus on and cultivate:
Vision/Meaning/Higher Purpose: Define and commit to yours, and if you need help coming up with something, answer the ‘passion’-questions I gave you above.
Just begin by following through on what you identify, and you’ll find that visions and ideas for a higher purpose that’s appropriate for you will begin to emerge very soon.
Take deliberate steps to establish more and deeper connections with like-minded spirits and the people you care about.
Perceived Control and Perceived Progress:
Define action steps to move forward toward your vision, no matter how small they seem right now, and follow through on them.
Note that taking these steps is not as much about the supposed distance they cover, but more so about the experience of happiness that results from the perceived control and progress that come from doing so! (That’s even disregarding the additional, indirect and highly supporting benefit that’s generated by the implicit intent these actions express.)
As such, this dimension of happiness tends to reinforce itself: Cultivating it usually leads to actual, measurable results in life, which in turn go on to serve as stimuli that can provide new inspiration to keep taking appropriate actions, which will keep giving you the feeling that you’re making progress, which in turn gives you more inspiration to keep taking action, etc.
Do these things, and you’ll find that over time your sense of happiness will grow exponentially.
Whichever direction these tips may lead you into, always remember the key rule of happiness that summarizes this entire article and that you now know how to cultivate:
“Don’t worry… Be happy.”