Happiness is a big topic these days. There are many happiness blogs and books that explore how we can achieve greater happiness in our lives. The emerging field of Positive Psychology, the study of happiness, has produced a large body of scientific research that helps us understand how we can be happier. Major universities, like the University of Pennsylvania, have their own Positive Psychology departments that conduct research on what makes happy people happy. Dr. Martin Seligman, thought to be the father of Positive Psychology, heads the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Where traditionally the field of Psychology focuses on mental illness or psychological problems and how to treat them, Dr. Seligman and his peers examine how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. So, why is happiness such a “hot” topic these days? Research on the mental health and wellbeing of Americans may shed some light on the answer. Statistics show that anxiety and depression affect many Americans and that those numbers are growing. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in our country, affecting over forty million adults in the United States (18% of U.S. population). An estimated one in ten adults reports being depressed. In addition, anxiety disorders affect one in eight children in the United States and rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past fifty years. Today, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder when compared to half a century ago. These statistics suggest that in the United States, a country in which we have greater material wealth and individual freedom than most other countries in the world, we are increasingly unhappy.
So, why aren’t we happier?
Perhaps it is because we live in a culture where we never feel that we have enough, or that we are enough. We are always looking to get more, be more, have more. Our culture values extreme individualism and ambition as characteristics needed to achieve success, creating a culture in which the fear of failure runs rampant. In such a culture, we think that happiness is conditional upon our achievements. Although our goals are often quite concrete (being promoted at work, buying a new car, moving to a bigger house, winning a race, making a team, getting into an ivy league school, fighting for social justice), if we press further in our investigation, we will usually find that our ultimate goal is simply to be happy. As Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard Professor and author of several books on Positive Psychology explains, “Wealth, fame, admiration and all other goals are subordinate and secondary to happiness; whether our desires are material or social, they are means toward one end: happiness.”
What the research shows is that the attainment of a particular goal to achieve greater happiness is misguided. The achievement of our goals may bring temporary joy, but it does not impact our overall level of happiness. For example, studies of both lottery winners and people who have been paralyzed reveal that people return to their same level of happiness (or unhappiness as the case may be) one year after the event. Our projected happiness (or unhappiness) after certain events is not what we actually experience. We have all experienced a situation where we work very hard to achieve a goal, are overjoyed in accomplishing that goal, only to emerge a short time after our goal is met asking ourselves, “What’s next?” We quickly realize that the happiness we felt after achieving that goal was merely temporary. We may even feel depressed when we realize that the achievement of our much-anticipated goal did not bring us the lasting happiness we desire.
So, how can we be happier?
Research suggests that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics, traits we are born with such as temperament. The good news is this leaves us with 50% to work with. Many researchers are looking at the effects of mindfulness practices and other cognitive exercises that can help us shape our reactivity and perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in. In other words, instead of looking externally at what we can accomplish next, what we lack and what we want to gain so that we can be happier, we can change our perception of who we are, what we want and how we react to our circumstances.
This pursuit of happiness is what Sharon Salzberg explores in her book Real Happiness. She explains, “Because the development of inner calm & energy happens completely within and isn’t dependent on another person or a particular situation, we begin to feel a resourcefulness and independence that is quite beautiful—and a huge relief.” In the practice of mindfulness meditation, Salzberg teaches people to look inside themselves in moments of quiet and accept things as they are. Those quiet moments help us to connect to our own inner strength, our compassion for ourselves and for others, and our ability to ride the tides of our own emotions. These qualities, which we all possess, can be fostered and strengthened simply by recognizing that they are already there.
Once we take the time to reconnect to who we really are, value our inner strengths and find a sense of peace and contentment in ourselves as we are, we are able to feel more happiness in our lives. We can foster our own feelings of optimism and gratitude, which will enhance our sense of well-being. With this new perspective, it is not the achievement of goals in which we seek to attain happiness; we already have a sense of happiness along the way as we pursue our goals. The relationship between happiness and success is reciprocal – not only can success contribute to happiness, but happiness also leads to success.