What do you want in life? Have you thought about this lately? Have you given up on finding a satisfying answer?
For many, the knee-jerk response is, “to be happy.” When asked specifically what they would need to be happy, men and women, boys and girls, the young and the old and the rich and the poor would come back with a host of answers depending on their personal situations. I’m sure we will hear over and over the words money, job, time, love, relief and fulfillment. There must be a good number of other common answers, but are any of these the actual components of happiness?
This is a massive subject that cannot be covered in one article with any semblance of closure. So much has been written that I couldn’t hope to research it thoroughly and condense it down to 700-800 words. As a result of this realization, I’ve decided to present a series on the topic over the next few months or so. I will take an objective and sometimes subjective look at a variety of sources that should be informative and entertaining. We’ll explore happiness from many perspectives and hopefully give almost every reader a better understanding as well as some tools to effect positive change in one’s own “H-quotient.”
What exactly is happiness? Quoting Thorndike/Barnhart Intermediate, we see that it is a state of “being happy; gladness.” So, what’s happy? The first definition in the same dictionary seems to be the most fitting. “feeling as you do when you are well and are having a good time; glad; pleased; contented.” Random House Webster’s College goes into a little more depth on happy. The first definition is similar to Thorndike/Barnhart’s, but definition 2 says, “characterized by or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy. This one I like because the first definitions refer to a single occurrence while the second takes the isolated incident out of the equation and broadens it to a general and ongoing state. Being truly happy is not being elated, excited or high. It’s about a stable condition that endures despite the natural ups and downs of everyday life.
Happiness also comes in other notable flavors. For instance, there is extrinsic versus intrinsic happiness. Extrinsic is a word that has to do with coming from outside, in this case from outside oneself. Intrinsic relates to emanating from within. As you can see, extrinsic happiness is based on things that happen externally or the stuff we gather to ourselves, like money and material possessions. Instrinsic joy is generated by our own state of mind or achievements, even viewpoints. When you take satisfaction in breaking an old self-destructive habit, you feel a deep sense of well-being and it makes you feel good as long as you maintain your mastery over that which you’ve conquered. Feeling gratitude for what you have can be a continuous source of happiness, whereas taking the attitude you need something better or newer automatically leads you to dissatisfaction with your life or at least your present day situation.
Martin Seligman, sometimes known as the father of positive psychology, came up with three categories of happiness that help break this concept down further. He calls them pleasant life, engaged life and meaningful life. The pleasant life consists of having as much pleasure as your time on earth allows. You seek pleasurable stimulation in whatever form works for you and make pleasure a lifestyle, mixing it up and exposing yourself to it en masse. Sex, drugs and rock and roll! You can even make it a science of sorts to make it sustainable as possible. But these stimuli are basically physical, and being physical they are ever-changing and transitory. Thus, they don’t lead to lasting contentment.
The engaged life is had by learning your strengths and using them in all phases of your existence. You mold your life around them, then immerse yourself in the things you love with all your heart, get your back into your living as The Who sang all those years ago. Be at one with your family, your career, the home team, the music or whatever suits you.
The third category is known as the meaningful life, wherein a person takes those strengths and talents and applies them to service. It goes beyond oneself and one’s family. We’re talking here about being engaged in a loftier purpose, enriching the lives of others. Examples could range from tutoring children or adults in literacy programs to joining the Peace Corps and everything in between.
None of these guarantee happiness, but it’s easy to see how altruistic work fills the heart, fueled by love and unselfish purpose. Nonetheless, we’ve just scratched the surface in our journey to the center of happiness. More next time!