Being happy is a condition many humans expect and strive to achieve in life. Overall, most people report they feel happy if you ask them. However, more people than I had imagined are dissatisfied about “something,” when you get into deeper discussions and specifics. Even those who tell you everything is wonderful might be “faking-it-until-they-make-it.” If you are not happy, or are concerned about your current condition, you are not alone. Many people feel stuck or unsure of their next step and how to achieve happiness. But, what people don't get is the feeling of happiness is fleeting. In fact, many people don't know how to define happiness-for themselves or understand the feelings are temporary, which is the root problem.
It doesn’t matter in what area of life a person expresses dissatisfaction. I hear people across age, culture, gender and socioeconomic status discuss how frustrated or dissatisfied they are with their respective lives. People complain they are dissatisfied in their marriage, about dating, finances, weight or body image, problems in their job or business, even health. I hear “I am not smart enough, rich enough, pretty enough,” or “I don’t have enough...,” and more commonly, “my life isn’t as good as this family member or that friend.” Some people report they do not have inner peace. What is the theme in these complaints? A focus on what should be and a lack of not having what one expects. Why? Mostly, people are attached to an idea of what should be, including their own expectations.
I began to ask myself what is really going on? How do we stop faking it and become authentically truthful about where we are in life and where we want to go? How do we tap into the context of happiness within our being? I thought about these questions long and hard. I examined my own thoughts and personal life. I asked others who I felt were genuinely happy with themselves and, no matter what’s going on, they maintain a harmonious mindset. I read a few current studies that investigate the extent people believe they are happy based on quality of life or perceptions and feelings of wellbeing, and people’s attitudes about happiness (see: Dell et al., 2016; Muñiz-Velázquez, et al., 2017; Proti et al., 2015). In my search for understanding, there was a pattern I discovered which resonate deeply in my heart; there is no wrong or right about being happy. But, there is a way to tap into your authentic, constant happiness and learn to be in the moment. I have put together these five key points about real happiness below:
Key I: Happiness starts in the mind
I am not referring to just thinking happy thoughts, or mentally deciding to be happy. No matter how hard you think, pretend or decide to be happy, happy feelings will not last. So, I am referring to your deeply held beliefs, attitudes and your relationship with important areas in your life. I am talking about how you relate to happiness. For example, I had a woman call me for coaching to help her identify the cause of her distress and to identify strategies to resolve feeling unfulfilled. After talking, we identified she associated happiness with her experiences. Meaning, the more fun she was having, and the more experiences she was enjoying, the more she believed she was happy. Without having a good time or doing “something,” she believed her life was unsatisfactory. This individual easily succumbs to boredom, depression and feeling useless when she was inactive or had "downtime."
There were two strategies we discussed: 1) discover new experiences to get excited about, and 2) develop contentment for the uneventful life moments. The latter option (#2) was about changing her relationship with happiness and redefining her narrative – this was the long-term journey. Whereas the first strategy (#1) was the immediate relief for the short-term. After a few sessions, this client understood and related to happiness differently from her first consult. Once her mindset changed, strategy #1 was less of a factor. Her idea of happiness was no longer attached to "doing something." She learned how to accept and adjust to her downtime moments. She discovered what it meant to be authentically happy, even when her life seemed uneventful.
Key II: Happiness is in the moment and not an expectation
Most of us have heard all our lives that we should expect to find happiness. We should expect to have a great career, a great marriage, or great kids. We should expect to live the ideal dream where hard work leads to a great payoff. We should expect kindness, gratitude, trustworthiness from other people. We should be able to have it all—right? But, what happens when what we expect fails? What happens when or if your spouse is unfaithful, your child abuses drugs, or you lose your job after 10 years of loyal service? What happens when your loving parent or close friend dies, or someone betrays your trust? Our happiness goes out the window. For example, one of my male clients expected his wife to instantly forgive him after he was unfaithful. He could not find happiness and wanted it back, believing his wife's forgiveness was the answer. He quickly discovered getting immediate forgiveness for his marital transgression was not the answer. We peeled back the behavioral layers to work towards detaching from his expectation and relying more on what is verses what he wanted things to be. He incorporated mindfulness methods to help him understand his behaviors and to put his actions and expectations into perspective. He did not immediately reconcile with his wife. But, he identified delayed reconciliation was good for them both. He learned how to accept the moment, be content during the process and to use the time to focus more on getting himself together rather than focusing on not having what he expected. He realized happiness was available and accessible once he focused on being in the moment and owning his thoughts and actions.
Key III: Happiness is not dependent on perfection
Life is not perfect. You will be disappointed. You will experience heartache, some may experience tragedy. Things will not always go your way (or as expected—see Key II). When we rid ourselves of the idea of being perfect—without flaw, problems or conflict, we learn to fully enjoy life. When we know shit happens—and its ok, and move with the ebb and flow of our experiences, we can accept life just as it is and still be happy. An example that comes to mind is my wedding day. To name a few imperfect activities: my wedding started over an hour late; there was no air conditioning in the limo—it was over 90 degrees that day; my curles/hair fell and frizzed; the decorative arch I rented was not decorated and was delivered late to the church; appetizers and beverages were paid for, but not served to our guests while we were taking pictures (people were hungry and grumpy when we returned to the hall); and my sister and friend (part of the wedding party) got lost and were not in the main wedding picture. As far as execution and organization, this was not the “perfect” wedding I planned. But, it was filled with family and friends, and we had a great time. I married my best friend and I have a healthy marriage. So, the wedding activities were not perfect. Truth be told, my marriage it not perfect. But, my spouse and I are happy and stabile in our healthy marriage. Your life may not be where you want it to be right now. You will loose loved ones throughout your life. Plans will fail. Change is inevitable because nothing remains the same--nothing. Therefore, perfection is temporary, if not an illusion. When you can accept this reality, and understand that happiness is not relative to a perfect life, a perfect job, or a perfect experience, you will discover your happiness blooming, even in the middle of heartache or when the proverbial crap hits the fan.
Key IV: There is no need to compare your happiness with others
It is human nature to compare ourselves with other people. People compare what they have with what their neighbors, family or friends have. This is not a new concept. But social media has mangified it. For intstance, there are scholars that study how Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms increase depressive and anxious behavior or jealousy in adults and teens (see: Hawi et al., 2017; Lin et al, 2016; Lub et al., 2015; Tandoc et al., 2015). These and other researchers have found that people regularly—and often—post where they went on vacation, how much money they have, where and how they live, their new car, or a new outfit. This can trigger different negative feelings in people viewing or reading these posts. "Look at me, look at me and check out how great eveything is in my life" seems to be the subconscious message screeming at us both on and offline and its making us devalue our own experiences because we "think" we do not compare. But, no one posts what they had to go through to get those things. People present only their perfectly imagined lives before the world. But, when people read these posts and view videos or pictures of someone else’s so-called perfect life, they begin to critique and compare their own lives and level of happiness. This process can create a feeling that there is something wrong in your life. You begin to “think” you don’t measure up or something is missing. Boom! now you are unhappy.
Likewise, we judge each other’s extent and level of happiness. Do you tell people what they are doing wrong and why they are unhappy? Do other people tell YOU that you don’t have enough faith, or you have no reason to be unhappy? These are flawed questions. How can your happiness be judged? You happiness is your own subjective experience. Another secret, there is NOTHING wrong with being unhappy. So, there is nothing to compare. There is nothing for you to measure. Crazy concept, right? I say this because each of us have a personal brand of happiness which is unique. Comparing yourself to others (or others comparing themselves to you) is like comparing an apple with a lemon. Yes, we all have access to happiness because happiness is already within you, but our process for strengthening our state of happiness is personal and not based on someone else’s brand or definition of what happiness is or can be. Even though I have identified keys to the foundation of happiness, this is still based on my brand and relatinship with happiness that works for me. Yet, I do believe these keys can help you too. The difference is in how you apply these points to your life, without comparing your happiness to mine.
Key V: Be grateful for all things—without exception
Appreciation is a significant happiness booster. Its like adding Oxyclean to the laundrey. When you can look at your life and still say thank you for something, you build into your happiness and the happiness of others. This point is one of the most powerful. One mindfulness practice I recommend is meditating on at least one thing you are happy for each day. I also suggest writing down a list of things to be happy for, no matter how small or abstract. When people list what they are happy for, they discover just how much they really have in life. Another helpful tool are affirmations. For example, reciting “I am thankful for waking up” or “I am grateful to see another day” allows you to remember that you are alive, and you can achieve anything you set your mind to attaining. Being grateful also helps you forget about what you perceive as wrong in your life. It can't be wrong if you are thankful--right? Gratitude allows you to become grounded in the moment of all possibilities when you express appreciation.
In summary, happiness is a part of you—no matter what is going on around you. Being happy is neither right or wrong. It just is—as you are. Period. Once you understand happiness on your own terms, and learn to flow with life just as it is, you will see and feel authentic happiness for yourself. This is not to say you won’t experience being unhappy. And, that's okay too, so long as you don't continue to focus on the "feeling" of being unhappy or become unproductive. However, learning how to be content and resilient as you live your life and accept the fluctuations that occur is the foundation—and allows you to manage those unhappy moments, and appreciate every experience.
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