Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Five Rules to Being Happy

All of us want to be happy, but few of us actually feel that way most of the time. Of course, we all experience bouts of happiness, but in general, only about 20% of the people are happy most of the time. So, what keeps us from being happy, or more precisely, but experiencing a continuous state of happiness?

There seems to be five mistakes that are common on the road to happiness. Believe it or not, the first one is to try to figure out if we are happy or not! When we try to pursue happiness as a goal, we often want to experience more joy and contentment…than we had before. So, to find out if we are making any progress we start to compare our past state of happiness to our present condition. This creates its own ennui of dissatisfaction. As soon as we start to compare, we move from the experiencing mode into the evaluation mode.

To be truly happy (and there are decades of research on this), you have to be totally absorbed in what you are doing. Think of being engrossed in a good book, solving a tough problem, being in the flow of a sport, or catching up with a great long lost friend. You are in “the zone.” You are so involved in the moment that you lose track of time and pretty much everything in the outside world. Research has shown that when people are in this state, the do not say they are happy because they are too busy concentrating on what they are doing to notice. But in actuality, they are happy. When asked about what they think about these experiences, people usually describe these moments as some of the most enjoyable experiences in their lives.

By looking or searching everywhere for happiness, we often get disrupted in our ability to enjoy what we love doing. We do not get into our flow or find our zone of enjoyment.. We in a sense become less whole. This can often be seen with people being busy, but not being happy. Busy looking for a new job, or friend, or moving to a new state or country and in the process, assessing each new thing but never truly being fully engaged in what you are doing now. Yes, the newness and activity can make you happy for a little while, but it often turns into a vicious cycle that often leads to depression. This depression leads you to begin evaluating your daily projects as less enjoyable and start ruminating about why they are no longer fun.

The second error on this pursuit of happiness is overestimating that impact that any single life circumstance has on our state of bliss. Not only do we overestimate its impact, but the duration of a positive life event. We think having a great job, or moving to an exciting city, or having the perfect relationship, will ‘make’ us happier. How many times have you seen lottery winners lose all their winnings in a short period of time and often say they were happier before? Yes, each new event will give you a bump in excitement or joy, but in a few months, the reality of the daily grind will set in and that shot of adrenaline begins to wear off.

The third error on our quest to being happy is thinking it comes from doing it alone. That happiness is just about yourself as an individual state. While there is some truth about deciding to be or not be happy, looking for happiness alone is a mistake. Focusing on just our own happiness actually makes us less happy. This is not to say that improving your skills, such as with self love, is not good, it is, but happiness is something that needs to be shared in order to be increased, intensified and extended. Just like love. There is a wealth of evidence that shows that the more people try to be happy by themselves, the more lonely they feel, and in some cases this myopic effort leads to depression. Essentially, the more you try to focus on being happy, the less happy you become. Happiness, unlike a skill, cannot be something you establish on your own alone, but something you share.

The fourth mistake is looking for intense happiness instead of just the simple pleasures. Many believe that to be happy that you need strong, overwhelming positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, passion and excitement. Sadly, research shows that this is not the best path to being truly happy, and that happiness is driven by the frequency, not the intensity of positive emotions. When we aim just for those intense positive emotions, we often miss the small joys that make us truly happy. Joys like a beautiful sunset, or a walk in the woods, the kiss on the nose of a dog, or a good joke at work.

In evaluating how intense an emotion is concerning our happiness, we start to compare it to a higher standard, which make it easier for us to be disappointed. Studies have shown that when people were explicitly searching for happiness, they experience less joy in watching a figure skater win a gold medal or going to a great concert. They were actually disappointed that the event was not more enjoyable or jubilation. In most of the case, people even stated that they would not have felt any better if they had won the gold medal or been the musician playing on stage. And on the down side, studies indicate that an intense positive experience leads us to frame ordinary experience as less positive. So, once you win that gold medal or won a lottery, it is hard to take pleasure in finding a great parking spot or getting all the green lights when you are late.

The last and biggest mistake we make in being happy is thinking that happiness is just around the corner, or it will come tomorrow, or sometime in the future. We do not value being happy right now, right here. Happiness is about being present in the present.

If you worrying about the future or remembering the past; this mental calisthenics will only distract you from being happy. One of the main tenets of happiness is to focus on the present, the here and now, and in developing your joy in the moment. Happiness comes from being completely centered on the here and now. When you live in the present, you are living where life is happening. As I say, “Fear is caused by the uncertainty of the future. Sorrow is caused by the remembrance of the past. Try to keep your thoughts in the present, for the future we will never know and the past we may never understand.” You cannot be truly happy long term if you are constantly thinking about the past or future all the time.

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