Monday, July 11, 2011

What is your Recipe for Happiness?

I love to cook, and I have a few go-to ingredients that I know, if added to the dish, will make it taste especially tasty (for me these are onions, garlic, and green peppers). These items alone are also tasty when sauteed in butter or extra virgin olive oil. I can never go wrong with onions, green peppers, and garlic. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

But I digress. Today's blog takes a look at happiness and challenges you to think about how you define happiness. Before writing this blog I googled "happiness" to browse some of the research that has been conducted on happiness and found a lot of interesting articles. Dr. Martin Seligman is a leading researcher in happiness and well-being and he has a great webpage (Authentic Happiness) that offers resources on these topics. In my search I also came across blog posts by Gretchen Rubin who spent a year testing our various theories of happiness. At the end she wrote a book, The Happiness Project, which chronicles her journey. Check out her blog here and a great article that explores ten myths about happiness here.

First I should define what I mean by "happiness". Many clients state that they "just want to be happy", and I often push them to define what this means. Many have a goal in mind that they would like to achieve, or desire to be in a "happy" relationship, or just want to feel content. When I think of happiness I most often conceptualize it as a state of contentment- a good solid baseline wherein a person feels satisfied, overall, with life as it is at this moment. Life is not always joyful, nor is it always particularly exciting. I believe that it is healthy (and "ok") to have goals and aspirations, and to want things like happy, healthy relationships, but I believe that it is dangerous to base one's happiness on the attainment of any "thing". For instance, what happens if getting that "thing" takes longer than expected? Or, what if it never happens? Unfortunately, many people spend time being unhappy and lamenting the lack of the thing rather than living in and enjoying life's moments, which is an unfortunate way to spend one's life in my opinion.

I read a really good article in O Magazine that I have recommended to clients- you can find it here. The author, Martha Beck, challenges people to pay attention to times in the present when they feel the way that they believe the future thing will make them feel. For example, if you want a more intellectually stimulating job, which you believe will make you happier, the challenge for you is to take note of times when you feel intellectually stimulated in your daily life, whether at work or otherwise. Doing so helps you enjoy, and perhaps cultivate, those activities and moments etc, which allows you to experience that satisfaction in the moment rather than holding out for the future thing. Additionally, people often find that attaining the "thing" doesn't lead to the level of happiness they had expected, which Martha Beck's article also explains. Often, when anticipating a future "thing" the weight of it becomes larger than life such that when it happens it is impossible for it to feel as great as one had anticipated. This is another reason why holding out on happiness for a "thing" is unhelpful and may actually lead to disappointment.

So your goal is to think about what contributes to your day to day, baseline level of contentment. This will be different from person to person, and maybe you don't have a baseline. If you don't have one, the first step in the process will be to take a look at what you are holding out for. If it is companionship, you may benefit from expanding your social circles or trying different ways to meet people (e.g., online forums such as If you are wanting to be intellectually stimulated, you might want to consider writing a blog or using twitter to connect with other like-minded individuals. Overall, your goal is to look for ways to be content and enjoy life as it is now, even amidst the ups and downs that are sure to come. No one's life is perfect, but I believe that it is possible to find enjoyment in little ways. Do you accept the challenge?

Dr. Stanley