If I had to identify the one common denominator that every client I have ever seen brings to their sessions with me over the past 30 years of practice, it would be their unhappiness. That unhappiness comes in many forms and sizes. But one way or another, it is always there.
Conversely, whether the therapy focus is on a relationship, work, a painful personal history, facing an uncertain future in the face of physical illness or pain, fear and worry, or mood disturbances and depression, the client’s goal is often described in terms of wanting to be “happier.” In short, no matter the person’s circumstances, the longing for happiness is a common and maybe even universal theme.
What makes being happy so sought after and at the same time so elusive? Can’t we just “get happy” and stay there? A 2017 national U. S. survey showed that less than 1 in 3 people described themselves as happy despite the fact that by any material measure, the average U. S. citizen’s life circumstances, opportunities, and personal resources far outpaces the citizens of other countries of the world. What is going on here?
Defining Your Happiness Makes the Difference
So long as we orient to happiness as a “thing” to be acquired, we’ll never get it or keep it. The latest electronic gadget, the newest lover, the bigger bank account, the larger home, the more exotic vacation, once acquired, loses it’s pizzazz and the bar for what will produce happiness gets ever higher. The chase for the next new thing is on.
This is true even when we define happiness in terms of feeling less “stressed,” of achieving greater “work-life balance,” or achieving the ability to sustain a state of mindful, non-judgmental acceptance all the time. Any view that defines happiness as something to be acquired or as a state of mind to be perpetually maintained is likely to feed unhappiness and pull us further away from our desired goal.
Happiness is not an object or a destination. Happiness is a fleeting state created and needs to be recreated moment-by-moment. States are necessarily changeable. States come and go, rise and morph in response to internal and external stimuli, which enables us to continually adjust and adapt to secure our safety and optimize our chances for momentary satisfaction. It really can’t be otherwise.
We live in a world of unlimited opportunity. We are living creatures with vast, often untapped or under-tapped potential. Because we are bombarded with constant reminders of what is potentially available, tantalizingly sitting just beyond our grasp, we learn to orient ourselves toward what we don’t believe we currently possess and toward the unhappiness-making mindset that if only we could acquire _________, then things would finally be just right.
In short, we leapfrog over the recognition that we are already sufficient — not yet complete, but perfectly sufficient — as we are. Instead, we become attached to the myth that something — being smarter, prettier, younger, richer, more popular, etc. — will make up for our basic insufficiency, our “not-good-enoughness,” and finally, at long last, become and remain happy. This is a view we learned as children. Look, for example, at the many fairy tales that end with the promise that, “they lived happily ever after.” But as author Wayne Muller says in his classic work, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, feeling “enough is ultimately an inside job” that is less about what we do or achieve and more about our sense of who we are at our naked, vulnerable core.
The Happiness of Impermanence
There is another reason that happiness must be recreated each moment rather than being able to possess it as a stable “thing.” Life is inherently unstable and impermanent. Look at the oldest things we know. Even suns and galaxies come and go. They change. Thankfully, they do so over countless billions of years, so no near-term cosmic worries! The point is that we evolved as a part of this ever-changing universe and our design enables us to adjust and adapt to the ever-changing world in which we live. Adaptive flexibility is the essential life skill to cultivate as we seek to create greater satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy in our lives. In short, adaptive flexibility is the secret ingredient for creating lasting but not ever-present happiness.
Perhaps an example will illustrate the point. Let’s say you are going out to dinner later today. You are looking forward to seeing friends. You feel happy. At the last minute, one of them cancels out. You feel sad or upset. You go anyway to meet the others. You feel happier when you greet them. You discover a longer-than-expected wait for a table. You feel surprised and irritated, because the restaurant had promised a shorter wait. You are finally seated. The aromas and menu specials await you. Happiness reigns. The meal is prepared just the way you like. You are not just happy but even feel joyful. You leave the restaurant laughing and reveling in the good time you all had. You get back to your car and discover it has been towed. You have to call for Uber and shell out hundreds to liberate your car from the impound lot, and to top it off, pay the cost of the ticket you were issued. And so it goes…Happiness comes. Happiness goes. States arise and states change as do our moment-to-moment circumstances.
With each turn of events, a different emotional reaction was activated. The emotional reactions you experienced were in constant flux. There was no permanence. But there were many opportunities for in-the-moment choices.
In her book, How Emotions are Made: the Secret Life of the Brain, scientist Lisa Feldman Barrett convincingly presents the Theory of Constructed Emotion. Her research work further supports the idea that happiness cannot be a “thing” like a perfectly baked souffle is a thing. Emotions are a momentary states built from interactions between our body’s molecules, our nervous system’s capacity for learning and remembering, and our culture’s particular training and experience. In other words, emotions are like shooting stars that appear and quickly flame out when they strike the earth’s atmosphere.
Each moment, our mental reservoir of recorded life history interacts with the circumstances we face in that moment, and out of that interaction, we build our emotions from the biological raw material within us. If worry is needed, as distinct from joy, our inner electrical and molecular factories build and distribute fear throughout our body. In the next moment, we may slightly modify the old emotion in favor of something more appropriate to the situation that unfolds next.
Building Blocks for Your Personal Happiness Project
Unlike moods, which persist for much longer, lasting hours or even days, emotions are neurochemical flashes in the psycho-biological pan in which we live our days. So, is happiness an emotion or a mood? Probably neither. Happiness is just a concept. Happiness is the word we use to describe a temporary state that is as unique to each person as are the daily details of their lives. If it were otherwise, we would all answer the question, “What makes you happy,” in exactly the same way. But thankfully, we don’t.
Look over the following list of words. Contentment, generosity, satisfaction, fulfillment, silence, wonder, curiosity, serenity, acceptance, serving others. They are good words, right? Most people would agree that they are related in some fashion to happiness. Perhaps they are all members of the happiness family tree. But at the end of the day, they are just words.
You might choose other words as central to your experience of happiness. That is appropriate and even necessary because after all, your happiness states are unique to you!
The paths to happiness are many but are paved using several key building blocks. Unfortunately, all we have to describe those blocks are words. Those words and their meanings are not fixed. They change across cultures and they’ve changed across time. But when those words are connected to actions we can take that impact our day-to-day experience, the building blocks not only come to life, they become the essential elements that can transform our lives as we chart our unique path to our particular states of happiness. And, those actions have stayed relatively constant across time and cultures.
To pursue your personal happiness project with a reasonable chance of success, words must become actions. Paraphrasing my mentor, Jeff Zeig, PhD, “language is less designed to convey information as it is to evoke an experience.” These experiences include a context or setting, actors taking action, and that the actions taken matter; that is, they made a meaningful difference to you or others, and as a result generated a significant emotion. The more powerful the emotion, the more impactful the memory it creates and the more capable the memory is of shaping our future choices and actions even when recalled months or years later.
The Happiness Code
Are you ready to create happiness in your life? If so, here is a code for translating words describing happiness into generating experiences.
- Compose a list of words that are part of your sense of what it means to “be happy.”
- Link these words to a remembered time when you were being your best and most authentic self. If that is difficult, use your imagination and picture yourself being your best self engaged in “best self” actions in in some setting in your future.
- Make it multi-sensory (what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch with your skin) in that remembered or imagined experience.
- Mentally connect to the meaningfulness and purposefulness of the experience.
- Notice the emotions that are activated within you as you imagine yourself doing what you did in the past or might do in the future when you were being your best self.
- Begin to focus on the action steps you took (could take) as you continue to hold this experience in mind.
- Where and when did (or will) the emotion-activating experience occur?
- Who and what was (will be) involved in the experience?
- What are the characters doing or saying?
- What was (will be) the result of the actions taken (that is, what is the social good that comes from the actions)?
- How does the action leave you feeling?
- Absorb that feeling state into you and feel yourself placing in a special place in your mind where you can access it easily time and again when you need it in the future.
- Then, as you emotionally steep in that remembered experience, ask yourself what actions you can take right now that were part of the original (or imagined) experience and how many times today you can keep regenerating that emotional state over and over again through small actions you can take now?
Each time you repeat the behaviors involved (e.g., being generous, kind, curious, accepting, serene, adventurous, in service to others, or whatever words you use to describe your “happiness state”), you are cementing the elements (emotions, behaviors, thoughts, etc.) of the experience into your brain’s neural network. You are strengthening this emotional state so it is more automatic, accessible, and more habitual. And THAT is how fleeting emotional states can transform into happier moods and more joyful lives dominated by an upbeat happiness and the resilience to reconnect with it when life’s inevitable valleys are encountered.
Congratulations! You are on your way. As Dr. Seuss wisely said, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose…You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”