What’s Happiness to You?
Happiness seems like it should be a one-size-fits-all situation because the things that are supposed to make us happy are pretty universal. But Pharrell Williams may have been on to something when he sang: “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” Experts say the key to finding true happiness is to focus on what’s important to you individually rather than on what society dictates.
Take me for instance. Everyone else seems to want me remarried yesterday so that I’ll be “happy.” But I’ve found it’s actually more fulfilling for me to focus on developing my friendships, giving back to my community and helping people via my career. I'd like to be married again someday, but my happiness doesn't hinge on my marital status.
That’s in line with what researchers have found. Instead of worrying about what others think you “should” be doing to find joy, they say, focus on finding your own unique path to happiness. Here’s how.
Look at What You Value
Happiness researcher and best-selling author Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that happiness comes in many forms. It’s not just about striving to ‘feel good,” he says, but seeking out positive relationships, meaningful occupations, accomplishment and engagement.
Ask yourself: What do you value? What is important to you? Write down your first thoughts and hold on to them. Once you’ve defined what you value most, you can focus on the actions you need to take to bring more of it into your life.
Live by Your Values
Take a few minutes each day to think about how you can live by your values that day. Your list could include activities like working out, sticking to a budget, having coffee with a friend, or sending a handwritten thank-you note — each of which is attached to a larger goal like being healthy and financial responsible, keeping friendships strong and practicing gratitude. (Those all made my list recently.) Over the course of weeks and months, these short-term goals help will you achieve your long-term goal of being happier. You might also want to create a dream board — a bulletin board with quotes and pictures — as a visual reminder of what’s most important to you and what makes you happy. Not only can seeing it make you smile, but it will help remind you of what you want to focus on in your real life.
Helping Others Helps
True happiness is rarely self-centered, says Karol DeWulf Nickell, editor-in-chief of Live Happy magazine. In fact, several studies have found a link between helping others and experiencing higher levels of happiness and wellbeing. One study by the University of Wisconsin Madison Center for Demography of Health and Aging found helping others in the workplace increases job and life satisfaction. Another, by Carolyn Schwartz, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, found that among more than 2,000 mostly healthy church-goers across the nation, those who helped others were significantly happier and less depressed than those who didn’t.
People who volunteer also tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness, notes Mark Snyder, a psychologist and head of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota, in U.S. News & World Report. "All of these things go up as their feelings of social connectedness goes up."
Even small acts of kindness can make a difference. I remember bringing flowers to a barista at my favorite coffeehouse to cheer her up after working eight days straight. The next day another barista at the shop gave me a free latte because she felt that I cared about them. I was so touched, I felt happier the rest of the day.
Look at the Big Picture
Short-term happiness as a goal is easier to achieve than long-term happiness because it often involves instant gratification: eating a slice of cake, say, or going to happy hour with friends. Long-term happiness, on the other hand, involves pulling back and thinking of your life as a whole — not thinking about how to have the most fun in the moment. And that can involve making some tough choices. “Sometimes the right decision isn’t the easiest one,” says psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser, but it will bring you more happiness in the long run.
Still, don’t be discouraged when you give in to short-term temptations. Remember to think about the big picture, Nickell says. If you have 10 more pounds left to lose to be at a healthy weight and you slip up one day, remind yourself about the weight you’ve already lost. One doughnut may be a small setback, but that doesn’t mean you’re off track. And that’s the important lesson: No matter where you are now, you can always work towards living a happier life.