Happiness. What is it?

The new year as taken off. I can’t believe we are already 5 days in to 2013.

Many of my friends has set new years resolutions or intentions. Some are looking to improve their sense of good health, others are looking to quit smoking, find love, find their dream job or just feel better than they did last year.

When I sat down to contemplate the year past and the year ahead, the resolutions of others and my own goals, I had a sense that what we are all looking for in 2013 is happiness.

So, what is happiness and where do we find it?

Everyone has a different idea of how to obtain happiness, where it can be found, how to maintain it and who holds the key to it. So too is the variety of definitions attached to it.

Professor Maslow suggests happiness is being motivated to participate in life, self-development and spirituality. Others say happiness is freedom from want and being able to obtain your desired object or goal without excessive effort. Many say happiness can-not be defined, it simply is and you know it when you feel it.

In western society, happiness is something to be accumulated and measured in terms of material wealth, hours spent working and effort applied to its accumulation. Many see happiness as something you earn or something that is attached to an easy lifestyle.

Dr. Timothy Sharp of the Happiness Institute defines happiness as “a positive state of wellbeing characterised by positive emotions”. He suggests that Happiness can be described as a spectrum of positive emotions experienced at different times, in different ways and due to differing situations/circumstances and can be categorised as low or high arousal emotions.
For example:
Low arousal emotions – Calm, contentment, satisfaction
High arousal emotions – Joy, excitement, jubilation

In 2012 I conducted a basic happiness survey, asking people I worked with, family and friends, to take some time and consider how they feel currently, how they would like to feel tomorrow and how they could get there. The study was made up of a mixed demographic, 6 male and 6 female participants ranging in age from 19 to 56 years old. Some were employed others were not. Some had families and others were single.
It became apparent to me from the responses that happiness has a very clear definition; it is the path to happiness that is misunderstood.
In the survey, participants described happiness as consisting of positive emotions like joy, contentment and satisfaction or freedom from negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness. Rarely did people associate happiness with the absence of negative physical states or the presence of positive physical states. Happiness was not associated with good health, safety, access to clothes or shelter.

The main responses was happiness meant being connected to others, appreciated by others and giving and receiving love.

This has lead me to conclude that the human condition, while requiring basic physical needs to sustain life and activity, depends on basic emotional and mental needs to be met for happiness to be realised. While I believe that physical health is important to mental and emotional health, happiness is not dependant on the physical condition.

The survey highlighted that by and large people were more concerned with the quality of relationships, with themselves and with others, than with physiological needs such as shelter, food, water, or physical safety.

These finding are reflective of the circumstances in which the developed society finds itself. There is little threat to physical safety and most people have access to shelter, clothes, food and water. There is a correlation, though, between safety, in relation to familiarity, and insecurity when feeling challenged by unfamiliarity as Maslow suggests. This is evident in today’s changing economic climate. People are forced to leave the security of their jobs and faced with the unfamiliar challenge of unemployment, find it hard to meet the needs higher up Maslow’s hierarchy. Relationships suffer, esteem becomes low and there is concern for physiological needs being met.

Stress seems to be the biggest inhibitor to happiness. Each need in Maslow’s hierarchy uses stress, or discomfort as one becomes familiar or aware of their identity and place in the world, as a motivator or a stimulus for the individual to find solutions to meet the needs and progress. The hierarchy is perhaps circular as too is the cycle of happiness.

To this end, Happiness is intrinsically linked to self and ones perception, understanding and acceptance of what or who that is.

I also believe that an acceptance of the cycle of emotions is important for happiness.
Have you ever heard the saying “This too shall pass”?
The origin of the saying “this too shall pass” appears to date back to a story told about King Solomon. It is said that the King, feeling blue, asked his advisors to find him a ring he had seen in a dream. “When I feel satisfied I’m afraid that it won’t last. And when I don’t, I am afraid my sorrow will go on forever. Find me the ring that will ease my suffering.” Eventually an advisor met an old jeweler who carved into a simple gold band the Hebrew inscription “gam zeh ya’avor” – “this too shall pass.” When the king received his ring and read the inscription his sorrows turned to joy and his joy to sorrows, and then both gave way to equanimity.
Just as sadness, stress, anxiety, fear and suffering will pass, so too will joy, excitement and ecstasy. Nothing is permanent and realizing this is truly freeing.

Dr. Timothy Sharp suggests happiness simply is a choice. As highly evolved and intelligent life forms the key to long lasting happiness is choosing to be happy and practicing a few techniques daily will keep us close to happiness most of the time.

The number one technique suggested by Dr. Sharp is a self-inventory. This again reinforces the importance of understanding self in the maintenance of happiness.

The self-inventory includes:
Clarifying goals
Evaluation of life-style and making changes so you are living a healthy life-style
Don’t tolerate negative thoughts
Plant optimistic or positive thoughts
Develop meaningful relationships
Live in and enjoy the moment

Personally, the road to happiness has been a long and often obstructed one. I see value in Maslow’s hierarchy because as I established security or safety in my basic needs I then gave myself space to address other needs. My happiness didn’t seem achievable until I developed a better understanding of who I was, what I was capable of and how I wanted to contribute to my global and local community.

So, how do we achieve happiness?

I suggest Dr. Sharps self-inventory. Be familiar with yourself; get to know who you are, or who you’d like to be. Shift focus, place more value on non-material, qualitative qualities rather than quantitative, external, material objects and possessions. Do things you enjoy and that bring joy to others and if you find yourself using words like can’t, don’t, shouldn’t or won’t, try replacing them with can, do, could and will.

I am reminded now of my favourite quote: Life is such that is requires constant care and attention. No one can live your life for you. Only you and you alone can give it a meaning.

I use gratitude journaling to help me stay close to all this is good in my life and to stimulate my positive thoughts about myself and my situation. Every night for 5 minutes before I go to bed, I sit and write down 5 things I am grateful for. Some days this is a simple list:

I am grateful for the good weather today
I am grateful for the delicious food I devoured today
I am grateful for the chat with my sister
I am grateful for clean drinking water
I am grateful for today’s meditation

And this allows me to go to sleep in a positive state of mind. Over time, writing what I am grateful for each day helps me to see more positive things than negative things in my life.

In being present in our lives, instead of focused on consuming more, having more than one and being seen as more than we are, we will find happiness. This is by no means a permanent state, all things are transient, but when it is there we can enjoy it to the full and maybe, just maybe for longer.