“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
– Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Last summer, I was really able to push myself and do a summer-long project that culminated in my photo shoot, which commemorated my one-year anniversary of starting to do new things. This year, I also wanted to use the summer to do something that I was really proud of and maybe challenged myself. I’m not sure where this idea came from; it could have been that I picked it after a bit of burnout from another school year ending, or maybe it was because I had never read and theorized about this really important topic before. It could also have been that I am really happy with how my brain synthesizes materials from different sources and combines them in creative ways, and I don’t get a chance to do this anymore since I’m no longer in school. Regardless of how the idea to research happiness came about, it made me really happy to do it (hooray!).
My original goal with reading all of these books was to see if I could identify specific characteristics or traits that happy people held. I figured that if I could develop these traits in myself, this would raise my own levels of happiness. After reading my first round of books, I synthesized the information and came up with five, which were confirmed after reading my second round of books.
I also attempted to come up with my own definition of what happiness is. The hard part about this task was that there are two types of happiness – one that deals with long-term outlooks, and the other that lives in the moment, seeking pleasure. The two types should be intertwined together; you can’t totally live with the belief that all of your happiness will come in the future (I’ll be happy when _______ happens…) and you also can’t live in momentary pleasures, or else nothing would ever get done and no goals would be achieved. With both types working simultaneously, you can experience happiness while you work towards more happiness.
Before I launched into defining what I believe to be my idea of the term, I decided to look more into what others thought of the term. There are so many other definitions of the word out there. Author Gretchen Rubin explains her definition as “feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right in a period of growth.” (p. 67) Roger Baldwin, a man interviewed by Gail Sheehy while in his 90s to give the secrets to his happiness deduced, “I think this process of looking ahead into tomorrow, not only to the distant future but to the next day, looking ahead hopefully – that is the essence of happiness.” (p. 335) I realized that I needed more background on how happiness works, and a few books proved to be helpful in determining the term’s many facets.
One big idea is sort of an anti-definition. Perhaps the biggest notion of happiness is the one we all say – “If only I (won the lottery….got married….had a baby…got divorced), then I’d be truly happy!” However, as Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar points out, “A happy – or happier – life is rarely shaped by some extraordinary life-changing event; rather, it is shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.” (p. 168) Researchers in the field of positive psychology (essentially, the psychology of being happy), like Dr. Ben-Shahar, have pinpointed that we all have a “baseline” of happiness. This is our normal, everyday level of optimism. A lot of this does have to do with genetics: yes, some people are just born happier than others. Regardless of how high or low our baselines are, we return to them gradually after a big event, whether it’s positive or negative. Your grandmother just passed away? Yes, you’re going to be sad. But gradually, you will find yourself at your baseline again in the future. On the flip side, you just got a promotion at your job? Congratulations! But within a few months, the novelty will wear off and you’ll be back at your baseline level again. Happier people actually return to their baseline faster than others in sad situations, but are able to stretch out their happy situations and hold off returning to their baselines a bit longer.
As far as happiness is concerned, scientists believe that about 50% of our happiness is based on these genetic factors. Only another 10% deal with our circumstances in life (Are you homeless? Living in a mansion? A war refugee?). This means that 40% of our overall happiness comes down to our perceptions and reactions to life. So, when we read articles such as
we know that, scientifically, the title is factual and plausible. However, the idea that you can just be 40% happier from reading the article is a load of crap, and I think endangers some people who believe in that line of thinking.
Another large part of happiness is an idea called “flow.” This concept is a bit hard to define, but can sort of be envisioned as being a part of a well-oiled machine. Imagine a high-volume kitchen where the chefs are all on top of their orders, producing food at the exact time that the server calls for it, all dancing around each other and predicting their next-door chef’s moves so as to avoid bumping into him/her. Imagine a soccer team that demolishes their opponents by working as a unit: perfectly placed and timed passes, good communication, the defensemen helping keep the ball away from the goalie.
Flow is that feeling when things just….work. Everything flows. And research proves that people who experience flow on a regular basis are much happier than those who do not. Being a part of a team that works very well together is a fantastic happiness factor.
With my deeper understanding of how happiness worked, and the knowledge that psychology is broken up into how people think, feel, or behave (or any combination of those three branches), here is what I’d like to propose as my personal definition of happiness:
Happiness is learning how to control your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to circumstances and people that you cannot control.
The idea of control, I believe, is a large part of happiness and makes a huge impact on how you view yourself and how you view others. It also takes into account how some people may not seem amazingly happy (think of stern teachers that you had growing up), but actually feel quite content with their lives. On the other hand, think of some people who may seem incredibly happy and full of life and energy (let’s go with Robin Williams), but end up thinking or believing that their control over some circumstance is gone. In other words, you cannot necessarily tell how happy a person is by their outward behaviors. Only you can determine how happy you are and will be.
With this definition listed, along with a brief overview of what happiness entails, here are the five traits that I have identified as common characteristics of happy people.
1. Knowledge of Self
Everything starts with this trait, and you might think that it’s pretty common-sensical: how can you be happy if you don’t know what makes you happy?! But the cool thing is, your sense of self (and therefore your knowledge of your self) changes constantly! One day, I might want to see absolutely nobody and sit in my room, staring at my walls for three hours straight. But then three hours later, I might want to hang out with a large group of people.
On the flip side, there are some things about us that are usually fairly constant – I always love peppermint stick ice cream, I always love the smell of rain, and I will always prefer to be hot over cold. So, the lesson here is to find both the things about our selves that are constant (i.e. our favorite _____), but also identifying what we need in the moment. The other awesome thing about this is that things can always be added – there will never be a point in your life when you stop discovering new things that make you happy all the time or when you will stop trying to identify what is needed in the moment.
Sometimes, we may have the knowledge of our selves, but lack the courage to actually be ourselves. I find, at least for myself, that the hardest part about knowing myself is that others tend to have different perceptions of my self than I do. They expect me to act in a certain way, and may be disappointed or hurt if I do not carry out their expectations. Happier people are OK with acting in accordance with their own perceptions of self. Please don’t take this to mean you should not take other people into consideration! The happiest people of all are those who help others!! I’m merely saying don’t do everything for others only to fulfill their own expectations of you. Fulfill your own expectations and help others along the way.
Women tend to have a more difficult time with this concept than men. (Not to say that men never feel this way! I think men feel this more than they think they do). Gail Sheehy writes “…the evidence is that women are better able to love once they free themselves from the tyranny of trying so hard to please.” (p. 187) This takes courage, and lots of it. If you find that you are lacking courage in your life, it may stem from several reasons. Unlocking this mystery might be a huge step in your quest for more happiness. (For more information on this, check out Brené Brown. I haven’t included her in this research because she doesn’t deal specifically with happiness, but her own research really gets to the heart of vulnerability, overcoming shame/guilt, and feeling self-worth which may lead to greater happiness in the end).
3. A sense of the “big picture”
This one might be the most important trait of all. It’s the one that sort of reminds you why you’re doing all of the things that you’re doing, for any endeavor. We all heard growing up, “don’t lose sight of the goal!” and that’s what this characteristic helps you do. Because we need to break down big goals into smaller chunks to help us grow and, if the goal warrants it, reach the goal, sometimes we lose our way and become caught up in these smaller chunks. We forget that these smaller chunks are the very things that are helping us grow to reach our goals! I think that this has a greater chance of happening if the goal is one that takes a long time to develop or attain. There are lots of examples of this: raising children, becoming financially independent, retirement, a high school diploma. The day-to-day activities to reach these things can be overwhelming (babies don’t sleep, kids don’t listen, your job is tedious, customers suck, homework can kick rocks…) If you have a good grasp on the big picture, though, the question of “why” will always be answered. And setbacks don’t become walls – they’re just a bit of a bump on your travels to your goals (and maybe your goals will change because of them!).
The Dalai Lama brought up a great point that ties in with this concept. In one of his conversations with Dr. Cutler, he mentioned the idea of “suppleness of thought.” Cutler relates a story of how he was walking with the Dalai Lama in Arizona when both paused to take in the beautiful scenery that surrounded them. A moment later, he was stooped over to take a closer look at a tiny, delicate lilac that was blooming in a nearby garden. Cutler noted, “I was struck by the facility with which his mind functioned. His awareness seemed to move so easily from taking in the complete landscape to focusing on a single bud, a simultaneous appreciation of the totality of the environment as well as the smallest detail. A capacity to encompass all facets and the full spectrum of life.” (p. 187-188)
There’s also a great byproduct of strengthening this trait: as you develop an idea of your “big picture,” it also strengthens your ability to see other peoples’ views on different subjects (since you’re “zooming out” of just seeing things through your own eyes). This is the backbone of empathy: intuiting another person’s experience. Try out other view points – what was he thinking when he said that? What had just happened to her that made her think that? Making your thoughts more supple promotes a wider understanding between people, thereby boosting your happiness.
4. Self Discipline
It may be one thing to identify the characteristics that you’d like to develop to become happier, but to implement and carry out the changes necessary to make that happen takes self discipline. While researching, I was often struck how many tales of happiness seemed equivalent to gaining physical strength. So many magazines and gyms offer easy workout ideas and diets that will prove to “tone your butt in just 5 minutes a day!” But we can’t have six-pack abs after five minutes at the gym! We need to work for them!
The same holds true for our happiness – you need to work at it, every day. Gretchen Rubin mentions this thought in her book and website with one of her “secrets of adulthood” – “happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.” Working out at the gym, for me at least, suuuuucks. But I am always happy after I do it. Do I want to eat 8 different candy bars in a day? YESSSS!!!! But for how happy it might make me enjoying all of that chocolate, I know that I will feel terrible after – not just physically, but the emotional guilt, too. So maybe I eat half of a candy bar, brush away the little devil on my shoulder that says “eat it…” and enjoy the happiness that comes afterwards from my ability to say no. (Sometimes, my ability to say no goes away. I attempt to gracefully look past this and start over again the next day).
Out of the three branches of research that I mentioned at the beginning (thoughts, feelings, and behavior), this trait definitely falls under behavior. It’s not just enough to say or think your way to happiness, you also need to act your way to it. This trait separates the people who read the articles on “how to be 40% happier!” and those who actually go after being 40% happier.
To develop this trait, START SMALL. See if you can get yourself to do something for 2 minutes a day. Up it to five. Up it to ten. Not only do you get the benefit from doing whatever activity you have chosen to do, but you also get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re developing your self discipline.
This is another big one – and, sometimes, nearly impossible to practice when you’re in the middle of something big. I think it stems from reflection, which is a really valuable skill to develop, no matter your goals or career in life.
If you’re in the middle of something big in your life (a breakup, a job loss, a financial loss), you probably won’t be able to be grateful for it until it has passed. But what can help it pass is to be grateful for all of the other great things in your life. You just had the worst break-up of your life?! How lucky you are to have great friends that will help you through it. How lucky you are to have a good job that can support you financially. How lucky you are to have a good family that can still show you what unconditional love is. Don’t have those things? Zoom out: how lucky you are to have food in your stomach. How lucky you are to have air in your lungs by your own body’s movement. Perhaps one of the most thankful people that I read about was Ancient Greek emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The whole first chapter of his Meditations is ENTIRELY devoted to naming and thanking dozens of people who modeled personality traits that later helped him in his life.
All of these realizations will help carry you through the rough parts in life. But after the rough parts have passed, it’s also really important to go back and try and be grateful for the time period as a whole. The number one thing that Gail Sheehy finds that helps people be positive after difficult times (what she calls “passages” in life), and become “pathfinders” (people that have come out flourishing after passages) is that they were able to see how the passages helped them gain a better/deeper/larger appreciation for life. A job loss made one woman try out the occupation that she always wanted to do. A divorce made another woman go back to being a lawyer after 25 years. A business collapse made a man see how he could have prevented the failure and went on to become a CEO of a large corporation after.
Megan McArdle talks about reflecting and naming reasons to be thankful for failing in her book, “The Up Side of Down.” She mentions this idea in terms of control (i.e. you gain control over the situation by this post-crappiness reflection): “The illusion of control is generally classed as a ‘positive cognitive bias,’ because it actually makes you feel better about things.” (p. 208). In other words, by reflecting – and later appreciating – your dark periods of life, you will feel like you have gained a whole new depth of control because of your shift in outlook. You may actually feel happier than you were before the bad times, all because of your reflection and coming to the realization that you have now grown as a person.
It’s my hope that these happiness traits and the research I’ve done on the subject will help anybody work on that 40% of happiness that we can all control and work towards. If there’s anything that I can do to help you walk your own personal path of happiness, I will certainly try to do it! Good luck on all of your self-discoveries.
“May we know how to nourish the seeds of joy and happiness in ourselves.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The Myths of Happiness: What should make you happy but doesn’t, What shouldn’t make you happy, but does (The Penguin Press, New York, 2013)
Describes life’s turning points, in terms of things that we deem as achievements and or failures, and how we cannot romanticize these life events as happiness or unhappiness indicators. For example, “I’ll be happy when I’m married,” or “I’m a failure because I can’t find a job.” To place all of your happiness (or unhappiness) on one event is to think in black/white when the world is really gray.
Sheehy, Gail. Pathfinders (Bantam Books, New York, 1981)
Explains the concept of “pathfinders” – people who have creatively forged their paths in life. There are no set answers for anybody to find their ways in life, but the stories told here illuminate lessons learned in the pathfinders’ travels and also describes how we can use their tales to our advantage.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, M.D. The Art of Happiness: a Handbook for Living (Riverhead Books, New York, 1998)
Cutler, a western psychiatrist, wanted to see if any universals of happiness existed between the east and west by teaming up with the Dalai Lama, master-of-all-things-eastern. It turns out that the west overanalyzes many things, but the common sense application of eastern thought that the Dalai Lama provides may help all of us in the long run.
Danziger, Lucy and Catherine Birndorf, M.D. The Nine Rooms of Happiness: Loving yourself, finding your purpose, and getting over life’s little imperfections (Hyperion Books, New York, 2010)
Danziger and Birndorf create a metaphor of a house that describes nine areas of life, including rooms like the bathroom (self-perception/esteem), bedroom (intimacy and relationships), the office (work and finance issues), or the kitchen (how one runs the household/manages chores, etc.). By breaking down life’s major areas, it may become clearer which area(s) need more attention than others.
Freeman, Dr. Arthur and Rose DeWolf. The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make and How to Avoid Them: Simple and sure techniques for gaining greater control of your life (Harper Collins Publisher, New York, 1992)
Freeman and DeWolf identify three areas of a person’s inner being (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors), but argues that your thoughts are what need the most attention to bring more happiness into one’s life. Change your thoughts, and you’re on your way to then changing how you feel as well as your outward behaviors. The book identifies 10 such thoughts that should be abolished from our minds.
McMahon, Darrin M. Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2006)
One of the more “intellectual” books of the bunch, Happiness focuses on explaining the history of the concept, not necessarily how to have more of it in one’s life. Essentially, McMahon traces the concept from the early Greeks (the gods controlled humans’ happiness) through early Christianity (happiness would come after a lifetime of devotions/work) into the Enlightenment (we can make ourselves happy) to modern times (we should make ourselves happy, and have a responsibility to do so).
Bronson, Po. What Should I Do With My Life? (Random House, New York, 2002)
Much like Pathfinders, this book interviews roughly 900 people to attempt to answer its title’s question. Unlike Pathfinders, some of its interviewees are still searching for their answer. All of the stories, whether their subject has his/her life figured out or not, are worth reading and can shed light on what you are (or are not) doing to help yourself, specifically in terms of career choice.
Rubin, Gretchen. The Happiness Project: Or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun (Harper, New York, 2011)
After creating some core values and identifying 12 things that she wanted to change/explore, Rubin spent a year doing just so, focusing on one thing per month. The outcome is a blueprint for your own “happiness project.” By using her framework, readers can identify their own 12 traits that they would like to work on, choose smaller behaviors that will help them work towards that change, and ultimately work towards more happiness themselves. Check out her website for more info (and help starting your own happiness project!): http://www.gretchenrubin.com (she also answers e-mails…she graciously answered mine within a few days of me writing to her!)
Ben-Shahar, Tal PhD. Happier: Learn the secrets to daily joy and lasting fulfillment (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2007)
Gives good advice and exercises about how to work towards more happiness in your life, with all of it based on theories stemming from the field of positive psychology. Ties in with Freeman/DeWolf, in terms of the importance of changing your thoughts first, which impact your feelings and outward behaviors.
Guest, Paul. One More Theory About Happiness: A Memoir (Ecco Press, New York, 2011)
Guest’s memoir details his life after becoming paralyzed at age 12. If nothing else, it will give you gratitude for the problems you have in your own life. At its best, it will remind you that happiness can be worked for no matter the circumstances.
McArdle, Megan. The Up Side of Down: Why failing well is the key to success (The Penguin Group, New York, 2014)
From the business world, McArdle writes how American culture promotes the idea that failure is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Yet these very failures are how we learn. Failure should not be looked at as an end-all of a situation, but rather should be used to inform how we make decisions in the future.
Belik, Roko (Director). (2011). Happy [Motion Picture]. United States: Passion River Films
A fantastic documentary that can be found both on Netflix and Amazon Prime, ready to stream. It asks many questions of positive psychologists, while detailing what happiness looks like around the world in different cultures.
Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (translated Meric Casaubon). Available online as a PDF document (accessed 8 August 2014): http://www.philaletheians.co.uk/Study%20notes/Living%20the%20Life/Marcus%20Aurelius’%20Meditations%20-%20tr.%20Casaubon.pdf
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus belongs to the ancient Greek philosophy school comprised of “The Stoics.” Their brand of philosophy, named Stoicism, focuses on a controlled approach to life that centers around virtue, knowledge of self, and acting in accordance with one’s self. He might have become my new patron saint in the process.