Sometimes it seems like western culture is obsessed with happiness. Perhaps you know people who are almost like adrenaline junkies chasing their happiness. But I think a big part of the problem here is that we have a poor understanding of what happiness is and that leads us to pursue what is inherently fleeting.
So, if you really want those good feelings on a long-term basis, regardless of what life brings us, that is possible, but we need to revise the way that we define happiness.
It can be hard to know where to begin when we try to define happiness. With so many different definitions out there, and the highly personal aspects of the concept of being happy, defining the word happiness presents a unique challenge.
It is also important to understand the meaning of a few other terms within the context of happiness and greater overall wellness to better understand what we mean when we say we are happy, and what we are really seeking in our quest for overall wellbeing.
Happiness is used to describe positive or pleasant emotions, denoting a certain state of mind.
Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Pleasure involves short-term good feelings associated with good things happening but fades when these stimuli are no longer present.
We often set out to achieve happiness or pleasure, through career choices, relationships, hobbies and more.
Sometimes, even when we think we should feel fulfilled and happy based on the lives we have built for ourselves, something still seems to be missing. Emily Esfahani Smith touches on this in her TedTalk “There’s more to life than being happy”.
“Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to.” - Emily Esfahani Smith
Smith focuses on the value of seeking meaning over seeking happiness, and how this can lead to a more fulfilling life. She emphasizes 4 pillars of what she calls a meaningful life: Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence and Storytelling.
This brings us beyond the idea of happiness, and towards the concept of contentment.
Contentment is also a state of mind. It does not always mean happiness, but rather a satisfaction that can come from being at ease with oneself or one’s situation.
Whereas happiness is an emotional response, contentment suggests a deeper feeling of fulfillment, as one is comfortable with themselves.
All this is to say that in our wellbeing journey, to focus only on pursuing happiness is to neglect to nurture other important aspects of our lives that will give us deeper, longer-lasting feelings of contentment. This is what I mean by cultivating happiness, we need to slow down and sow the seeds of contentment for the lasting long-term contentment that a life well-lived provides us with.
Simply pursuing happiness and pleasure does result in good emotions, but they can be fleeting and fail to make us feel satisfied. The wellbeing model is one that has been researched extensively in the discipline of Positive Psychology. In this field of research, happiness is not the true goal or outcome, but rather it is wellbeing and ultimately described as "flourishing"! (Yes, I was pretty excited to read this as of course, that is what I am all about!)
One of the first researchers to study wellbeing, and an original proponent of Positive Psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman. In his book titled, Flourish, Seligman outlines the findings of decades of applied psychological research in terms of the aspects that lead us to the contented happiness and wellbeing, or flourishing lives. Here is what he and his colleagues have found:
1. Positive emotion - pleasure, joy and feelings of happiness in our days, not surprisingly is part of flourishing.
2. Engagement - being engaged in the task at hand. Usually, something that is challenging but enjoyable, often when learning or developing a new skill.
3. Relationships - as social beings, even if introverted having supportive and loving connections with others is vital to our long-term wellbeing.
4. Meaning - that what we do matters. This is truly a matter of perspective, but any task or job can take on meaning when viewed through a lense of connecting it to your value system. Perhaps it is doing work to support your family, or an act that supports your health. Finding meaning in what we do is vital.
5. Achievement - this one might surprise you, but it comes with some caveats. It is not about "winning" per say, it is about seeing progress. It is achieving on your metric.
One of the first proponents of studying wellbeing and what makes us truly happy is Dr. Martin Seligman actually defines
For more on the science of happiness from the lens of Positive Psychology see Dr. Seligman's website, Pursuit of Happiness.
If you want a tool to help you redefine your own thoughts on happiness versus contentment, I highly encourage you to use my Sustainable Wellbeing Starter Kit that sets you up to cultivate lasting happiness in your life so that you can find your flourishing!
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