What does it mean to be happy? It is the most elusive of questions, and permeates much of our daily lives. While we toil away, we secretly pray for happiness. “I just want to be happy,” so many people say. But do we even know what happiness is?
Recently, a science of happiness has cropped up in the field of psychology. There are many studies on every aspect of happiness, the most acclaimed of all human pursuits. After much scientific discussion and review, researchers have come to define happiness as the ability to sustain an overall sense of well being over time. However, the capacity to generate and maintain well being while coping with daily challenges requires a certain amount of emotional flexibility.
Several years ago, scientists suggested that a person’s happiness might have a particular “set-point,” a level above which he or she does not usually reach. Yet recent studies are finding new and interesting trends. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., happiness researcher and author of The How of Happiness, says that people are more able to play a direct role in the attainment of their own joy than earlier studies indicated. Her research showed that happiness levels increased when people took a few surprisingly simple steps: count blessings, reframe situations in a positive light, and perform acts of kindness. Those participants who expressed gratitude and kept an optimistic outlook were less depressed and happier than the control group. Happy people, Lyubomirsky says, choose to be happy by taking steps to ensure it.
It might not be as difficult as it sounds. Filmmaker Woody Allen says, “Everyone’s already happy, only they don’t know it.” So, perhaps attaining happiness is more of a question of uncovering the joy that is already within us — though clouded over with doubt — rather than seeking to find it out there. Through this reorientation, we start to glimpse our own wellspring of happiness.
Another important aspect is human connection and physical touch. An Australian study measured the relationship between the health and happiness of almost 60,000 males. This study found that men who hugged scored above the national male average for happiness, were thinner and even wealthier than men who didn’t hug. The evidence is clear: more hugs equals more happiness. The problem is that most of us are looking for happiness in all the wrong places, chasing after ephemeral wisps rather than the real thing. There is a big difference between hedonic happiness (getting a shiny new car) and eudaemonic happiness (focusing on meaning).
Contrary to some of our innermost fears, happiness is not something to be earned. Every person has a birthright to it. Yet at the same time, there is no happiness handbook. In my quest to discover exactly how to achieve the happiness we all desperately seek, I met with a highly revered Tibetan Lama, Gelek Rimpoche, the spiritual director of Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor.
Sitting quietly in his office study, I asked the Lama what helps people experience a richer life? “Satisfaction,” he quickly answered. “It is very important to learn how to be satisfied with whatever you have in life,” he said. “And desire? Desires have no limitations; they always ‘want.’ If you let desire run your life, you’re in big trouble. And if you know how to have satisfaction and be happy, then you’ll know how to manage your life, no matter whether you’re rich, poor, man, woman, child — whatever you may be — compassion is key to happiness,” he explained. “And compassion is based on love.”
Eudaemonic happiness is experienced as a by-product of love. While watching a sunset, viewing a work of art, taking a walk on the beach or listening to the sounds of a favorite song, we transcend our ordinary state of mind and feel happiness deep in our belly, happiness that softens our heart. A new designer handbag (handsome as it is), can never deliver this kind of happiness. In writing her book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin discovered some truths of her own. “I did everything within my power to appreciate the life I have now, just as it is,” she says.
Authentic happiness is never lost. Because it is burned into the very essence of our being, it remains a touchstone within us that can be accessed at any time, no matter what is going on around us. We need only conjure up images of happiness or remember an event or moment, and we are there, alive in the energy of our own awareness.
Happiness, we come to see, is not out there in what we can acquire or even achieve; it is a place we discover within, a place that we can return to at will, reconnecting with the richness of our own human life.
Charlie Brown and the characters from “Peanuts” know what happiness is. They sing about it in the song “Happiness” from
the show, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown:
Happiness is finding a pencil, pizza with sausage,
telling the time.
Happiness is learning to whistle, tying your shoe
for the very first time.
Happiness is playing the drum in your own
school band, and happiness is walking hand
Happiness is morning and evening, daytime
and nighttime, too.
For happiness is anyone, and anything at all,
that’s loved by you.
In the end, loving and being loved. That’s what happiness is.
This first appeared in Ambassador Magazine, Detroit, Michigan.