What Makes Us Happy?
Before we look at what exactly makes us happy, we need to understand what happiness actually means. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘happiness’ is “the feeling of being pleased or happy” (Cambridge Dictionary, 1999), and the definition of ‘happy’ is “feeling, showing, or causing pleasure or satisfaction” (Cambridge Dictionary, 1999). So, happiness is a feeling, which is subjective, what makes me happy may not make you happy, and when I feel happy about something today, I may not feel happy about it tomorrow.
In a race, the person who got third place may feel happier than the person who won. It depends on their expectations and perspective. The person who won may not have improved on, or reached their personal best time, or they may have been unsuccessful in beating the track record, whereas the person who came third may be delighted they got a medal as they exceeded their personal expectations. This example shows whether we reach our goals or not can influence our happiness, so does that mean I need to set goals and targets in every aspect of my life to be happy? It is true that hitting a goal can fill us with a sense of achievement, which can make us happy. But when we hit that goal, what next? Does our happiness then depend on us setting new expectations, new goals, and therefore, will we be unhappy until those goals are met?
What about when I feel happy having an ice-cream on a beach? I didn’t need to set any goal or hit any target in this instance, and yet the feeling can be just as strong! But would I feel so happy standing on the beach with my ice-cream if a tsunami or a hurricane was approaching? Or what if I just got the news that a loved one died? The experience of having an ice-cream on the beach can be enough to make me feel happy, but it also depends on many other factors.
The idea that I would be happy eating ice-cream on a beach can only be possible if I include the small print; as long as everybody is healthy, the weather is good, the ice-cream is fresh and tasty, there are no swarms of mosquitos, there is nobody or nothing in the area that wants to cause me harm… And the list goes on! There are so many factors outside of our control that determine whether we experience happiness in this instance.
Even if all of these external conditions are met, through time we have developed certain standards and conditions that we place on ourselves. I will be unhappy if I can’t get a specific flavour or brand of ice-cream, I feel self-conscious so I will only be happy if I can wear the latest fashion that makes me look good, if it is too warm I might sweat which will make me feel uncomfortable, or my ice-cream will melt which will cause a mess. We can place so many conditions on experiences throughout our life, it almost becomes impossible to experience happiness.
This is why the “Search for Happiness” is fundamentally flawed as it generally ends in dissatisfaction and frustration. Essentially, what exactly are you searching for? And if you don’t hit this new goal or expectation exactly, does that mean you failed in your search for happiness? The more we become dissatisfied and frustrated by not meeting our own often unreachable expectations of each experience, we become overcritical and discontented with everything we experience. And in turn become less happy. Even if we do achieve the targets that we put upon ourselves to be happy, what next? I will be happy if I have a car, when I get the car, and I own and drive that car for the next 10 years, do I still feel the same happiness, or does owning a car simply become normal, and I place new conditions on my happiness?
By searching for happiness, and by telling ourselves comments like “having X would make me so happy” or “If I achieve that I will be happy”, we are actually indirectly telling ourselves one thing: “I am currently not happy”. After all if you are happy why would you look for it? And if you are feeling sad or depressed, will becoming happy resolve that, or will it just help you avoid the discomfort of what you are actually feeling?
So far, I have provided examples of contradicting experiences and situations that can affect how we feel. But in truth, these examples do not dictate our state of happiness. Instead, our happiness is more like a byproduct of the experience. I could be in a perfect situation that ticks all of the boxes regarding my expectations, and still feel depressed. I remember a time where I had recently got a job that I enjoyed, I was in a new relationship that felt fantastic, and everything in general was looking up. But yet, as I walked into work, I often cried for no apparent reason.
Considering that everything we remember, everything we see, and everything we do, is determined by our perception, which in turn is determined by our state of mind, it becomes clear that it is actually our state of mind that determines our happiness. If I am in a happy, positive, upbeat mood, my perception of the environment around me also seems positive. If you can imagine being filled with joy and happiness, for whatever reason, sudden heavy rain becomes an opportunity to dance and skip in the puddles. Now if you can imagine feeling totally sad and depressed, and it starts to rain, dancing in the puddles will be the last thing on your mind.
What exactly is stopping you from being happy right now, and why?