No matter your gender, age, sexual orientation, skin colour or where you live, chances are you want to be happy. The aim of most people is to be happy. But what does happiness look like? Is it buying new things? Lounging watching TV? Laughing with friends? Learning a new skill? And is society’s habit of chasing happiness actually stopping us from feeling genuine, lasting joy?
Is there a scientific definition of happiness?
The study of happiness (an area of positive psychology) is actually relatively new. And within that research, the definitions of what happiness is, are pretty muddled.
There are basically two schools of thought about what happiness is. The first is the hedonic perspective and contains a well-known theory called subjective wellbeing. This theory states that happiness = satisfaction with your life + a lot of positive affect (feeling good) + low negative affect (feeling shitty). The second school of thought is the eudaimonic perspective which argues that happiness is actually down to much more than just maximising pleasures and minimising pain. It describes how happiness is associated with things such as positive social relationships, activities that have meaning to us, entering a flow state, and giving to the greater good.
In my opinion, I think happiness is a blend of both.
Chasing happiness robs you of joy
How many times have you thought once I get this or once I move here then I’ll be happy? For some reason, happiness always seems to be the next day, week, month, year away. It’s never in the now. We are always striving towards being happy and this is because we are placing our happiness on external things. Our happiness is determined by having the latest gadget, being in a certain place, or achieving something. While these things may bring happiness once they arrive if you’re always chasing happiness you’ll find you never reach it.
Another reason we seem to constantly be chasing happiness is because of a phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill. The idea is we all have a baseline level of happiness and when something good or bad happens to us, after some time, we will return to this natural baseline. It is theorised that this is because we get used to this feeling and it becomes the new normal – we start taking it for granted.
For example, you’ve just been hired at your dream job. You’re beaming and don’t think you’ll ever come down from cloud nine. A month or so later, you’re settled into work and you feel… normal? Well, this is the hedonic treadmill at work.
How to be happy and stay happy
We can’t be happy all of the time. It’s not normal and it’s actually not healthy. Having different emotions is part of life, it warns us of dangers, signals things that we need to avoid, and allows us to heal from painful experiences. We also can’t fast-track our way to happiness. For some of us, it can be a process even to allow ourselves the freedom to be truly happy, but obviously it’s a journey that is well worth embarking on.
Happiness will look different to each of us, but here are some general things to implement into your life that are going to fill up your happiness cup.
Do things that make you feel alive
I recently wrote a list of things that make me feel like I’m getting the most out of life. They weren’t all super carefree activities, some were reading a book, doing yoga, or lounging with a friend at a coffee shop. Whatever it is that lights your soul on fire, write it on the list and make a conscious effort to do it more. Stick that list up on your wall so you’re constantly reminded of what makes you feel good.
Put effort into things
Don’t just cruise through life half-heartedly. Pick a challenge or goal that is meaningful to you and work at it. When we spend our time doing things that are slightly challenging but incredibly rewarding we get a sense of meaning and purpose in our life – both of which will add to our levels of happiness.
Variety is the spice of life
Another way to reduce the effects of the hedonic treadmill is to vary the means in which you inject happiness into your life. Look at the list you wrote down of what makes you feel alive and alternate them. Spend differing amounts of time doing them, do certain things for a week or so and then switch it up. If we vary our sources of happiness then they’re less likely to become the new normal.
Gratitude and noticing the happy in the now
Research shows practising gratitude can really increase an individual’s satisfaction with life and overall happiness. Each day, note three things you’re grateful for, no matter how big or small. This makes you notice the good in the now rather than focusing on how it’s just around the corner. If you’re not having a great day and there doesn’t seem to be much to be grateful for, remember that if you have a shelter, food in your fridge and access to water then you have a lot to be thankful for.
Spend mindful time with people
Take time out of your seemingly busy schedule to connect with those around you. Facetime your family and fully listen to what they say. Go on a date with your partner and leave your phones out of sight. If you’re a loving dog Mumma like me, go on a walk or play with your pup and be fully engaged in that activity. Social interactions have a magical way of helping us solve problems, of allowing us to help others and the opportunity to live in a connected and loving world.