Recently I was stumped by a question I thought would be easy to answer, but alas was not; in fact the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m not alone in this conundrum.
Turns out that scholars and philosophers of past have too, been stumped by this very same question. What, pray tell, is this question that leaves so many searching for an answer? Quite simply, it’s this:
What makes you happy?
Are you serious? What makes me happy? Um like you mean happy or really happy? I’m not sure if it’s the same thing, but I know what make me feel good.
For starters, a great movie makes me feel good. Time spent with loved ones makes me feel good. A nice strong cup of coffee or even a grilled bacon and cheese at a diner make me feel good. Add some fries and gravy to that sandwich, and I might even say I feel great. All these things make me feel good, but do they make me happy? (Where are the aforementioned scholars and philosophers when I need them to sort this mess out?)
Scholars and philosophers notwithstanding, I realized that while individually these things give me temporary warm and fuzzy feelings, is it the same as happiness? Maybe, or maybe not; and there within lies the quandary of what happiness looks like.
I imagine that on their own, each experience provides a small, yet isolated feeling of happiness; but since each experience is fleeting, on their own they are probably just nice moments rather than a full meal deal experience of happiness. One is short and sweet; the other is larger, more fierce and all-encompassing; put another way, one is an easy breeze on our face while the other a tornado that tosses us about like Dorothy and Toto.
Maybe happiness comes from stringing a lot of experiences together. This could especially be true if we controlled everything that happens to us, but of course we can’t. In fact, many of the experiences we have each day – both good and bad- are completely out of our control; if you don’t believe me, just ask Dorothy and Toto.
To be honest, not having control over everything is a good thing because it leaves room for surprise. Everyone needs a surprise every now and then, right?
But while we may not have control over every situation in our lives, we do always have control over our reaction to them. We also have control over what these situations mean to/for us. As such, whether a situation is deemed good or bad (plus it’s severity) by us is also completely, 100% in our control. It’s the old glass half full or half empty argument.
For example, when a random event (like kindness from a stranger) makes us happy, it’s great, but not because of anything we’ve done. A stranger is responsible for the action. If something bad happens to us (like rudeness from a stranger) we may feel bad or upset, but again, not because of anything we’ve done. It’s that damn stranger again. Whether or not a situation is good or bad has nothing to do with how if affects us; it’s our reaction to it, or interpretation of it that decides for us.
Let’s say I have a day off; and with no firm plans in place, I let the day unfold as it will. If by 5pm, after spending the day binge watching GOT while subsiding on black coffee, potato chips and leftover pizza I’m still lounging on the couch in my unicorn onesie, how do you think I’d feel? Pretty crappy; probably worse if I hadn’t showered yet. Or would I? It’s my reaction to it that decides.
But what if instead after making my bed I exercised, met a friend for lunch, did a little grocery shopping before making a favourite meal to enjoy with a friend that evening? How much happier do you think I’d feel? Tons? Or maybe not at all. Again, it’s my reaction that will determine my happiness (or sadness) for the day’s activities (or lack of).
The Dalai Lama said, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions”. I interpret this to mean that happiness is our own responsibility; It’s an inside job. Only we can decide what that looks like for us, and how we react to the experiences and choices and situations we encounter each day. If that means lying on a couch all day watching Netflix, so be it.
Having said that, we stand a better chance of experiencing happiness if we take care of ourselves, and the other people in our lives. Here’s a few suggestions:
Treat Others Well
Always make an effort to be kind with others, even those you don’t like or agree with. If for any reason there is nothing kind to be said, say nothing at all.
Where We Place Our Focus.
When asked how things are going, don’t lie; paint your troubles with some optimism, then focus on the positive things in your life. When able, shift focus to the other person, and be a good listener.
Everyday we are surrounded by small things that bring us joy. A baby’s giggle, a random cat looking for a neck scratch, reading something that truly resonates, getting good news from home, or relishing a quiet moment with a good cup of coffee… Whatever these things are for you, take time to notice them, and be grateful.
Manage Your Downtime
According to studies the average person spends up to two and a half hours on social media each day. While the studies don’t say what these people are looking at, chances are instead of making them feel positive, uplifted and happy it’s leaving them feeling anxious, unhappy and/or angry. That’s doesn’t make anyone happy.
Rather than spending an hour on social media, why not use it to exercise instead? Exercise releases endorphins, which in turn send positive messages to our brains. Go for a walk, spend time in a gym, do yoga, go running, have a swim – whatever you do, your body and your brain will happy for it.
Make Measurable Progress Towards A Goal
A great way to feel the pride of accomplishment is to take one small, yet measurable step towards a goal. Make a phone call, send an email, order a piece of equipment or register a domain name, etc. Whatever your goals are, find a way to make even a tiny bit of progress in one of them.
Donate canned goods into the supermarket Food Bank bin. Buy a drink from a kid’s lemonade stand. Loan a book to a friend, take a colleague out for coffee or surprise a co-worker by celebrating their birthday. When opportunities to be kind appear, take them.
While knowing how to manifest happiness is a valuable skill, it’s equally important to know that being “happy” doesn’t mean we ever experience sadness, loneliness, grief, unhappiness, etc. – or that when we do, we’ve failed in some way. Being sad is part of our life experience. It lets us know what moments of happiness feels like, and how to take the actions to create more of them.
Whenever we feel sad, it’s important to acknowledge it. Process these feelings, then manage them so they don’t become consuming. Like most difficulties, they too shall pass (or become easier) with time, understanding and patience. Once this happens, we can redirect focus back on things that make us feel happy and fulfilled.
Because we have the power to choose, I believe happiness is an inside job.
Author Bio: David Knapp-Fisher
As founder of The Inspired Humans Project, David loves sharing inspirational stories. His TEDx talk, “Discipline or Regret, a Father’s Decision” been viewed over 100,000 times, and his first book, “Punch Failure in The Face, Then Buy It a Beer” has 36 five star reviews on amazon.ca.
David lives in Victoria B.C. where he spends most of his time trying (& usually failing) to stump his son with movie trivia, or planning his next big adventure; both while drinking great coffee, of course.