The Pursuit of Happiness
Happiness is something humans pursue. It’s just in our nature. It’s so much a part of our species, especially Americans, that the founding fathers included “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.
Maybe Americans are so urgently in pursuit of happiness because it’s in our psychic DNA. The first settlers were brave idealists fleeing tyranny, oppression and poverty. It takes a strong, bone-deep and soul-deep belief in happiness to make people risk their lives by getting on a boat and sailing across a wild and unpredictable ocean. We have to think back and imagine their navigation tools, the lack of communication, and the disconnection from medical care and social structure these adventurers dealt with to build a land where happiness is an essential part of the foundation of a new country.
So perhaps we have gotten off the path of true happiness as we’ve become mired in an overload of sensory input, waterfalls of unneeded or negative information, and social networks that make it seem like everyone else is having fun and living the perfect life, at least based on the smiling photos they post online for friends, family and thousands of strangers.
The True Sources of Happiness
When we meet people from around the world, we can notice essential factors in their lives that seem to create a basic sense of happiness. Family, loving relationships, good health, home and some type of work or mission that creates an internal level of satisfaction. We can add peace to that list, because refugees from countries ravaged by war and violence are still boarding even more rickety boats, even inflatable rafts, to seek a land where they can find peace and pursue happiness.
5 Relatively Easy Steps toward Happiness
Happiness is not a “place” frozen in time, like a picture. Happiness is more of a river running through our lives and we are healthier and more satisfied when we jump into that current and flow with it. There’s turbulence, of course, but research has shown there are steps we can take to be happier, because scientists can measure the results, to some degree, in our physical and emotional health. Here are some suggestions:
- Replace the Pursuit of Money with Meaning
Research has found that money does add to happiness, but only to a certain point. It’s hard to be happy when you’re hungry or living on the street or are sick and don’t have money for needed medical treatment. But once the basics are met, studies have found that even lottery winners are no happier than anyone else, and they often lose those riches in a relatively short space of time. One study found the amount at which happiness peaks is $75,000. If that’s still in the distance for you, don’t let that make you unhappy. Choose to be happier, whatever your income level. Researchers have found that people are happier if they find purpose and meaning in whatever work they do, and that’s possible in every type of job. So if you help save lives through medicine, you can obviously find satisfaction in that, although the intense stress level of life-and-death jobs can have an impact on happiness. And if you are a janitor or a cafeteria server at a local school, make it your mission to bring joy to children you see every day. Many of them could certainly use a kind smile and a word of encouragement from an adult. You can find stories about how school bus drivers or janitors sometimes have a profound influence on the life a child who may not get the encouragement they need at home.
- Make a Habit of Forgiveness
Grudges and hanging on to small insults or situations of unfairness only grow to create more tension. It’s one of those simple pieces of wisdom so easy to forget when we feel we’ve been wronged – anger hurts the person who is angry. Negative emotions create toxins on our body and don’t do much for our mental health either. So do your best to make the situation better, or let it go. Most of all, learn to forgive yourself. If you find a situation difficult to forget, try writing a letter of forgiveness to yourself. Look at your own mistakes as you would those of a friend or loved one. We’re only human. Mistakes are the part of being human. If it’s an extremely difficult or hurtful situation, seek help from a professional mental health counselor. They’re trained to help you see things in perspective and move forward in your life. No one gets through life without scars, but we can learn from painful situations to become more compassionate human beings.
- Learn to Conquer Negative Thinking
We often tend to obsess about a mistake or a bad decision rather than focusing on our thousands of good decisions and helpful actions for ourselves and others. Acknowledge negative thoughts, rather than burying them deeper, then put them into perspective. Is this logical? Was that the best decision I could make at the time? Have I learned something so I won’t make that kind of decision or take that action next time a similar situation arises? Find the positive thought and run with that.
- Buy more time
Life is busy, so give yourself a break. Cleaning the house at midnight when you have to get kids off to school and get yourself off to work is not an efficient use of your time. Lack of sleep is likely to cause you to make worse decisions than leaving laundry undone or spots on the kitchen floor. Maybe you can pay someone to clean your house once or twice a month. You’re employing others so they can support their families, while helping to maintain your own mental and physical health. Researchers found that people who spend money on conveniences like ordering takeout for dinner are happier than those who don’t. When you can afford it, buy yourself some extra time and peace of mind. You’ll notice a positive effect on you and those you love.
- Rewrite Your Story
Some research suggests that writing in a personal journal for 15 minutes a day can boost your happiness and sense of well-being. Journaling can allow you to express your emotions and resolve inner conflicts. You can write down issues of concern and write a good result for them. Here are some examples from The New York Times on how to rewrite your way to a happier life:
“I’m having money troubles” to “Money is a challenge, but I’m taking steps to get myself into better financial shape.”
“I’m never going to find love” to “I’m going to meet new people and have fun and the rest will follow.”
“I’m fighting with my partner or spouse” to “Couples argue. When I look at this situation as an outside observer, I can understand it and find ways to resolve the situation.”
We don’t have to spend a lot of money or create extensive plans to happier. Happiness can increase day-by-day and we can start being happier by taking one step at a time from wherever we are today.
Herrera, Tim, “4 Easy(ish) Steps Toward Happiness You Can Take Today,” The New
York Times, Nov. 27, 2017
Kluger, Jeffrey, “The American Pursuit of Happiness,” TIME, July 8, 2013
Parker-Pope, Tara, “How To Be Happy,” The New York Times,” 2017