What Most People Get Wrong About Happiness

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.

We all want to be happy, right? But most of us probably don't even have a concrete idea in mind about what we really mean when we think about "happiness."

That's because happiness is largely a concept, and a complicated one at that. It can be especially difficult for most of us to think about happiness in today's age, as we're constantly checking our social media accounts only to find more and more updates about how we're living on a planet full of pain. These instant reality checks have caused me to redefine the term "happiness" itself. I no longer think of happiness as fuzzy-wuzzy. I can no longer associate it with a smiley face and the everyday greeting, "Have a nice day."

We need to redefine happiness. We need to conceive of happiness more like well-being, a sense of stability that is not contingent on the external, and can exist regardless of whatever turbulent events happen in the world.

Happiness, like all emotions, comes and goes. Still, there are behaviors and attitudes we can adopt to help us remain calm and content, even in difficult times. Our success may even allow us to radiate enough well-being to spread the joy, so we all receive fewer updates on how much reality bites.

Here are five reminders that I like to think of as five facets of happiness. These reminders show us sensibilities we can foster to enhance our quality of life in a sustainable way.

1. Connection is a prerequisite to happiness.

The values of connection are exalted in health articles everywhere: they are emotional, physical, sexual, mental, social and spiritual. Connection strengthens our immune system, lowers our blood pressure and enables us to live longer. The introduction of pets as companions into nursing homes enriches the lives of residents and reduces their calls on doctors and their visits to the emergency room. Couples that make love boost their self-esteem and sleep better, while our friendships expand our sense of pleasure in ways too numerous to capture.

One of these benefits is chemical: our bodies produce more oxytocin, the happy little hormone produced in the brain, which is often called the "love drug." Oxytocin reduces stress and improves circulation. In one recent study, people with heart disease or cancer reportedly had a higher survival rate if they were social than if they were isolated. The social people recognized their connection to everything on the planet, whereas isolation was identified as a symptom of distress.

Many things connect people to life besides other humans: animals, dance, nature, music, art and literature. Our senses connect us: the smell of jasmine, the sound of waves, the touch of warm sand. People with well-being feel that connection on a regular basis. They know they are a part of a world that is much greater than they are.

2. Solitude actually feeds our connections.

Paradoxically, solitude enhances connection. We must be happy in our own company to bring our best to others. Being with ourselves (and not just "by ourselves") restores energy, enhances creativity and reminds us who we are from the inside out. If we take the time and space to silence our inner noise, we can listen to our truest perceptions, deepest dreams and wisdom.

Meditation, contemplation and walks in natural settings are just three ways to hear the sound of our deepest voices. When we remember we're already complete, we're not as vulnerable to the desire to look to other people to make us whole.

3. Appreciation of the here-and-now is what we are all looking for.

When I hear the expression "It's all good," something in me rebels and wants to say it's NOT all good. And it's precisely this realization that helps me develop an "attitude of gratitude." The benefits from an acknowledgment of what's right in our lives (without denying what's difficult), of noticing the simple pleasures, and experiencing consequent joy have been studied for decades, and the results are astonishing.

Research by Robert Emmons, Lisa Aspinwall and others shows that people that practice an attitude of gratitude reap benefits that include better immune systems, healthier diets, and mental alertness, to name a few. The more we appreciate what we have, the more we can actually retrain our brain and thinking process to notice what's right in our world. This appreciation makes us more hopeful, positive and caring to the world around us. Our performance at work increases, our sense of self-worth expands and so do our relationships with others.

4. Generosity is a power.

I was a newly divorced woman who was going to be without her kids at Thanksgiving. I couldn't imagine how to get through the holiday alone. A friend suggested I volunteer at a soup kitchen, which seemed like a perfect solution. I contacted one nearby in Portland, OR and anticipated that I'd be greeted with great appreciation for my service. Instead, I was stunned to find a two-year waiting list to be allowed the privilege of helping to serve the meal: there were that many other people that wanted to do it.

Generosity includes the first four qualities discussed here: it connects us to others, it stems from some deep recognition of what life means, and it's a thank you to the universe for the richness in our lives. A generous spirit can be used in many ways: to help someone combat depression, to show kindness to a stranger, to clean up the environment, to teach a child to read. By demonstrating generosity, we put ourselves in touch with a world bigger than we are and continue to open our eyes to life's deeper meanings.

The journal BMC Public Health reviewed 40 studies on the effect of volunteering and found that volunteers experienced a decrease in depression, a lower risk of dying early and an increase in their satisfaction with life. Generosity has been found to be the most important factor in a thriving marriage. Yet to be generous is not just a matter of giving time or giving things. To be generous is also a matter of giving of yourself: to give yourself a break when you make mistakes, or to listen to others with an open-heart and mind.

5. Acceptance is the only way to respond to uncertainty.

Each time a journey has ended, another one begins. Life surprises us with a delight and then a challenge. Something we expected doesn't happen. Something unexpected does. The path to well-being, so essential for real, sustainable happiness, is a trek that takes dedication, patience and resilience.

Like a caterpillar's metamorphosis into butterfly, cultivating our personal growth takes time — and lots of work. In our culture of instant gratification, marketing experts sprinkle their advertising campaigns with words like "quick," "instant," and "easy." There is no instant shortcut to learning the art of acceptance. We're forever standing on new ground. Change is, ironically, the only certain thing there is.

We receive messages from our culture, which point to wealth, material possessions, and eternal youth as the keys to sustain happiness. Yet the research clearly points in a different direction. We have a better chance of sustaining real pleasure by engaging fully in all aspects of our lives, finding our purpose and staying connected to those experiences that feed our deepest needs.

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