The Secrets of True Happiness
Unravelling the secrets of true happiness…
In her book entitled, ‘The How of Happiness’, the lovely Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, defines happiness as, “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
The pursuit of happiness is, as far as we know, a uniquely and universal human endeavour. Ask anyone ‘what makes you happy?’ and there are few of us who’d say we didn’t understand the question. Whether we could come up with a clear answer is another matter. The pursuit of happiness – or more specifically ‘pleasure’ – is a very deep routed desire in all of us, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge that’s what driving our behaviour.
If you really stop and think about it, how many of your thoughts and actions are connected to being happy? Unfortunately, this is really where the flaw in our thinking derails a lot of us. It’s tempting to regard happiness as a goal in itself, when actually it’s just an adverb rather than a state of being. Your life is never just one thing is it? But rather, made up of a range of component parts, each of which you’ve likely imbued with a very specific set of expectations.
To get a handle of what drives your behaviour and what happiness actually is, understanding a few basic theories about human motivation and behaviour might help get you there. So let’s start with the basics…
THE PLEASURE/PAIN PRINCIPLE
As far back as the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, there has been the theory that human behaviour is determined by two main drivers. Freud named it the PLEASURE/PAIN PRINCIPLE. The premise is that we’re constantly being pulled in various directions in life by the twin forces of pain and pleasure, commonly referred to in psychology circles as punishment and reward. We instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. When I say pain, I’m not just talking about the physical sensation, but mental anguish, be it fear; hurt; anger; disappointment; embarrassment, frustration and so on. Similarly, pleasure can be experienced as satisfaction, fulfilment, approval, achievement, affirmation and praise.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to lose some weight in the belief you’ll feel happier. At that moment in your estimations, how you look doesn’t match how you should. You experience the ‘pain’ of say, self-loathing or dissatisfaction? You decide to lose weight and set yourself a goal. You believe achieving this goal will bring long-term pleasure; you’ll look and feel better about yourself. However, the journey to weight-loss isn’t likely to be easy. It’s possible you’ll have to go through some short-term pain to get there. The key to success? If your motivation towards the long-term pleasurable outcome ‘outweighs’ (pardon the pun) the momentary pain of reaching your goal; you’ll succeed, if not; you won’t!
OUR INTERNAL MAP
NLP refers to an individual’s perception of the world as their ‘map’. It’s a unique representation of the world and contributes to how you feel and behave. Mapping our world in this way begins from birth and is based on everything you experience and are exposed to throughout life and instructs the beliefs you form and the values that rest on them. Because everyone’s life experience is unique, so too are their internal maps which is why we don’t all react to things in the same way. An impoverished and unrealistic map can restrict choices and result in a poor mindset.
VALUES AND BELIEFS
Just to set the scene and give you a head’s up if this is not an area of psychology you’re familiar with, BELIEFS are ideas you hold as being true. They can be based on certainties, like the laws of physics, or on probabilities, in other words, things you take on faith. As well as your belief system stemming from personal experience, it can also be determined by other factors, be it aligning yourself with cultural and societal norms or in response to people who exert significant influence over you. Your VALUES are hinged on your beliefs and both determine what’s important to you. They dictate the standards by which you conduct your life and make choices. They relate to every aspect of life, be it wealth, career success, family or status, etc.
If I asked you to name your top 3 values, would you be able to reel them off, or would you need to spend time to reflect? Maybe try writing them down. So central are they to the very fabric of who we are, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate them easily. Here’s an example of a key value of mine. Integrity. A heavy hitter on my list. This value is underpinned by my ‘belief’ that people should be true to their word. And another thing. If someone questions my integrity, it drives me absolutely nuts! Quite simply because it clashes with the very core of who I believe and wish myself to be and how I want to be seen and treated.
WHEN THERE’S CONFLICT
So, what’s happiness got to do with all this then?
Simply that, taking stock of your life in this way is a good place to begin. If you can identify your values, it’s a way to gain greater insight into what makes you tick? Understand yourself; what motivates and inspires you and you’re on your way to having greater control over how you experience life and an awareness that allows you to weed out unhelpful thoughts and behaviour patterns.
Master this and you’re in a much better position to accurately assess the areas of your life that dissatisfy you and more importantly, why. When there’s a mismatch between an ideal and the reality in some area of your life, it can foster a sense of helplessness and negativity. You may find yourself being dogged by a vague discontentment, a lack of fulfilment or worst case, depression.
So, can we be become happy at will? Well let me ask you some questions:
- Do you have a clear idea about where in your life things aren’t as you imagine they should be?
- How did you come to this conclusion?
- Is it the true reason or is something else lurking? Because you can bet that sometimes the big stuff seems so insurmountable, that we deflect and focus instead on much lesser issues that aren’t so painful to challenge!
- How did you come to this conclusion?
It’ll be easy to spot an area of your life where you think this kind of conflict exists. You’ll probably hear yourself using phrases like ‘it should be…’ or ‘if only this one thing…’. Once you’ve got a handle on that, you’re in a good position to begin to drill down and explore where that particular belief originates. Ask yourself things like:
- Why do I need ‘x’ in my life?
- Will getting it make things better?
- When did this belief get started?
- What caused it specifically?
- What’s my resulting behaviour?
- Is that helping or hindering me?
If you decide it’s hindering you, ask yourself why you’re allowing it to continue? Can you change it?
When it comes to then addressing an internal map/reality mismatch, first, ‘measure’ the gap. Is it a small niggle or a massive downer? Does it actually need fixing or is it a matter of attitude? If a ‘fixer-upper’, what steps are you going to take to close the gap. Start planning to achieve it.
Questions to ask:
- Where am I now?
- Where do I want to be?
- What do I need to do to close the gap?
- How many steps will that require?
- Are they achievable?
- What’s my deadline for each step?
Feeling wretched or being paralysed by unhappiness is a dark and lonely place to be. I should know I been there more than once and I’m in no hurry to revisit it. When I was in the throes of a really quite severe depression, everything looked bleak; everything seemed hopeless. The compulsion to withdraw from the world was very strong. For many years, my life has been a series of moments of ‘getting back on the horse’! I relied a lot on an innate ability to regroup and keep going. I admit the last time this happened, with the death of my mum, I didn’t bounce back. I was exhausted, and as far as resilience was concerned; the well was dry.
Richard Bandler, co-founder of NLP theorises that in times of stress, people react in one of two ways. A person can either be destroyed by adversity; or grow stronger. Resilient people just don’t give up. They don’t allow themselves excuses, but find ways to break through, whatever it takes. If you can do this, you begin to build a psychological immunity to hardship. I admit I wallowed for a while, a lot longer than I ever had before and I believed for the first time in my life, I was beaten. But you know what? I came back from it. Not with therapy or endless cups of tea and sympathy. My natural resilience finally kicked in. I got angry with myself and ‘decided’ I wasn’t going to let this overwhelm me anymore. I examined my life, made a choice about what I needed to do and then set my goal. I’m not saying I’m skipping about through pretty landscapes singing to the birds, but I’m not thinking about the end of my life anymore…but new beginnings. If you want the full story, it’s all written down on my ‘About‘ page on my website, so if you want, by all means go fill your boots!
MAKING A CHANGE – DEFINING A GOAL
Basically, what it comes down to is an unwavering determination to succeed. The sensation of happiness comes with the pleasure of taking the journey, reaching for goals and achieving them. You know, ‘positive anticipation‘ is strongly linked to happiness. In some cases, levels of happiness can be even higher during the anticipation of achieving a goal than the goal itself. I’ve experienced it. One Christmas, my mum and I decided to go and visit my brother in Australia. She had mobility issues and wouldn’t have done well travelling economy on such a long journey. So, we decided to take the financial hit and go business class.
And I kid you not! The fun we had watching YouTube videos about flying business class on Emirates. Imagining ourselves casually draped over the on-board bar, drinking free champagne, rubbing shoulders with shadowy Bond-like figures, whilst chomping down on tasty treats from the snazzy menu, and luxuriating in seats that reclined full stretch into a ‘bed’ for G-d’s sake! I know, a couple of prize yokels right? But truly, we derived more pleasure in planning and visualising that journey together, than we did the reality…apparently Bond has his own jet. Still is was a great trip!
Happiness is not as elusive as you might think; in fact, in many aspects of your life you can ‘decide’ whether to be happy or not, you just have to identify what action to take, want it enough and then do something about it. I think it was the life coach Tony Robbins who said’, life doesn’t just happen to you it happens for you’. You can create positives from any situation and have the ability to transcend what happens to you.
A happy life is about constantly moving forward and growing. If you stand still for too long you start to petrify. So, I guess my advice to you would be to try and identify meaningful life goals.
For me it was about expanding my horizons and taking my life by the scruff of the neck and shouting ‘dream bigger!!’. So I decided I needed to learn about online marketing to promote my business and in a a shorter time than I would have expected, I found myself no longer stressing about my income, With just a laptop and a reliable Internet connection, I expanded my coaching business. I’m still on this journey to this day and it has been a journey as fulfilling as the goal itself. And guess what? I’m pretty happy!
Go for goals that excite you; fill you with enthusiasm. Maybe it’s being your own boss, finding ways to spend more time with your family or helping others; whatever it might be, choose something that gives you a sense of purpose, meaning, and control.
In the words of Sonja Lyubomirsky, ‘Working toward a meaningful life goal is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier’.