Happiness: Know About How to Achieve an Unattainable Goal.

Happiness is something we all think about, a universal drive and what sometimes seems like an unattainable goal. From a Buddhist perspective, the Dalai Lama proposed that the purpose of life is to be happy and everything in our modern world is geared towards promising to make us happy; from food to beauty products all selling the notion that the purchase thereof will push us towards this common goal. But how is happiness defined?

A recent study by Mogilner et al. (2012) proposed that there are two states of happiness: happiness associated with feeling excited and happiness associated with feeling calm and content and further suggested a generic meaning of happiness to be ‘a state of well being and contentment. Unsurprisingly, the happiness associated with feeling excited was linked with anticipations and thoughts about the future and happiness regarding contentment was associated with those who live in the present moment absorbing their surroundings. However, this research is quick to point out that happiness while being a universal term does not mean the same thing to all people; rather it is extremely subjective meaning that what makes one person happy may not have the same effect on another. Furthermore, happiness and its associated state are ever-changing and the definition of such can change dramatically over the course of one’s lifespan.

With happiness seemingly being a desire or achievement in life how is it attained? Siligman (2002) suggests that happiness is achieved through pleasure (positive emotions), meaning (being part of something larger than ourselves such as community, knowledge etc.) or engagement (engagement with activities or people) and further theorises that individuals display not a singular pursuit of these orientations but rather a combined pattern.  Some often exclaim that a lottery win, the love of their life or something as simple as that new coat I have to have would be the key to their happiness. However, humans are designed to adapt to positive and negative situations so much so that once the original goal has been accomplished, it is human nature to then set their sights on another materialistic object or gratification. Some have called this the ‘hedonic treadmill’; a term that implies that no matter what we attain in life, complete happiness will never be achieved and the pursuit of such will never cease.  Indeed self-help books instructing us how to be happy have expanded over the years along with the branch of positive psychology [4] so happiness really is a big business!

A common mistake in the pursuit of happiness however is the attempted banishment of negative emotions or experiences and it has been suggested that the way we are conditioned to find happiness is exactly what keeps us from it.  The founder of Analytical Psychology Carl Jung stated: ‘No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell’ suggesting that to attain a state of happiness, negative emotions and experiences must also be endured along one’s journey. Where a positive mood has been found to be beneficial to envisaging the future, flexible thinking and increased openness,  research on positive emotion has found that too much positive enhancement can actually be detrimental to well being in that individuals may become prone to risk-taking behaviour and may lose grip on reality. To feel happiness to its full extent, sadness needs to be experienced also and many people find that enduring a traumatic event leads to better life fulfilment, contentment and ultimately a degree of happiness.  Professor of Psychology at North Carolina University Rich Tedeschi termed this process Post Traumatic Growth [7] which suggests that to achieve happiness, ‘growth’ is required which comes not simply from attaining all that is desired but from working towards goals (and not necessarily achieving the first time) and learning from mistakes and experience. Post Traumatic Growth is not an easy experience and thus this may offset the degree of happiness achievable. Those who benefit from Post Traumatic Growth are not always the strongest or most well-adjusted people either and the ones that benefit are those able to feel the emotion in their experiences, learn from them and process them into growth for future endeavours. Furthermore, those that are able to adjust to negative experiences tend to feel much less fear in the future despite their adversity which ultimately leads to higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness.

However, happiness is achieved or sought after it is not as easy for some to embrace this enriching emotion. A recent study into happiness found that some actually fear the positive emotions associated with happiness and subsequently avoid situations or thoughts that may evoke these emotions. The term alexithymia refers to a personality construct where the individual is unable to identify, describe or process emotions within self and where the avoidance of negative emotions has been the subject of many studies, the avoidance of positive emotions is a lesser-known area. Theories about why some avoid joy, happiness, compassion, kindness or love include childhood experiences such as being punished when they were experiencing a positive emotion similar to a degree of conditioning or feeling guilty of positive emotion when another relative was ill or unhappy and indeed alexithymia has been linked with early problematic attachment and relationships. In addition, suppression and subsequent fear of positive emotions may also be due to shame or emotional inhibition in that the cognitive thinking here is that one does not deserve to be happy and so some individuals avoid positive emotions or experiences altogether.

Alexithymia and the fear of positive emotions have unsurprisingly been linked to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and the general consensus on how to increase happiness appears to be significant and meaningful relationships with others and indicates that this should be a life priority.  The aforementioned study describes this as social safeness and indicates that it is significantly associated with lowering levels of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, happiness and positive emotions have been linked with the concept of time in that those focused on the present improve their chances of increased daily happiness and this would certainly coincide with the aforementioned Mogilner study where a certain type of happiness is associated with being aware and emotionally available in the present moment.

Happiness as the Buddhist tradition proposes is a positive emotion in life that we all strive for to achieve overall wellbeing. However, as indicated, it is not always an easy path and it is unknown whether a true state of happiness and what it encompasses can be achieved. Elements of happiness suggested include meaning, pleasure and more specific relationships with others and the richness of these interpersonal relationships. However, happiness is achieved it is obvious that it is a very personal, subjective and unique emotion or state to each individual. Perhaps, however, it is not a state at all but rather an ongoing personal journey with no clearly defined destination which would make it all the more exciting to achieve.