What comes to mind when you hear the word “happiness”? Many people think of smiles, positive energy, improved health and relationships, increased longevity, and a host of other very appealing attributes. Essentially, nearly all of the things most people want out of life fall under the term.
It is easy to see that most people want to be happy. And yet, we often have difficulty describing just what happiness really is. One person believes that someone is happy if they smile more than they frown; another is convinced that they will be happy only when they get their next promotion; others believe that happiness is achieved when all aspects of life come together and worries cease to exist. Which leads us to ask, what is happiness?
There appear to be two main types of happiness:
- Superficial (fleeting) happiness
- Fulfillment (deeply-rooted) happiness
Superficial happiness refers to the noticing and appreciating of little things in everyday life. This can include watching a child’s face break into a heart-melting smile, smelling the beautiful roses in the neighbor’s yard, or laughing at a friend’s joke. These experiences make us feel better in the moment and enjoy our life more.
Fulfillment happiness, on the other hand, comes from within. It occurs when we are at peace with ourselves and where we are in life. This type of happiness takes a great deal of time, energy, and insight to reach. In order to be fulfilled, one needs to recognize what is right for them, and what they personally need. In essence, they need to figure out what their passions are, understand how best to utilize these traits, and actively pursue them. This is an ongoing process.
Both types of happiness are good. Superficial happiness leads to more gratitude and a greater appreciation of the world around us. Sometimes it is the simple things in life that push us to breathe, relax, and understand our needs and what is truly important to us. This understanding is key to fulfillment happiness. Although people often equate the word “superficial” to “fake”, that is not the case here at all. All superficial happiness means is that the good feelings generated were simpler and came about faster. The key thing to remember is that superficial happiness, while more fleeting, is not fake happiness!
There has been much research done on happiness and self-realization. Abraham Maslow, a key figure in humanistic psychology, came up with a hierarchy of needs. According to him, there are five categories of human needs, each of which must be fulfilled in order to ascend to the next level. The first category addresses basic physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. Once these needs are addressed, the individual can move on to the next category, and so on. The final category is called self-actualization. This term refers to living life to one’s full potential. Someone who is self-actualized is living creatively, according to their own needs and values, and is fully utilizing their potential. This varies greatly from person to person. For one individual, love is the most important goal, for another it might be acquiring self-esteem. Regardless of their values, a self-actualized individual is striving to reach them using the tools they were given. Not only that, but they are at peace with themselves and their needs. Some characteristics of self-actualized individuals include:
- Acceptance-These individuals accept themselves as they are and do not feel guilty about their lives, needs, and desires. They are also accepting of others. This leads to their being being very comfortable in their own skins.
- Being realistic- When faced with problems, self-actualized individuals are able to think logically and rationally to find the best approach, rather than succumbing to fear and and allowing it to guide the decision-making process.
- Autonomy- Self-actualizers are independent and do not require external validation. They know their goals and values, and act on them regardless of others’ thoughts and judgments.
- Comfort with solitude- Self-actualizers tend to be peaceful inside. While they enjoy socializing, they are also very happy and content spending time on their own.
- Strong bonds with others- Relationships with others are deep and meaningful. Self-actualizers may have only a handful of close friends, however these relationships are very real and rewarding.
- Enjoyment of the process- Self-actualizers realize that life is not merely about the destination (the achievement of goals, etc), but also the journey itself. They set goals, and appreciate the process of working towards them.
This sounds great, who wouldn’t want to be self-assured, independent, and content? The big mystery lies in how to get there. How do we become so comfortable with ourselves? How do we find what our strengths are? Luckily, all of these answers lie within us, we simply need to be open to seeing them.
Martin Seligman, a leading figure in positive psychology, conducted a great deal of research on happiness. He found that the most satisfied and upbeat individuals were those who had not only discovered, but also fully utilized their signature strengths. Just as we are predisposed to various health conditions, we are also naturally predisposed to some very positive psychological traits. Seligman proposed a framework of 24 strengths that humans tend to have. These include curiosity, social intelligence, leadership, forgiveness, humor, innovation, and many more. By finding our own unique combination of strengths, we can truly make the most of them.
In addition to his theory of signature strengths, Seligman also believed that there were three dimensions of happiness. As with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these dimensions too must be experienced one at a time:
- The Pleasant Life- This stage of happiness is similar to my earlier notion of Superficial Happiness. In the Pleasant Life, an individual appreciates simple things about his physical environment (companionship, nature, food, etc.).
- The Good Life- This stage of happiness occurs when an individual finds his own unique strengths and virtues, and uses them creatively in everyday life.
- The Meaningful Life- In this final stage (similar to my earlier notion of fulfillment happiness), the individual finds meaning and fulfillment in using his strengths for a purpose greater than himself (such as family, community, society, a field of study).
Now comes the difficult part. How do we figure out what is right for us, and what our signature strengths are? How do we choose happiness? Although it would be nice to put on a magical sorting hat that would screen us and produce a definitive list of our strengths, no such object exists. So, we must explore, discover, and observe. We can explore the world around us to see what we are drawn to. Through this exploration we can discover activities and topics we are interested in and well-suited for. By observing our past experiences and interactions with others, we can gauge what our strengths are. It may be helpful to talk to trusted friends and family members about this, however keep in mind that their opinions, while valuable, are subjective.
As we embark on this journey, it is important to remember that happiness is a process—results will not be immediate. We may find that something we once thought was a passion was actually not for us. No matter how much time and energy is put into this process, it is key to think of it not as time wasted but rather as a valuable lesson learned. Each discovery of what is not right for us is one step closer to leading us toward what is. In the meantime, be mindful of your surroundings and grateful for all the positives in life (there are always plenty, if only we take the time to look!). So smile more, laugh more, and remember that with time and effort, eventually your journey will take you to exactly where you need to be.
Please share your experiences and insights with us on Twitter @yogatailor and in the comments section below!
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