What is happiness?
Imagine the following scenario. A patient comes to see a practitioner complaining of depression. Using solution-based counseling, the practitioner asks a theoretical question. “If you woke up tomorrow and your depression was magically gone, how would your life be different?”
The patient replies, “I would be happy.”
“I can help you become less depressed, but I can’t make you happy,” the practitioner says. “Only you can do that.”
More than the absence of depression
In most cases, psychiatrists, psychiatric, practitioners, and other mental health professionals focus on psychopathology, i.e. what is wrong with the patient. Unfortunately, there is no billable DSM-5 code to aid people in the pursuit of happiness.
Mental health treatments such as medication and cognitive-based therapy may aid in reducing depressive symptoms, but happiness is not just the absence of depression.
What is happiness?
Though specific definitions vary from person to person, the concept of happiness does have some guiding principles, such as:
- Experiencing more positive emotions than negative ones
- A sense of contentment and well-being
- Satisfaction with life
- Finding joy in daily living
Positive Psychology is the name for the branch of psychology that focuses on studying psychological strength, and resilience, and uncovering the reasons why people flourish. As such, it has contributed significantly to our understanding of human happiness.
The pursuit of happiness
Many people dream of winning the lottery, believing unlimited money translates to unlimited happiness. Though on the whole wealthier people do demonstrate happier tendencies, there is a point of diminishing returns. When all material needs are met, additional money does not improve a person’s happiness.
In fact, it can (and often, tragically, does) work in the opposite direction. Competition, greed, and envy are just some of the common pitfalls awaiting those with excess wealth, as is dissatisfaction. Contentment with the things we have, rather than the endless pursuit of an imagined ideal, is the core of happiness.
Genetics or environment?
While some people have a natural temperament bent toward unhappiness, when it comes to satisfaction with life, genetics are not necessarily destiny. Just as a houseplant placed in a sunny window will likely grow better than a plant kept in a dark basement, environmental considerations can improve a person’s happiness.
Survey data from the Pew Research Center indicates a trend toward higher happiness and civic engagement among those who regularly attend religious services. Faith communities often provide a network of social support and identity, which bolsters an individual’s sense of meaning and belonging.
Likewise, people who work meaningful jobs — that is, their employment comes with a sense of purpose — or take pride in their product, are often happier than those who work solely for the paycheck.
While money might not buy happiness outright, there are ways in which the wise use of money can aid in it. Here are some simple ideas:
- Give gifts: Small or large, research shows that giving gifts reinforces the connection between gift and giver, strengthening the support network between the two.
- Experiences over possessions: Rich or poor, time is the one thing we all possess equally. Investing in experiences rather than material goods builds lifelong memories that no amount of money can buy.
- Spend in alignment with your values: Whether a donation to a reputable charity, promoting a social cause or candidate, or simply supporting the neighbor’s kids’ entrepreneurial spirit by purchasing from their lemonade stand, spending money on the things that align with your values is a good way to experience happiness while making a difference.
- Practice gratitude: People who are depressed often spend time focused on things they don’t have. People who are happy tend to feel and show gratitude with what they do have. Identify three things each day for which you are grateful, even if they’re small things.
- Make kindness a habit. Sharing a compliment is a gift everyone can afford, and brightening someone else’s day is an excellent way to spread happiness.
- Engage in intentional mindfulness. Worry is easy. It comes naturally and can be hard to fight. When you practice mindfulness, you acknowledge feelings of worry but do not let them control you.
- Live in the present. Life can be short and good things are fleeting, so make a point to cherish and enjoy each as they come.
- Find a daily focus. If you can’t work, perhaps you can find happiness in volunteering. It can be as little as an hour or two each day. Or perhaps you can adopt a pet and experience the joy of caring for another living being. Pet owners often report increased happiness, as do people who spend time outdoors and appreciate nature’s wonders.
- Combat loneliness with a genuine human connection. Humans are social creatures. Especially in the post-pandemic landscape, loneliness continues to be a major cause of unhappiness. Making those connections may be challenging at first, but even small steps can cascade into real progress. Some studies suggest that simply smiling with good intent can increase happiness in you and others.
The path to happiness
Happiness is often an upward trajectory of little moments and little joys, found in the routine of daily living. While each day has its ups and downs, taking intentional steps toward gratitude, contentment, kindness, compassion, and community will build resilience and set you and your patients on the path toward happiness.
This article was adapted from our sister site, Elite Learning, written by Michael C. LaFerney RN, PMHCNS, BC Ph.D.