What are the keys to happiness? People have discussed, debated and agonised over the topic of happiness for centuries. Questions such as ‘What is happiness?’ ‘How can we achieve happiness?’ and ‘What does a happy life look like?’ have been hot topics. Countries have attempted to measure and define happiness. Bhutan has a gross national index that measures the collective happiness and well-being in their population. In 2016 the United Arab Emirates created the first Minister for Happiness, whose role is to oversee the UAE plans, programs and policies to achieve a happier society.
I used to wonder what the meaning of life was all about when I was young. My version of happy was playing outside, being hyperactive, sporty and adventuring. If it was too wet, (I grew up in England) and I had to be inside, I turned my attention to creative pursuits. Making model ships or planes, drawing, reading, building lego, creating stables and apparel for my model horses from felt, scraps of leather, material and loo rolls.
When I ‘grew up’ I travelled the world, meeting people from all walks of life, cultures and societies. One of my biggest insights was experiencing first-hand how so many people with successful jobs and seemingly affluent lifestyle weren’t happy. Others, who had low incomes or no jobs, living a subsistence lifestyle appeared happy and joyful. One special memory was dancing with villagers in a small town in Malawi who simply stopped what they were doing to enjoy the moment. Dancing as if no one was watching to the rhythms and beat of African music, smiling, laughing and simply being present. Welcoming me as if a young English lady with a backpack was an everyday experience.
In the last 12 years, having coached hundreds of people, I have studied and researched the above topic and noted how in our supposedly ‘affluent’ country our happiness levels are falling. I read recently that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that around $9 billion was spent nationally on mental health services during 2015-16. I guess that must have increased by now? While this blog isn’t intending to give you all the answers, my intention is to share a few insights and tips that I hope stimulate you to think about your happiness, your life and to sprinkle in some small changes – shifts in mindset – to keep your happiness levels higher.
The keys to happiness
First, it’s important to look at the definition of happiness. The dictionary defines happiness as ‘being fortunate, cheerful, lucky, or expressing joy. Happiness is about loving who you are and where you’re at in life.’
Happiness has also been defined as a ‘state of being happy.‘ Being a state, only you can truly determine if you are happy. No outside source can give you true happiness as we all measure and gauge feelings from our unique perspective.
In the book ‘Happier’ by Tal Ben-Shahar, he states that happiness is created through a combination of experiencing pleasurable moments – good feelings – and finding meaning in our lives. Together, both give us a purpose and allow us to feel pleasure in our lives. He suggests rather than asking the question, ‘Am I happy?’ which is a closed question, we should ask ourselves ‘How can I be happier?’
Questions that start with how can be useful as they expand possibilities and help our curious minds search for answers to solve the riddle. When we embrace this question as a key value, it brings the focus to the forefront of our minds. What we value we will find time to focus on. In our busy world, it helps us prioritise in the myriad of distractions, options and choices. When we live a life according to our values we are doing more of what is important to us than what everyone else wants or expects us to do. Less ‘should’s’, ‘needs’, ‘ought-to’s’, obligations and more ‘want to’s’ and fun.
One of the problems diminishing many people’s happiness is that the safe ‘secure’ vision of a job for life is no longer there. The mountain of pressure for big companies to increase profits at all cost, downsizing due to automation and job roles changing, is adding more pressure to many people in the workforce. Worry about the future, how to adapt to change, increasing stress, back-stabbing and even bullying can rise as people cling to a semblance of control to hold onto. This only exacerbates an avalanche of disengagement in the workplace. As a vast amount of our lives are spent at work, it isn’t too difficult to understand just why happiness levels are falling. It’s almost like people are being asked to prepare for a life which our society isn’t equipped to manage yet.
The keys to happiness and the action steps required
Workplace aside, one small key in our personal lives is to focus not on how can we change our poor habits, or what we don’t have, is to ask ourselves how we can add in activities that bring us pleasure? How can we do more of what gives us meaning. This helps shift our mindset away from worry, lack and fear and towards solutions, positive options and expansion. Our internal radar, like a laser, shines out towards exactly what we are focusing on.
Setting goals is a key starting point.
Unless you have been living in a cave, I am sure setting goals as a priority isn’t anything new? However, while most people know this intellectually, few actually take the time to intentionally create goals, let alone write them down. Fewer create a crystal clear action plan and then stick to the actions consistently.
Goal setting is important in our lives because goals give us direction. Something we need even more of today. If your work is unfulfilling or stressful, then you need to have more focus on the rest of your life. Goals, however big or small, give us meaning and help us avoid becoming like Alice in Wonderland. Standing at a fork in the road, not knowing which way to go, she spoke with Cat:
Alice: Would you tell me please, which way ought I go from here?
Cat: That depends a great deal on where you want to go.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Setting goals correctly are one of the keys to happiness
Writing goals down is one of the essential keys to happiness and starting points to living a meaningful life. Words have the power to create a better future. Add to this knowing your ‘why’ you want this goal is also important. Taking action, ticking off the small wins along the way and rewarding yourself is necessary as well.
In the book, ‘Happier’ Tal Ben-Shahar says that the proper purpose of setting goals is to ‘liberate us so we can enjoy the here and the now.’
A few questions for you to ponder on and ask yourself are:- ‘Do your goals do this for you? Do you set goals? And if you do, do you enjoy the journey along the way or do you exhaust yourself trying to attain them? What happens when you do achieve a goal? How do you feel? And how do you respond if you don’t reach your goals? Do you move onto the next one before celebrating your successes?’
I know in the past, coming from a goal-setting sporting background, sometimes the achievement of the goal was such a focus that it almost became an obsession. I was probably guilty of forgetting to enjoy the journey and smell the roses along the way some of the time. But it was awesome and a huge sense of achievement when I raced well!
Research that has studied the attainment of goals, correlates with this. Studies showed the feeling of success or failure concerning goals was shown to be short-lived. A psychologist, Philip Brickman demonstrated this by looking at the levels of happiness people had after winning the lottery. Within a period as short as a month, lottery winners return to their base levels of well-being. If they were unhappy before winning they will remain so. While this is no excuse to give up on goal setting, I think it highlights the importance of being aware of why we want the goal in the first place.
- What does achieving this goal mean?
- Are we enjoying the journey along the way or are we just driven to reach the destination?
- Are we growing to fit in with our goal? Emotionally, spiritually, physically and psychologically?
- Otherwise, we tend to fall back to our current level of identity.
Apparently, we aren’t very good at predicting our future emotional states either! We may buy a new house, a new car or move town because we feel we will be happier, but in reality, it tends to lead only to a small spike in our levels of well-being and feelings of happiness.
Goals must have meaning and be aligned to values
To maintain a sustained state of happiness, we must set goals that give us meaning and are aligned with our values. They must be for us and not for others. Goals need to allow us to do more of the ‘want-to’ tasks than the ‘have-to’ tasks. More of the fun things and less of the ‘needs’ and ‘should’s’. Actions and pursuits that allow us to grow, learn, contribute and connect. Ones where we clearly define our target, set our sights on the destination and then learn to unhook from the desired result and focus on enjoying the journey along the way. I would ask these questions: ‘How can we find more meaning at work?’ ‘What goals can we set to improve our engagement and enjoyment in the workplace?’
Connection with people is a fundamental human need. This equates to having meaningful face-to-face connections as a crucial ingredient to happiness. With so much focus on online communication, emails, texting or via social media, is it any wonder we are suffering from an avalanche of loneliness, depression and anxiety in our society? This has resulted in mass prescribing of ‘anti-depressant’ drugs, which in many cases doesn’t address the underlying sources of the problem. For a fascinating read on this important topic, I can highly recommend the book ‘Lost Connections’ – Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari.
We need to maintain meaning in our lives.
To help us maintain and grow a sense of achievement and meaning, taking small steps consistently helps us build our belief, increase our self-worth and esteem. Ticking off our wins is important as it increases our good feelings. Our brain is a goal-seeking organ and loves to achieve. As it has no idea the size of achievement when you celebrate and acknowledge the wins your brain sends you a shot of serotonin.
Being able to consistently move forward towards our goals is helped along by the practice of creating daily rituals – the foundations for building habits that support our goals. When we do the things we know we need to do to achieve our goals, we start to prove to ourselves we are the sort of person who we need to be to achieve our goals.
Taking time out, and participating in an activity such as meditation, mindfulness or yoga to quiet our busy minds is an essential key. A necessary ingredient to sprinkle into our fast and noisy worlds to avoid an overload of stress, over-thinking and worry. Too much ruminating over less than ideal circumstances can increase negative feelings and create a downward spiral.
Finding someone to support and champion you is important
Finding someone to keep you accountable and support you is important. Having someone who will listen to you rather than criticising or trying to deflate you. Being open to feedback is another key and helps you grow and improve. This takes being open-minded and having a Mindset for Success, or a Growth Mindset as termed by Carol Dweck.
When you consider your happiness, ask yourself:-
- ‘What do I want to achieve?’
- What will add meaning to my life?’
- What will give me more pleasurable moments?’
- ‘What can I do to ensure I connect with others, have some quiet time and enjoy the journey along the way?’
Will your goals liberate you to make the most of your current situation? Will you enjoy the here and now or will they keep you trapped in the pursuit of the destination? How you feel about this is your ultimate measure.
For more ways to increase your sense of happiness, read my happiness tonic here.
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