So, you want to be happy? Who doesn’t? You’re probably thinking of reading some of those self-help books on the topic. But chances are you are going to end up frustrated because the search for happiness is usually presented in the wrong way. You’ll end up looking for the wrong thing.
The problem comes partly from our language and the way we speak about happiness, as if it is a thing that can be obtained or achieved. “Happiness,” so our culture teaches us, is a state of being. It is a strong emotional state, something akin to “joy” or “exaltation.” It should be grabbed and held onto.
But deep inside you know that goal isn’t really feasible – we can’t feel extended periods of joy any more than we can stay in any extreme emotional state for very long. And “achieving” happiness isn’t the same as crossing a finish line or finally buying that “just for me” sports car.
Instead, we should recognize that pursuing happiness is really about the types of activities we add to our lives. We should be striving for the kind of life that keeps us enthusiastic and excited to take on each day, despite some of the inevitable bad moments and accidents.
So, what can we do to have more of that kind of happiness in our lives? The answer: shift our emphasis from the word “happy” to the word “pursuit.” Concentrate on the activities we add to our life. If we add more moments where we are fully engaged in satisfying and rewarding activities, that work for us on an inner, self-referential level, we will be well on our way to having a happy life.
And what types of activities might do this? Which activities help us feel fully engaged in meaningful, rewarding ways? Fortunately, modern day psychology does have some suggestions.
Develop the Habit of Self-Improvement Projects
A lot of good feelings about you and who you are becoming can come from taking on a short-term self-improvement project. Watching our self make small gains and finally achieving a personal goal can be rewarding specifically on an inner, private level.
There are certainly many things to consider when choosing a self-improvement goal and developing the daily or weekly measurements that might provide those moments of small success. But just engaging in a self-improvement project can be psychologically rewarding. Particularly if the objective is not something we are doing for external feedback and rewards. Importantly, progress on a self-improvement goal will help us feel good about ourselves for an extended period of days, if not all of them.
Examples might include a modest weight loss or fitness goal, gradually reading that book you’ve always wanted to read, or starting and finishing a series of classes in a new craft or hobby. Self-improvement ideas abound, but keeping the goals manageable, medium in size, and easily measurable are important factors to consider.
Exercise Your Strengths
A different but similar sense of accomplishment and pride can come from doing things that others find hard. This doesn’t mean focusing on earning a prize or defeating an opponent. Instead, it can refer to simply experiencing a certain kind of joy when you exercise your unique talents and strengths. We are all good at some things. Perhaps some of these things have funneled us in to our current job. But independent of any external rewards, such as pay or promotions, there is a certain internal reward from engaging in what we do well.
Purposefully adding activities to our lives that allow us to activate our strengths is a great way to pursue happiness. Outside of our controlled work environment we might discover we can volunteer our bookkeeping talent at our local church or coach a youth soccer program and experience the joys of teaching. We can landscape a community park or use our voice to read for the blind. Doing what we do well is always intrinsically rewarding, and doing so in the service of others is a potential ‘double whammy’ in the pursuit of happiness.
Go for the “Flow”
A third kind of activity we can add to our lives is one designed to get us into “flow.” Several years back psychologists starting studying that wonderful place our mind goes to when we are fully engaged in a task; that loss of time and worries when our minds are “locked in” by the activity. We usually know we were “in the zone” only after we come out of it. “Flow” can happen at work obviously, but what about purposefully adding it to our lives as a “pursuit of happiness” activity?
To get to flow most easily the mind should be fully engaged in the task. This happens in everyday life when we are activating our curiosity or encouraging our creativity. Allowing ourselves to be creative or curious may feel like a luxury in today’s busy, fast-paced world, but paradoxically finding exactly that kind of time will be far more “productive” toward achieving a life of happiness and contentment than completing yet another thing on our to-do list. Simply ask yourself this: don’t you know someone who regularly engages in creative or curiosity-fulfilling activities and seems to have a particularly interesting and happy life?
Join in a Community of Volunteers
Finally, perhaps the easiest activity we can add to our lives is volunteering in a relaxed and social atmosphere with others. It is true many service clubs have experienced a severe decline in enrollments over the past decade or two. This may be due to how easy it is with today’s technology to spend time alone, entertaining ourselves or working nonstop. But the lives of our grandparents were filled with socializing, bonding and enjoying each others’ company. It was a regular occurrence and part of the pursuit of a life well spent. Every one of us knows how fun it is to chat with friends. Why not make some new ones and help out your community at the same time?
The pursuit of happiness should be more about the pursuit, the activities that we choose to engage in and how they make us feel in the long term, than about a fleeting emotional state. Developing small but regular self-improvement projects, exercising our strengths, trying to get in to “flow” and volunteering with others are just some suggestions. After all, a life well spent is a happy life.