If I’m being completely honest I went into researching this piece with more skepticism than I usually would. If it was so easy to be happy then what good would it do to lay it all out? Would we not simply already know? Looking at it now I think that my extra little dose of disbelief let me research how others have tackled this question a little more on the objective side, and I’m glad I did.
Many of the people that try to tackle what it means to be happy often do so from a place of unhappiness- they feel they are missing something or are hoping to find some meaning they hadn’t considered before. Yet what I found is that the conclusions people come to are often some of the most grounded and insightful views I have ever come across. I hope that this will be apparent in the work because I’m very glad I tried.
Caring for emotional wounds
When it comes to looking out for ourselves, we assign a lot of urgency to treating physical wounds, but so often leave our psychological needs ignored. We deal with so many negative feelings on a daily basis that it almost feels natural- rejection, loneliness, and failure, to name a few. These feelings leave a deep psychological wound that we are simply not equipped to heal. Quite the opposite in fact, when we are faced with a difficult situation, we will often ruminate all the reasons why it has happened to us- and the reasoning is often cruel. We tend to twist the knife and make the feelings worse to justify what we think we deserve. But if it was anyone else we would be quick to empathise and comfort them- why is this? Why do we treat ourselves so poorly when it’s so natural to help others with their own struggles?
The answer is we have never been taught how- we learn to take care of others over the course of our lives in a huge variety of ways, but very rarely are we taught how to attend to our own emotional needs. We need to start seeing ourselves as a friend- when we are hurt we should comfort and treasure ourselves because it’s what we deserve. Internalising emotional suffering offers no benefit whatsoever, and we really need to learn to resist the urge. If we take a moment to listen to our thoughts as they happen it becomes clear that many of our knee-jerk reactions are judgmental in nature, and that’s normal. Acknowledging these behaviours without accepting them as an unchanging truth is a great first step to treating ourselves well.
Studies have found that we are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others. Laughter is an emotional mechanism that is both behavioral and contagious in nature. It’s also very social- you are much more likely to laugh when you are with someone you know compared to a complete stranger. We are hardwired to engage with those around us, and doing so makes us feel good.
There is additional research to support this too- studies have found that we prefer to experience good and bad events at the same time with a friend. This actually goes against the previous suggestion that people prefer to have shorter negative experiences and lots of separate positive ones- they instead like to have a bit of both if it’s with a friend. This is most likely because being with loved ones makes the highs feel much higher and the lows not quite so low. Experiencing these emotional journeys can bring us closer together more effectively than just positive moments alone.
Robert Waldinger presented an amazing longitudinal study spanning over 75 years and multiple generations of participants to see just how much influence we have over the course of a lifetime. The study found that meaningful relationships really were what made the difference. “The good life is built with good relationships” participants who felt lonely, even if they were married and had friends had a more tumultuous life quality later on. It’s not about surrounding yourself with people, but about finding relationships that resonate with you and give you a sense of belonging. Many participants believed that money and success would be the most important factors, which is a trend that continued into the next generation of participants and so on. Yet the glaring difference is that the participants that felt that sense of belonging were healthier and happier overall despite what life threw at them. A running theme we see here is that much of our joy comes from being with others- enjoyment is enhanced when we experience it together.
Facing reality head-on
Research has found that the smaller, simpler pleasures can be just as valuable for our mental wellbeing. We often disregard them as distractions in favour of a loftier long-term goal, hoping to achieve something greater. It may not be that we need to focus on being happy- rather we need to try and be less unhappy. The balance between realism and pessimism is hard to uphold if we don’t even know we are walking that tightrope every single day. There needs to be a balance between the two- being able to appreciate the smaller steps on the way to long-term goals without indulging in every whim as soon as it appears.
Realising our limits is to see the bigger picture- to avoid the difficult parts of life is to disregard what is truly important. We often don’t notice our physical and mental limits until we run into them face first, which for many can be a distressing and humbling experience. It tends to be that after this period of ego-bruising, we brush ourselves off and come at life with greater appreciation for what it has to offer.
Having a realistic view of yourself and what you want out of life has been shown to help combat the negative effects of loneliness. It’s not that this will cure our loneliness- sadly this is a very hard thing to avoid. The thing is that when we have a more realistic grasp of who we are, we are less likely to lean on coping behaviours that make the symptoms of loneliness worse.
Studies show that if we aren’t confident in our sense of identity we are more likely to combat loneliness with behaviours that don’t actually help- such as going to social gatherings we don’t want to be at or drinking more frequently. Unfortunately, these actions can have the opposite effect and more often than not make us feel bitter and disenchanted.
If we know what we want out of life, we won’t feel the need to push ourselves unnecessarily. This also means that we are less likely to ruminate when life sends a hurdle your way- yes the situation may be unpleasant, but we aren’t then going to point those negative feelings inward and blame ourselves. Essentially- being stable in your sense of identity goes hand in hand with greater emotional resilience.
The message here seems simple enough, but as with anything it’s easier said than done. We spend much of our time learning and unlearning the habits of our past, and a big part of that is self-healing. Having a positive mindset comes with a great many caveats, but as people, we are very good at taking these things in our stride. An unfortunate amount of people feel unhappy or unfulfilled, and with the condition of the world being what it is I’m not at all surprised. It can be hard to find any reason at all to maintain a positive mindset; Nevertheless, this process needs to be worked on so that we can continue to grow, perhaps even because of how difficult this world can be.