The Quest for Happiness
Aristotle believed that the ultimate pursuit in a person’s life was to achieve happiness. Today, people are still striving to covet this enticing emotion and attitude. The self-help industry is booming with books, DVD’s, and websites all promising happiness, using a variety of techniques in a variety of ways. But what really makes people happy? The ambiguity of the very word makes this question difficult to answer; everyone has their own, individual concept of what happiness is and what makes them happy. David G. Myers, author and social psychologist, believes that no book can answer that question; instead one must ask, who is happy and why? Taking a look at the lives of self-proclaimed happy people may provide insight into this interesting topic. While there is no easy definition, nor prescription, to achieving a state of happiness, there are several elements that are common among people who are happy: control over one’s life and activities, a good sense of self-esteem, movement, close relationships, and a positive mindset.
The locus of control is the extent to which people believe outcomes are internally controllable, through their own efforts, or controlled by chance and outside forces. This plays a major role in determining how happy people are and how they explain setbacks and challenges. Julian Rotter found that those who believed they controlled circumstances did better in school, were able to deal with stress better, delay instant gratification to achieve long term goals, and have a greater sense of well-being. In addition, when faced with a setback or challenge, successful people are more likely to re-evaluate their efforts and find a new approach. “To control your happiness you essentially need two things. You need to have a conscious awareness that includes perspectives and interpretations based in love, compassion, respect, and humor. You also need to have control over your attention so you can shift to these perspectives when you choose. The more personal power you have, the more you will be able to shift your attention to these points of view in challenging circumstances.” (http://www.pathwaytohappiness.com/happiness/2007/05/15/controlling-your-happiness/) The key is attitude; it’s all about how a person interprets and thinks about a situation, turning a negative event into a positive one. For instance, instead of constantly getting upset about being stuck behind a “slow” driver, take the time to enjoy the ride and listen to good music. This kind of change will be difficult at first, but in time, will prove to be a powerful force; 10% of life is what happens to us, and the other 90% is how we react to it.
The right attitude and mindset come with a good sense of self-esteem. How people view themselves, and their worth, is essential to their level of happiness. The article, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles, explains that high self-esteem is best achieved through self improvement, allowing people to compare themselves against themselves. Self-esteem, therefore, becomes more about personal growth than competition, decreasing stress and potentially increasing success. Ultimately, this focus contributes to a greater sense of well-being and an overall sense of happiness.
The exercise trend has recently become popular again. Everyone seems to be finding ways to work out, get fit, and stay healthy. In addition, exercise has an indirect benefit of happiness. Barbara Russi Sarnataro offers some insight, in her article, Top 10 Fitness Facts. Exercise boosts brainpower, increasing energy levels and serotonin in the brain, which allows greater mental clarity. Movement helps alleviate stress, can boost immune function, and makes the body feel good. Moreover, exercise can help build and maintain relationships. Working out with a friend, spouse, or coworker not only increases the chance of success, but contributes to a person’s overall sense of happiness. According to Discovery Fit and Health, exercise and happiness create similar reactions in the human body. They both release endorphins, the “feel good” hormone, increase production of antibodies, and contribute to lower levels of cortisol, a “stress” hormone that contributes to fat build up. Mark Dombeck, a licensed psychologist, says, “vigorous regular exercise is a pretty good anti-depressant, helping you feel better about yourself and your life overall. It works because the mind and body are one, interconnected thing, not separate things.” (http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=28510&cn=288)
Sharing deep, personal thoughts and feelings with trusted family members and friends is also good for both the body and the soul. There are numerous studies concluding that people are happier when surrounded and supported by a network of friends and family. The National Opinion Research Center asked Americans, “Looking back over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” Those who listed five or six names reported being happy; those who could not name anyone were twice as likely to describe themselves as “not very happy.”
Another study, conducted by Melikşah Demir at Northern Arizona University, attempted to measure the quality of relationships among emerging adults; specifically, relationship quality, as it relates to happiness, among those who were in a romantic relationship and those who were not in a romantic relationship; and how important friendship quality was to those in a romantic relationship compared to those not in a romantic relationship. Participants were volunteer psychology students, under 30 years old. Each was given a packet that included a lengthy questionnaire, which the participants could fill out in the lab, or take home and return the next day. A version of the network of relationship inventory (NRI) was used; the participants were asked to rate their relationships with their mother, or mother-like figure, father, or father-like figure, best friends, and romantic partners, in four provisions for each: companionship, intimacy, reliable alliance, and affection. Each provision was assessed with three items, such as “How often do you go places or do enjoyable things with this person?” and “How much do you share your secrets and private thoughts with this person?” A scale of 1-5 was used, where 1 meant ‘little to none’ and 5, ‘the most’. This study found that the relationship quality was positively correlated with happiness in every relationship among emerging adults who were in a romantic relationship, as well as those not in a romantic relationship. Friendship conflict negatively correlated with happiness in those who were not in a romantic relationship, but was not related to happiness for those in a romantic relationship. This study is consistent with other findings concerning the correlation between close relationships and happiness; Best friends and romantic partners constitute an essential aspect in the lives of emerging adults.
In addition, David Myers suggests giving close relationships priority; “Intimate friendships with those who care deeply about you can help you weather difficult times. Resolve to nurture your closest relationships: to not take those closest to you for granted, to display to them the sort of kindness that you display to others, to affirm them, to share, and to play together. To rejuvenate your affections, resolve in such ways to act lovingly.” Close relationships are proven to foster happiness; people are more likely to cope better with stress, report greater happiness, and have greater social success.
People have long associated a positive mindset with happiness. Thinking optimistically in daily life can make a person feel hopeful and may lead to success; “if you think it, you can achieve it.” Herm Albright offers a humorous quote, “A positive attitude may not solve all of your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” But the question remains, does thinking positively really contribute to happiness and overall well-being? In his article, Can Positive Thinking Be Negative, Scott Lillenfeld explains that “positivity is not all it’s cracked up to be.” There are noted benefits of being optimistic for instance, better health, but research suggests that being overly optimistic could have detrimental side effects. Lillenfeld points out that most of the studies done on positive thinking have weak arguments and their findings involve correlation relationships. For example, being optimistic may make people healthier and they may live longer, but there is a possibility that good health and a long life are factors that create a positive mindset. There may even be more factors that weigh in, such as energy level. Lillenfeld also refers to a 2007 study that found extremely happy people are most successful in their close intrapersonal relationships and volunteer work, but it is the moderately happy people who are most successful in their finances, education, and are more politically active. Furthermore, an overly optimistic attitude may lead to the Pollyanna syndrome, or severe unrealistic optimism about the present and life’s future events. Without a doubt, positive thinking has numerous advantages; it encourages us to take risks and to expand our horizons, but Lillenfeld says it may not be for everyone, especially those who are prone to worrying and chronic complaining.
Just as ancient civilizations tried to define and capture happiness in their daily lives, so it will continue that people in today’s society, as well as generations to come, will strive for the same goal. While everyone’s take on the idea differs, David Myers gives a pretty good perspective. The good life springs less from earning one’s first million than from loving and being loved, from developing the traits that mark happy lives, from finding connection and meaningful hope in faith communities, and from experiencing “flow” in work and recreation. (http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/what-is-the-good-life/866)
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