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The Complicated Pursuit of Personal Happiness Through Optimism

Updated on March 15, 2013

There is no such thing as a reliable guide to personal happiness. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.

It would be quite arrogant of me to pretend that I and I alone, know the secret to perpetual eternal happiness. Happiness is impossible to quantify. It can’t be sought as though it has volume and mass. It is a by- product of the way you choose to live. I quote Albert Camus, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Happiness can’t be measured in levels. The very idea that happiness is fleeting, or is only truly appreciated when observed in contrast to sadness, anger, or despair is very yin and yang. Moments of emotional levity are what we live for. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are our inalienable rights. In essence, without the prospect of happiness, nothing is worthwhile. It isn’t realistic to expect to be happy all the time. The best we can hope for is an equal happiness to optimism ratio. An optimistic point of view deserves a fair shake. It is the best tool that we can muster to cope with unsavory and unforeseen circumstances that threaten to negatively impact our lives. Optimism coincides with prospective happiness. It brings the possibility of fulfillment and joy within reach. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. Abraham Lincoln said “people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Pessimism will only leave us in the dark where we will thus condition ourselves to wait until happiness finds us, if it ever will. Don’t gripe about misfortunes. Don’t count yourself out because you’re a misanthrope. If you are a misanthrope, knock it off. Why are you grumpy? Anything is better than being grumpy. Take advice from Art Garfunkel, who said “All I’ve got to do today is smile.”

When I was a young man, my closest friend gave me some advice that I will take with me all of my life. He said, “Don’t be a coward.” I’m paraphrasing of course. He may have used a four letter word in lieu of “coward.” Don’t be afraid to live. I mean, don’t be afraid to really live. Get into a frame of mind that action will yield results. Don’t wait idly for opportunity to knock. And by opportunity I don’t mean career opportunity or employment opportunity. Most of us are well aware that money can’t buy happiness. It certainly “can’t buy you love.” Thanks Beatles. Excess wealth can actually lead to more headaches than solutions. Basic survival needs with a comfortable amount of leg room for luxuries is all that we essentially need with regard to money. We ought to be comfortable, not hedonistic. The desire for wealth as a status symbol is counter- productive to the happiness pursuit. Don’t be shy in trying to earn a comfortable living, but don’t be over zealous either. Money is never cited as a road marker on the path to enlightenment. There are probably a healthier proportion of happier people around the middle rungs of the socioeconomic ladder than there are at the very top. Money is not power, or the kind of power that contributes to soulful well- being. Like-wise, power via politics and economic stature actually inhibit happiness. Sure, some derive satisfaction by placing themselves above others in any given society, but are they really and truly happy? I suppose I should differentiate between happiness and satisfaction. Satisfaction is a moment of fulfillment that is achieved by accomplishing a goal or fulfilling a desire or need. You probably get a feeling of satisfaction by paying your electric bill on time, but you generally wouldn’t confuse that brief feeling of relief with enduring happiness. You can smoke a cigarette and feel temporarily satisfied or eat a cheeseburger to quell a hunger pang, but those feelings are the result of actions that must be repeated over and over again in order to achieve the same result. Happiness doesn’t come from satisfying an addiction, be it drugs or power. Those things are compulsory. If there are any certainties in happiness, it is that it doesn’t come from things. Sometimes less is more.

Forward momentum in terms of mental enrichment is far more beneficial than the pursuit of wealth. Take the Socrates approach. Know only that you’ve got much to learn. Then you will understand that there aren’t any magic buttons. Happiness isn’t a combination of things. You can’t learn how to be happy. You can, however, learn to be open minded. Be open to new thoughts and experiences. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people. Be open to entertaining somebody else’s opinion, even if you’ll ultimately reject it. Don’t shut yourself off. Listen and be aware. Be thankful that you have the ability to reason. Let’s look back at the Camus quote. The more you learn about life, the more you’ll draw the conclusion that there aren’t any conclusions to be drawn. Life simply happens. Time is a continuum. Let’s not digress into a discussion of metaphysics. Time may someday prove not to be linear, but today that is the way we perceive it, and perception is all we have. We can walk a mile in another’s shoes, but we see the world through our own eyes. They are, after all, the windows to the soul. You can either choose to view the world through muddled pre-conceived ideas, or you can form a fresh perspective on life on a case by case basis. Be true to yourself and courteous of others.

Ah, others. So often do we tie our own happiness to other people. We seem to either count on them to enrich us or disappoint us. That is a large responsibility to bear. Nobody can be both responsible for the enrichment of themselves and someone else at the same time. Love is a two way street. It’s common ground shared by two or more people who excel at being themselves. Haven’t you heard that one? “Be yourself?” It’s good advice. Unless you believe that your nature is to be violent and deprive others, what is the worst that can happen by being yourself? People can identify genuine and honest characteristics in others. They are not forced or pantomimed. Nobody has ever been hurt by a handshake or a smile. Don’t blame people for making you miserable if you are in fact so miserable that you identify with the word miserable. Don’t be skeptical, unless your skepticism can be justified by solid deductive reasoning. Paranoia connotes an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance. If paranoia prevents you from enjoying life, you might want to take note of the following Salinger quote, “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” Isn’t that equally as possible as any illogical fear proving to be real? Well, what about love? Love and happiness go hand in hand. They complement each other. If you won’t be happy with yourself, you won’t be happy with yourself with somebody else. It isn’t very complicated. If you think that nobody will love you in the romantic sense, you’re probably right. Mopey people don’t attract mates well. Be expressive. Confidence is a very attractive quality. Remember, confidence is attractive, arrogance is not. That’s an important addendum.

Now that we know that personal happiness relies on one's personal outlook on life, what are some consequences related to being unhappy?

Stress, negativity, and an absense of positivity over a prolonged period of time effect us socially, economically, and health wise. Emotional stress is negativities' partner in crime. Believe it or not, stress is a silent killer. Everything I've talked about thus far promotes positivity through rationale and optimism. Positivity opens doors to a more happy and stress free life. Being bummed out is one thing, but finding yourself in a long bout of stress inducing pessimism will affect overall health and well being. Here a few of the negative consequences of stress, which is a response to a mental manifestation of a percieved threat that ultimately affects the body entirely.

  • Gastrointestinal issues. It isn't pretty, but stress can irritate IBS and chronic heartburn.
  • Ageing. Yes, anxiety and stress can cause premature aging.
  • Headaches.
  • Obesity. Stress causes the body to produce more cortisol, which icreases deposits of body fat in the abdomen. Obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes as well.

Because stress is a physiological response, the wellness of the human body is threatened when stress becomes prolonged or chronic.

Unhappiness is also a deterent of meaningful social relationships, romantic relationships (as we explored earlier), career development, and enjoyment of life in general. It's a vicious cycle. Happiness is impossible to come by if one's mindset is negatively wired. Without opening yourself up to positive influences, that broken record will just keep right on playing.

“He who would learn to fly must first learn to stand and walk. One cannot fly into flying.” -Friedrich Nietzche

My final summation is that there isn’t a secret to being happy. That is up to you. Maintaining momentum and a lust for life keeps us open to new experiences. New is exciting, and when you choose to be opportunistic and open minded, you’d be surprised how much your personal outlook on life influences your good fortune. The United States Declaration of Independence does not guarantee happiness. It guarantees that all citizens are entitled to the pursuit there- of. We’ve been given the green light to find out what makes us happy, and then to go for it. Make a friend, try yoga (the mental and physical benefits of yoga are astounding), take a walk, get a dog (animals are great for stress relief), or just simply keep things fresh. The Jim Carrey film “Yes Man” presents the path to a more balanced state of happiness through just trying things or saying “yes” to things you normally wouldn’t. Of course, Jim Carrey takes it to the extreme, but yes is generally a positive affirmation. Try it.

Things may not change over-night. Healthy habits require a developmental phase. They are learned behaviors, the same way that negativity is a learned behavior. Nobody is born bummed out. We are born with the capacity for positive thinking and negative thinking. Ask yourself, “Which one is more worthwhile?”


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