In the not so distant past, whenever presented with the opportunity to make a wish I would close my eyes and, with belief akin to that of a very earnest five year old, say to myself……

“I just want to be happy.”

Looking back on it now I realise that, sadly, I was in a place where I didn’t believe I had much power to influence my own sense of well-being. And, as a result, felt my very best hope was to ask the happiness fairy to sprinkle some magic dust over the rest of my life and no further work would be required.

It was very well intentioned (and felt far superior to wishing for a lottery win) but, most signficantly, I now realise that I actually didn’t have any clue about what it was that I was really wishing for.

What on earth is happiness anyway?

Why was I so desperate to get it?

And why was I so convinced that I didn’t already have it?

To answer these questions, this post is going to explore what happiness is (and isn’t) and why, instead of actively chasing it or passively praying for it, you can adjust your thinking to let more of the good stuff naturally flow into your life. 

What is happiness?

Happiness [hap-ee-nis]:

  1. the quality or state of being happy
  2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy

Because I love language, I do love a dictionary definition. But, on this occasion, the only word that I like in this one is contentment – the rest seems static, too hedonistic in nature and possibly involving some kind of luck!

One of my errors in the past was in thinking that happiness conformed to a universal stereotype – perma-smiled, chirpy, everything as you want it, being consistently filled with abundant joy. The reason that I now like the word contentment is because it infers there is perspective, a calm sense of peace and reassurance, a slight sense of optimism but infused with reality.

The difficulty with defining ‘happiness’:

  1. It’s not simple – it’s multi-faceted, layered and textured
  2. It’s not static – it ebbs and flows
  3. It’s not easily within our control – we can’t just ask for it or buy it and it may not even be simple to work towards
  4. It’s not ours to keep – once we’ve got it we can’t just grip tightly to keep it in our possession, we can’t own it
  5. We can’t see it – there’s no certain manifestation, a person can look sad on the outside but be happy on the inside, and vice versa
  6. Turns out it’s highly subjective – we all have our own happiness barometers which have unique triggers, sensitivities and tolerances

The closest I can get to a decent definition is an individual’s evaluation that they like their own life – as it is right now, but probably also with a glance to how they anticipate it to be in the future.

What does it take for you to like your own life?

When is happiness?

One of our most common pitfalls when it comes to thinking about happiness is that we often perceive that we’re not happy enough right now but that we definitely will be at some point in the future when….

  • we get that promotion
  • we lose 5 kgs
  • we meet the man of our dreams
  • <replace with goal, aspiration or material possession of your choice>

Some people believe that happiness is a desired end state that occurs after needs are met and goals are fulfilled. My issue with this is that most of us have a terrible habit of enjoying a completed goal for little more than a few days (and that’s for the really big ones) before deciding what the next thing is that we want or need in order to feel all is well with the world.

We also have a tendency (known as ‘impact bias’) to vastly overestimate the consequences of any event – we imagine that positive outcomes will be far more pleasurable/joyful/life changing than they are in reality and vice versa for the negative ones. Neither hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate.

Most of us would do well to remember that, ultimately, we have an impeccable proven track record of having dealt with everything that has come before! If you ignore your ego and your negative inner voice, things are nearly always ok in this moment.

By always pinning our happiness to some point in the future we, by definition, make it impossible to identify with being happy today.

Top tip #1: Harvest your happiness, not from the future, but from the moment that you’re in right now.

Yours is the only opinion which counts

My definition of happiness specifies that it’s your evaluation of your own life which matters – not someone else’s.

Happiness will never truly be found in meeting someone else’s expectations of what ‘a good life’ looks like. Whether that be because we’ve been influenced to pursue certain things in order to make someone else happy (like, for example, a particular career to please our parents) or whether we allow our thresholds of happiness to be set according to someone else’s definition or by comparison to others (I must earn a certain amount of money because that’s what my peers do).

In order to for you to like your own life, you need the key components to be well aligned with your unique values, priorities and interests and then to have control over your own barometer and the base levels that you deem to be sufficient for happiness. I think its probably quite easy to become aware of the former (perhaps less easy to change it) but we tend to have quite a blind spot when it comes to the latter. Many people allow their barometer to be set by society, their peers, general expectations of others and often, when I challenge my clients on this, they don’t even know how their barometer got set in the first place.

Top tip #2: Work out whether the settings on your happiness barometer have been determined by you or someone else.

See the bigger picture

It’s very easy for the attention of our minds to be continually drawn to the minutiae of our daily lives and inevitably, across the events of a single day, there will be lots of small things which go well and meet or exceed our expectations, then another plentiful list of things which don’t go so well.

If we allow our happiness to be driven by the details of our lives then we’ll certainly struggle to experience a background level of contentment and conclude, on balance, that ‘we like our own life’. We’ll feel like our emotions are being flung around all over the place, subject to change on an hourly basis and, in all likelihood, we’ll feel quite out of our control.

I’d encourage you to make your evaluation based on the big picture stuff which will be made up of some key components – likely including: basic needs being met (food, shelter etc); good relationships with others; a sense of meaning/purpose and opportunity to spend time on things which engage you (read more about this here). The details of daily life are then the things which bob around on the surface, on top of the foundation of your contentment – some days may turn out good on balance, others less so, but neither need necessarily have an impact on your evaluation of how much you like your life.

It’s also important to distinguish between things which bring you meaning and things which bring you pleasure. The former tends to be long lasting and a significant contributor to how much we truly like our lives, while pleasure tends to be temporary and should be seen on the icing on the cake, rather than a real source of our happiness.

So, start by determining what your critical big picture items are, consider your minimum requirements for each and then think about how your current life stacks up. Where you spot shortfalls then you’d probably do well to think about what changes you can realistically make to improve things – the key is then to break this change down into small manageable steps.

Top tip #3: Make your happiness evaluation about how much you like your life as a whole, not about how much you like the thing which has just happened to you.

The balance of your attention

Similar to what you’ve just read about ‘big picture vs detail’, we also all have a default setting for how much attention we place on the good stuff in our lives vs the energy we devote to examining the not-so-good stuff.

Let’s assume we deem that half the important things in our life are going well and half are not – if we then spend 80% of our time thinking and talking about the bad stuff then we’re likely to evaluate, that on balance, we don’t really like our own lives and that we’re 20% happy and 80% unhappy. Certainly not 50/50, which would be a more accurate reflection of the reality of our situation.

I freely admit this example is pretty crude, but it’s also pretty easy to get the point.

And if by putting a disproportionate amount of attention on the negative makes us evaluate that we’re unhappy then it’s obvious what could happen if we bring it back into balance and, god forbid, if we’re able to place more value on the good stuff. (Note: this doesn’t mean that you ignore problems that need addressing but it does mean that you take a pragmatic approach, rather than the wallowing approach, to addressing them.)

Top tip #4: Practice giving as much, if not more, time and attention to the positive as you do to the negative.

Shift your set point

So we all have our own happiness barometer and this will include a threshold/set point of requirements above which we deem that we like our lives and below which we consider ourselves to be unhappy.

I’ve already talked about the importance of making sure that you’ve chosen that threshold based on your own needs/values, but I also believe that, over time, you can change this baseline, lower the bar and therefore more easily let happiness in to your life and also recognise it’s existence more often.

The way to do this is by:

  • raising your awareness about your own thought patterns (which you’re already doing by reading this!)
  • observe and make friends with your inner voice (read more about how to do that here)
  • start practicing the 5 tips in this post
  • choose your tribe carefully – surround yourself with and value the opinion of those with similar values to you
  • bring a bit more gratitude into your life – this doesn’t make problems go away but can gradually contribute to shifting the lens through which you see life

Top tip #5: It’s the consistency of awareness and practice over time that will gradually enable the set point of your barometer to shift.

A quick note about depression

What is the connection between happiness, or rather unhappiness, and depression?

My personal experience is that evaluating my happiness while experiencing symptoms of depression is rather like going for an eye test, you’re wearing those funny glasses and the optician drops in a lens which makes everything go blurry and completely out of focus. The world around you hasn’t changed in any way and yet your ability to see things for what they are, to experience them in all their glory and have any clarity about how you really feel about them has been taken away.

You may not be able to identify what’s wrong but you definitely can’t confidently say that you like your life through the lens of depression.

For me, the trick is recognising that the problem is with the lens and to not get sucked into believing that my life is bad or wrong – by doing this, I’ve found it much easier to ride out the storm and gradually wait until the lens starts to clear. It’s probably also really helpful for me to avoid even thinking about happiness while I’m experiencing depression because my head isn’t in a position to evaluate things accurately.

Happiness and depression are obviously not mutually exclusive (I personally can’t imagine a scenario where I could be depressed and happy at the same time) but, to my mind, depression is not simply the other side of the happiness coin.

Final thoughts

My best attempt at a definition of happiness is ‘an individual’s evaluation that they like their own life’.

In writing this, I’ve realised that there are two main factors which can influence this evaluation: 1) the lens that you apply and then 2) the factors/circumstances of your life.

The good news is that we all have some ability to choose the lens we look through and we also have some ability to shift and influence our circumstances. The real skill seems to be in having the awareness to separate the two, to identify what we can and want to change and then get to work with practice, practice, practice in order to shift the dial.

Although predictability and stability seem desirable, the truth is that that the happiness barometer does still need to swing. If our feelings of happiness didn’t ebb and flow we’d have no way to distinguish good from bad, like from dislike and no way of appreciating things which make us enjoy our lives. Relativity and movement in how we feel is necessary for us to navigate towards what is good for us and navigate away from what’s not.

As you may have guessed, in the past, if offered I would definitely have gobbled down a pill which guaranteed to make me permanently happy – I now realise that would be as useful as a compass permanently stuck on north.

You may think that it would be good to feel happy at all times, but we have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain. That word is dinner. (Daniel Gilbert)