We all want to be happy right? But what does it even mean to be happy? Is there such thing as long lasting happiness? And if so how can we access it?
Let’s start by looking at the definition of happiness….
Happiness: a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.
This sounds pretty accurate right? Well if this is the case, I think that it pretty much rules out the possibility of long-term happiness. I highly doubt there’s anyone who lives day-by-day experiencing only positive emotions, the Dalai Lama included! Seriously, who feels pleasure or contentment when they’re running late and get stuck in traffic? When they have a shit-load of work to do and deadlines to meet? Or when they’ve got exciting plans for the weekend but end up having to stay in cause they’ve come down with the flu?
So we must ask ourselves, according to the above definition, is it really natural or even healthy to live in a state of happiness 24/7?
We have evolved to experience a wide range of emotions, many of which serve a purpose despite being somewhat uncomfortable to experience. Anxiety for example triggers the release of adrenaline and gives us faster reflexes so that we’re prepared for the challenge. Stress helps us get shit done that we otherwise may not have the motivation for. But wait a minute, what about sadness? What purpose does feeling down-hearted and miserable serve?
Unfortunately we cannot experience positive emotions without also experiencing negative emotions as they’re both linked to the human capacity to care. We are caring beings. We care about our relationships with others. This is why when we develop a deep connection with another person we feel happy, and when we are hurt or rejected by another we feel sad. We care about our careers and having a steady income, so when we do well at our job we feel content and when we don’t we feel disappointed or frustrated. A mother cares for her children so when they come home from school with asmile on their face they too are cheerful but when they’re child is having difficulties learning or is having trouble fitting in they will feel sorrowful and upset.
You simply cannot have positive emotions without also experiencing negative emotions; unless of course you stopped caring, but then your life would be completely lacking in meaning and purpose.
So why is it that when we don’t feel happy we feel defective or unsatisfied with our life? Isn’t life supposed to be challenging? If you feel anxious or fearful it may just mean that you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, and in doing so you are experiencing personal growth. If you feel lost or disoriented, perhaps it’s because you have just started a new job or have moved to a new city. This is teaching you to be adaptive to new situations. If you have been through a painful break up it has more than likely made your heart and soul stronger in the long run. So really these emotions shouldn’t make us feel inadequate or lacking in any way. They should rather make us feel normal and human.
You may be thinking “But what about people who have chronic anxiety or anger issues?”. Of course everything in moderation is okay, anything more can become problematic. Negative emotions can lead to personal growth and development depending on our attitude towards them. For example with anxiety, it often becomes problematic due to our struggle with it. When we experience sensations of anxiety we tend to freak out. We become anxious about feeling anxious which causes our anxiety to intensify. We may even become angry or disappointed with ourselves for getting so anxious. However, if we were to drop this struggle with anxiety when we felt its initial presence it may have never become a problem. Performers all experience anxiety even those with loads of experience. They have however learnt to channel their anxiety (adrenaline rush) into their performance.
So if it’s completely normal to experience a wide range of emotions, how would we live, what one would consider to be a ‘happy’ life? I believe the key to living a happy life is through mindfulness and gratitude.
Mindfulness is the ability to tune into our senses and be fully aware of the present moment. When negative thoughts and feelings do arise (and they always will) mindfulness involves the ability to be aware of them whilst remaining non-judgemental and non-reactive. So for example, if we feel anxious we might notice the tension building up in our chest or the sweatiness of our palms. We would pay attention to this with openness and curiosity. So when starting a new job we might observe these sensations as nervousness and remain flexible and open, rather than becoming fully consumed by them (which may otherwise lead us to feel incompetent or even depressed).
We might not like what we are feeling but by becoming aware of our thoughts and emotions, we are able to step back from our automatic judgments that lead us to feel defective.
Gratitude is equally important as mindfulness. Unfortunately we all have an innate negativity bias. This means that we give more weight to unpleasant thoughts, emotions or social interactions than we do to those of a neutral or positive nature (and also tend to remember them more easily!). So by engaging in the daily practice of gratitude we are training our brain to tune in to the positives and in turn rewiring the neural pathways in our brain. Research has demonstrated the profound effects that gratitude can have on the way we view the world, our mood, and the way in which we interact with other people.
Thus living through mindfulness will allow us to experience the full range of emotions that we are supposed to experience as humans whilst remaining content with who we are and overall satisfied with life. In addition to this, expressing gratitude daily (even just in your own private gratitude diary) can help boost your happiness levels each and every day. The idea that all humans are supposed to be happy all the time is a common misconception. Be mindful and grateful instead and this will bring you TRUE happiness!
Image source : Alexandra Valenti