A Few Myths About Happiness

11/08/2011 11:32 am ET | Updated Jan 08, 2012

Happiness is a vague concept and has been defined in so many ways it is almost depressing to research and read them. Some define happiness as an individual experience, some as a collective one; some see it as an unattainable goal and then some see it as easily accessible. After an extensive study and work on the subject, I have come to think that it is a combination of all of these.

To give you a few examples of different views on happiness, Rumi would say "Every object, every being, is a jar full of delight." Hence, for him, it seems like it is easy to be happy and one can do that by just changing his perception. Then comes Freud, who once said "One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation.'" It seems that Freud found it hard for people to be happy. And then a quote by Norbert Lafayette Savay, Emancipaiton seems to explain that it is not possible to be happy until collectively we live on a happy planet. The quote says:

So long as men strive for their individual happiness only, so long they shall strive for it in vain, because they striveready for something which does not exist. When one will strive for all and all for one, then, and then only, general happiness will be possible. Until then men will remain savages, in constant war with each other, like fools destroying the very house that shelters them.

And finally, my favorite one, which is Carl Jung's explanation of what it takes to be a happy person, seems to be a combination of an internal and external experiences. He reports happiness to be good physical and mental health, good personal and intimate relationships (marriage, family, friendship), the ability to see beauty in art and nature, reasonable standards of living and a work that is satisfying, a philosophy of life or a spiritual/religious view that helps the individual cope with challenges of life.

Now, what is happiness and what is it not?

1. Happiness is not a state of stable excitement. Every gain has some level of pain or some challenges we have to go through. For example, we go to the gym to look good and feel healthy but have to work hard and not eat many tempting foods. The question is if the pain is worth the gain. Sometimes waves hit us and we have to find a way to pass them and go forward. Rumi's quotes are relevant here. He says, "If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?" and "The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

2. Many of us think other people are happier than they really are: Sometimes we underestimate our state of happiness and overestimate that of others. Through my interviews and work with many people from different walks of life, it has come to my attention that many people are generally happy but overall look happier to others than they really are. In other words, the persona we give to others are usually one of the happier times of us. Most of us spend our not-so-happy moments by ourselves. But all of us have these moments, call them moments of hibernation or else, but most all have them. Many people keep these moments to themselves because they either do not want to look like a weak person or they don't want to feel like a burden.

3. In order for us to be happy we don't need to do more: The message we get sometimes is that we must occupy every minute we have with activities. But there has to be a balance and this needs to be done in moderation. Sometimes the insight needed to take steps toward happiness can be gained by learning how not to do anything and just being in the moment and emptying the mind. So quiet, self-reflective moments are a part of finding peace and happiness in life. Rumi's quotes may be relevant here. He says, "Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation."

4. Happiness is not just an internal state, neither is it just an external one. It is hard for us living in a practical world to live solely by a visionary's view that we need to change our internal perspective and everything else will be okay. Many of the people I have worked or talked to report that they have practiced this but it does not seem to be able to sustain itself. While that may work in many situations and is a good tool, it is only a part of the explanation. We still need to feel like we are living in a stable world, have financial security, an overall content life that has love and support in it and then we can mix that up with a mindset that is reasonably positive, rational and aware; that is when this will be the magical potion for feeling content and in peace with life. Rumi says, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."

5. There is no guarantee that we will be happy all the time even if we have all the elements needed to feel such. Carl Jung also agreed with this one, that when it comes to happiness there is no guarantee. If we have reasonable expectations with what it means to be happy and if we stop defining it in an idealistic way and instead focus on the reality of life, then it gets easier to chase it with a clear vision. So, the trick would be to be able to acknowledge those down moments, feel the feeling, get any message they may have and learn to bounce back with a little more awareness.

Roya R. Rad, MA, PsyD
Self Knowledge Base & Foundation
A non-profit dedicated to public education