Although the pursuit of happiness is so natural that it was written into the Declaration of Independence, modern psychology has turned doubtful about it. In the previous post I listed a few reasons why even the field known as positive psychology holds that being happy all the time is basically unrealistic. We tend to have accidental bouts of happiness that come and go beyond our control. Therefore, some researchers have concluded that the best a person can do is to achieve a general state of contentment, not a state of continual happiness (I'm not sure the two are very different, however).
Is it right to be doubtful of your prospects for a happy life? The counter argument would claim that humans are designed to be happy, until something goes wrong. The things that can go wrong are many -- stress, personal disasters, thwarted desires, and bad luck come to mind. Then there are the various spiritual strains that promise us grace, God's love, and divine protection. These have had a powerful effect on humankind even at the worst of times, when the lot of the average person included disease, want, poverty, and oppression. Is God's love a fantasy to compensate for all these causes of suffering?
Our doubts about happiness can't be answered abstractly. The best theory can't make you happy; you have to test it. This testing requires choices, and choices are limited. If you stand back, most people live their lives according to a set of beliefs, and over the years they manifest what they expect out of life. (That's why so many highly successful people were raised by loving, supportive mothers who told them how wonderful they were. If you go through life with such positive expectations, your choices are likely to be self-affirming rather than self-defeating.) The importance of choice tells us something important right off the bat. There is no such thing as a passive road to happiness. Even if humans are designed to be happy, they must activate the possibility rather than wait for the design to unfold on its own.
Despite the fad for viewing happiness as accidental, it's more productive to test for yourself the kind of decisions that promote happiness. What should you do to make yourself happy right this minute? The array of possibilities is quite wide.
Avoid stressors that are avoidable.
Fix problems immediately -- don't procrastinate.
Bond with people you care about.
Do things that are meaningful to you.
Give your brain positive input. Avoid needless negativity.
Address the signs of depression and anxiety.
Assert control over your life. Don't be dependent on others or dominated by them.
Be of service.
Walk away from situations you can't improve.
Find a source of genuine fulfillment.
Don't do things you know to be wrong.
Speak your own truth.
Express appreciation and affection toward others.
Find something that inspires you. Don't waste time on distractions.
Allow time for play.
Leave room for down time.
Set aside a fixed time for reflection and meditation.
Focus on long-term pleasures, like planning a vacation, rather than short-term gratification.
Notice that nothing on this list is a matter of faith, religion, or spiritual aspiration. No one is appealing to perfect love, understanding, or compassion. Happiness doesn't await a tremendous kind of personal transformation. Instead, these are practical choices that are well documented to improve a person's happiness. One finding from positive psychology that's actually positive is this: To make a happy life, make your day happy. Immediate decisions matter the most.
You might cast a skeptical eye at the things I've listed, believing that this is nothing but a laundry list that is too long to be useful. But let me suggest otherwise. Most people are unhappy because they ignored the items on the list. They allowed too much stress to enter their lives, or they refused to walk away from impossible situations, or they allowed themselves to become dependent on somebody else, just to give a few leading examples. The other lesson from this list is that living unconsciously doesn't bring happiness -- each item asks for focus and awareness. What you aren't conscious of, you can't change.
So before you lament that life is unfair or that only a select few are born to be happy, consider every item on the list as it applies to you today, right this minute. Set aside your beliefs about ultimate happiness and focus instead of today's happiness. It's also useful to itemize the things that are almost guaranteed to create unhappiness.
Putting up with unnecessary stress.
Denying that a problem exists and putting off its solution.
Isolating yourself, not interacting with people you care about.
Engaging in routine or meaningless work.
Exposing yourself to needless negativity and negative people in general.
Feeling depressed or anxious and simply putting up with it.
Allowing someone else to dominate you, make decisions for you, or exerting too much control.
Acting selfish, offering little or nothing to others.
Stubbornly enduring an impossible situation.
Putting your own fulfillment on hold.
Doing things you know to be wrong.
Going along to get along, not upholding your own values.
Forgetting to express how much you appreciate and value others.
Wasting time on distractions.
Treating everything as work, duty, or obligation.
Leaving no room for down time.
Allowing yourself no time to reflect and meditate.
Focusing on short-term gratification.
Many will be tempted to protest that two laundry lists are worse than one. Both are unrealistic. In fact, you have enough time in the day to do everything on the positive list and avoid everything on the negative list. What you need isn't enough hours in the day. You need to value self-awareness. Once you want to be more aware, the intention to create happiness becomes realistic -- you are motivated to be the author of our own fulfillment. It's amazing how many people don't value their happiness enough to pay attention to it. Once you do, you will discover for yourself if lifelong happiness is feasible or not. It won't be a matter of theory or delayed gratification.
In the next post we will get at the deeper issue of whether human beings are designed to be happy, a question central to every strain of religion, spirituality, and depth psychology.
(To be cont.)