Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Much has been written about happiness. Would you like to read a thousand books covering physiological and psychological studies on happiness, or would you rather I just tell you?
(Two hours pass.)
I believe that happiness is governed by the following two-part principle:
Our actions and feelings come from our thoughts.
Our thoughts come from what we tell ourselves.
From what we tell ourselves is the most important part. We usually trust what we tell ourselves more than what other people tell us. This concept is difficult for many of us to believe because we're constantly being taught that outside events control how we feel. We say to ourselves,
“He makes me angry.”
“My parents are cruel.”
“I don’t make enough money.”
But it's what we tell ourselves that matters most. Our thoughts form our attitudes and emotions.
For some fun, see the following clip from Hogan's Heroes. Instead of getting mad at Sergeant Shultz or arguing or becoming bitter, the prisoners use humor. Of course, the show is fiction, but I use humor routinely to disarm jerks who come near me. It works most of the time. It's quite entertaining and it's a good example for the people around me who are listening in.
It's what you tell yourself
How you feel after a few days is determined by what you've been thinking about during those days. If you are habitually depressed, angry, or anxious, it's because you've been harboring depressing, angry, or anxious thoughts.
“But, it's so hard to keep a cool head!” you say.
I didn’t say it's easy! We’re wandering packs of Pavlov’s dogs waiting to be insulted and discouraged. It's an increasing problem in today’s modern societies. Entire political systems teach that it's the actions of others that determine how we feel.
How, then, can we have thoughts that make us happy?
I believe this is done by improving ourselves in the following three ways, and in the following order:
Becoming more respectful (reverent, honorable)
Becoming more responsible
Becoming more grateful
Once you are genuinely respectful, responsible, and grateful, you will be happy automatically. It will just happen.
It may take you years to become significantly more respectful, responsible, and grateful. But it's worth the effort and you'll be happier for it.
Respect of Self
If you truly respect yourself you will take care of yourself. You will eat better and get an appropriate amount of exercise and sleep. You will not let yourself develop destructive mental or physical habits. This doesn’t mean you will have perfect health. But you will love yourself more because you love who and what you serve.
Respect for Others
If you respect others around you, you will support their needs to the extent you can. You will obey civil laws. You will be a trustworthy employee and a supportive member of whatever organizations you’re in. You will strive to be a good parent, spouse, or child.
You love who (and what) you serve.
If you care for a group of kindergarteners, after a period of time you will discover that you love them.
Love and respect are close cousins. Properly directed care creates love, which feeling produces increased happiness.
Being responsible means you accept control for your thoughts and actions. It means you will keep your commitments. It means you will be a good steward over those who you have been entrusted.
Being responsible is a way of demonstrating respect.
Never rationalize, neither in words nor in thoughts. Don’t rationalize for other people. Instead, take immediate and significant action to improve yourself.
“I know this,” you say.
Accountability is bearing the consequences for what happened. Think of it as “dealing properly with the past.” Conversely, responsibility is taking the necessary steps to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.
Accountability is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Responsibility is the fence at the top of the cliff.
It is impossible for you to be happy about something you are not grateful for.
This truth applies whether the "something" is a gift, a relationship, or an entire society. Ungrateful people are miserable. I've heard it said that the opposite of gratitude is resentment. Think long and hard about that. How much resentment is in the world around us?
Do you want to be happy? You must be grateful. The more gratitude you have in your life, the happier you will be.
Jabs from the past
On occasion, I'll be minding my own business when for some reason I'm reminded of a mistake or poor decision I made decades ago. The memory punch comes to me like a pinch to my side. I must listen to that awful inner voice tell me how I'm a terrible failure.
But it's utter nonsense! I'm not even close to a failure. I finally learned a cure for this. When such a moment happens, and I find myself alone, I immediately say out loud,
"That is stupid and out-date,
and has nothing to
do with me now."
You must say it out loud so your brain can physically hear it. And be sure to say it immediately when you get the jab. You have every right to say it boldly! Something that happened twenty years ago is truly irrelevant. Chances are very good that if you do this, the negative message will never come back to you. I've tried it numerous times, and as a result I'm running out of old, irritating voices. I am very grateful for this.
Happiness requires meaning
Taking care of ourselves and our properties helps make life meaningful. "Meaning" comes from earning something: making something good or preventing something bad from getting worse.
As you are attentive to others, their friendship with you will likely increase. This growing friendship will mean something beneficial to both you and your friend. On the occasion where others do not return your kindness, the fault is theirs.
It’s nice to be given things randomly. This is fine. But unearned gifts had better be the garnish in your life, and not your main course.
When I was a young child we had little money. I remember going to carnivals from time to time. On at least one occasion, my mother let me to buy some cotton candy. How exciting that was!
Did that cotton candy bring me happiness? It did to the degree that it reinforced in my mind my mother’s love for me, and that she could take care of me. And, clearly, I was grateful for it. But as adults, we must not rely on other people's actions to "make us happy."
There are millions of people in this world who own nothing except the clothes they’re wearing, who are as happy as or more so than people who are well off.
If you were to receive a thousand percent raise in income today, within two weeks you would not be any happier than you are today if you changed nothing else in your life.
Happiness versus pleasure
There is nothing wrong with pleasure, which can be obtained by doing any number of activities such as,
Watching a movie
Listening to music
Pleasure exists in the present. Pleasure is fine until it's used as a replacement for happiness. Pleasure ends the moment the pleasurable activity ends. Hence addiction.
Conversely, the happiness gained from doing something meaningful often endures for a lifetime.
What about suffering?
No one wants to be in pain or be sick or threatened with violence. But suffering and discomfort are not unhappiness. When I experience a terrible burn or a significant injury, I am in pain. I’m severely distracted. I’m not myself. I don't think straight. But I’m not unhappy.
A few years ago, I was stung in the foot by a stingray. It was so painful my vision faded to grey and for a while I could not recognize anything around me. The lifeguards came and rescued me. On another occasion, I experienced a bout of “frozen shoulder.” I could not dress or undress myself without experiencing extreme pain. I could not drive a vehicle. It was as if my shoulder had been stabbed with butcher knives.
I don’t wish to be stung by stingrays or have frozen shoulder. But neither of those creates unhappiness.
What about joy? I believe that joy is joy is a condition, while happiness is a decision (more on that later):
Joy is the result of a series of righteous choices over an extended period of time.
There is joy in progression, accomplishment, and fulfilment. People speak of the joy from raising children. Parents feel the joy of childrearing long after their children have grown up and left home. Ask a ninety-year-old woman about her children, and she will feel joy as she tells you about them.
I don't mean to parse words, but I do believe there is a difference between joy and happiness. Recall the famous Christmas carol, "Joy to the World." Notice there's no Christmas carol called, "Happiness to the World."
Joy comes from making good and right choices and acting accordingly.
Do not seek for happiness
Happiness is not something we can seek for. Instead, we get it automatically once we,
Are genuinely respectful of ourselves and of others,
Have taken responsibility for our thoughts and our actions, and
Are grateful for ourselves and for what is around us.
Seeking happiness can be destructive. It's how people get addicted to drugs or pornography or commit atrocities. It's how people become self-centered. People who are self-centered are controlled by fear. Living in continual fear is not a happy state.
It's perfectly okay to find enjoyment, pleasure, and relaxation by spending time and money on wholesome diversionary activities. But you must understand that such effects are temporary.
What is happiness?
Notice that so far we haven’t defined what happiness is. If we don’t know what it is, how can we know when we’re happy?
Getting our way?
Freedom from risk?
Freedom to choose?
Freedom from sorrow and trial?
Here is one definition of happiness:
Happiness is what we feel when
experiencing a sense of sufficient well-being
over a period of time.
Is there a better definition? Let me ask some questions:
If happiness comes from feeling more positive emotions than negative emotions over a long enough period of time, what happens when the phone rings and you’re told your mother just died? You feel terribly sad. Does this make you an unhappy person? Or are you a happy person who—at the moment—is hit with sad news?
What if you’re a happy person who has been working on a number of projects, and one day they all fail at once? This news gets you terribly down. At that moment, have you become an unhappy person?
What if the girl or boy you’re engaged to suddenly wants to call off the marriage?
There are billions of people throughout history who have experienced mostly tragedy and sorrow throughout their lives, and yet they are still happy. If such is possible, then the definition of happiness I’ve given is false.
So, what’s the answer?
When I search Google for, “How to be happy under difficult conditions?” I generally see websites providing lists of suggestions, such as, “Surround yourself with good people,” “Understand what you can control and what you can’t,” and so on. These are lists. Millions of people in this world live under the worst conditions, and yet they’re happy without lists.
There are millions of rich people in this world who get everything they want with no resistance, and a fair number of those people are miserable.
I believe the answer to "What is happiness?" is anticlimactic. You probably won’t like it. You'll want to close this link and read a dozen more articles. But I think you won’t find in them the answer you’re looking for.
If I gathered all the people in the world and put the happy people in one room and the unhappy people in another room and then interviewed all of them, I would come up with one factor common with all happy people. I believe what they'd tell me would be:
They decided to be happy.
No lists. No procedures. Nothing about financial income or “getting your way” or “being right.” Nothing about health or number of children or notoriety.
This is wonderful news because it puts the full responsibility for our happiness on ourselves. We own 100% of the decision and no one can take it from us.
The real question isn’t “What is happiness?” but rather, “When are you going to decide to be happy?” It won’t cost you any time or money. You won’t have to tell anyone. But your friends will soon notice a change in you and wonder what happened.
You must decide to be happy no matter your conditions.
The problem is most people don’t believe this.
Remember what I wrote earlier: be more respectful, responsible, and grateful. Whoever it is you tend to argue with or complain to, try backing off and being more respectful. Whatever you do around your home, work, or school, do it a little better. Work on being more grateful. And not just to people, but be grateful for your arms and legs, for the air you breath, for whatever freedom you have.
I promise that it won’t be long before you start to feel better. Then keep it up. You'll enjoy life better even if nothing else around you changes. But chances are good that your life will improve.