Ever felt like focusing on being happy was pretty self-indulgent? That it shouldn’t be the main concern when you have so many other things on your plate? And anyway, won’t it be there waiting for you just as soon as you pass those exams, get that raise or get rid of a few extra pounds?
Actually, focusing on your happiness is far from self-indulgent. Get the basics right, and you’ll find all those things on your to-do list much easier to cope with. What’s more, real happiness starts right now, where you are, today. Put it off and you’ll discover that lost happiness is lost forever.
What does happiness mean to you?
Perhaps it’s worth starting by saying that, when I’m talking about happiness, I really mean psychological wellbeing. This is fundamental to your mental health and essential if you want to thrive and flourish in your life.
For example, research has shown that our level of psychological wellbeing can affect everything from how well we deal with stress (1), to our physical health (2), to how long we live (3). At work, a positively wired brain has been shown to be 31% more productive (4), as well as more creative, more motivated and more persistent in the face of challenges.
Conversely, neglecting our psychological wellbeing can have serious consequences, from a general, pervading feeling that everything in our life is slightly out of kilter to long-term feelings of depression and anxiety…. and much worse.
Happiness by design
One challenge we all face is that human being is quite bad at predicting what will genuinely make us happy. We learn from an early age that success equals happiness when really the opposite is true. Living in a consumer-focused culture, with plenty of social media posts so we can compare ourselves with everyone else’s fabulous life and come up short, also doesn’t help.
If you want to take your own happiness seriously, a good place to start is to give some conscious thought about really makes you feel contented and satisfied with your life. You might like to grab a piece of paper at this point and divide it into two parts down the middle.
There are two different parts to real happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic wellbeing is about increasing pleasure and decreasing pain – think of doing things for no reason apart from they are enjoyable. Eudaimonic is about doing the things that give our life direction, purpose and meaning, for example, volunteering, doing a job we value, helping others or working on our personal growth.
Check the balance of pleasure and purpose you have in your life by making two lists on your paper, all the fun things you have planned on the left-hand side and all the purposeful things on the right.
How do these two lists compare?
To flourish and be happy in the fullest sense of the word, you need to fine-tune this balance of fun and direction regularly. Too much hedonism, while fun for a while, would soon feel pretty empty, whereas too much eudaimonia might feel worthy and a bit dull. Simply spending a few minutes each day thinking about the balance is a brilliant way to start taking your psychological wellbeing seriously!
Check in with yourself
Just like your physical health, your mental health should be a regular undertaking. A great habit to adopt is to check in with yourself daily. Ask yourself:
What are you doing today that is really fun for you? Even if you have a full day of meetings and tasks, when can you schedule a time to chat with a friend, relax in a bath or savor some delicious food?
And what are you working on today that appeals to your sense of direction and purpose? How are you fulfilling your sense of higher purpose and/or contributing to the lives of others?
Papousek, I., et al., (2010) Trait and state positive affect and cardiovascular recovery from experimental academic stress. Biological Psychology, 83(2) 108-115.
Cohen, S., et al., (2003) Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4) 652-657.
Danner, D.D. et al, (2001) Positive Emotions in Early life and longevity: findings from the Nun Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5) 804-813
Achor, S. (2010) The Happiness Advantage: the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books
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