What I've found through working with and being around a lot of people is that often we don't know what makes us happy. We seek it in many places, some of them harmful when carried out to excess: drinking, substance use, gambling, spending money. We also seek it in relationships, where we yearn to be with someone who "completes" us (cue Jerry Maguire, "You complete me.") We seek it in doing things, being busy, being "successful" or as perfect as we can be - at many, many things. How often, though, do we look inside and really ask ourselves, "What makes me happy?" If you do it, the answers may surprise you.
There's a whole branch of psychology that is dedicated to understanding happiness - it's relatively new and goes under the heading "Positive psychology." Two of the leading people in this field are David Myers and Martin Seligman - both of whom wondered why psychology focused so much on the negatives. Research in this area has found that (to quote Madame de la Fayette) "if one thinks that one is happy, that is enough to be happy."
Now I know this sounds like a "pat answer platitude" that oversimplifies things. And to some extent, it is - but there is also wisdom in this saying. As I've discussed before, how we think about and perceive ourselves and the world around us affects how we feel. This is definitely true for negative emotional states like depression and anxiety, but it's also true for positive emotional states. It's not a fixed, easy answer, but rather a factor in what makes us happy.
So what are happy people like? Well, David Myers wrote in his book, The Pursuit of Happiness (1992) that the "best predictor of future well-being is past well-being" (p. 106). Does that mean if you've had a miserable, abusive, or depressed past you can't be happy? Heck no. Does it mean that it's one factor in a whole group that affect happiness - yes, and only that. Myers wrote that happy people in general tend to like themselves, feel like they can choose or have power over their destinies, are hope-filled and outgoing. Ok...this is great as far as it goes - what if you don't like yourself, feel helpless or that your life is out of control, feel like there's no hope and that you're an incurable introvert? Well, honestly - you're probably not happy.
I'll tell you that for a very long time, my self-esteem was in the toilet. I felt like I didn't have control, that the future was hopeless, that I was ugly and stupid, and that I was always going to be that way. Obviously, something changed. I won't like and say that everything is sunshiny goodness and happy-happy-joy-joy every day - that's just not realistic for anyone. Overall, though - things did change AND I still struggle with feeling the way I used to sometimes.
The thing is, changing these factors means working on change in yourself. There are certainly things in life we can't control, and we have to learn how to accept and deal with them. Changing ourselves doesn't mean putting on a mask and pretending that everything is hunky-dory fine, either, though. (I have to admit that there are days when it's pretty tempting, though.) What it means is that we learn to look at the world through a different set of lenses (not always rose-colored, either). Ok - you don't like yourself - what do other people like about you? Feel like you can't do anything right? Make yourself write a list of things you have done right. If you feel like everything is out of your control and you're helpless - examine and list everything you CAN control. For example - you can control your reactions to the world around you. Certainly others' actions, words, and ways of being affect us - BUT we choose how we react to those things.
The idea here is that we "act as if." It's a pretty well-known CBT and DBT trick - even if you're not feeling happy, act as if you are. You're not "putting on a mask" because when I say "act as if" I mean completely, fully, and totally immerse yourself in this acting. "Putting on a mask" implies just looking as if you're happy - I'm suggesting not just looking as if, but acting as if and even trying to think and feel as if. It's hard work - I won't lie, but if you try it for a little while you may be surprised at the results.
When people come to see me professionally, they (and/or others) are usually focused on what's wrong. As in, "What's wrong with me/him/her?" One of my favorite questions, when we have a certain amount of trust built is, "What's right with you?" It's a powerful question, and we almost never ask it. It's worth thinking about: What's right with you? Right here, right now. Really - what is right with YOU?
One other thing that I see a lot of people doing is looking for something outside of themselves to fill the emptiness and sadness inside. Things, substances, relationships - none of those can make you happy long-term if you're not accepting and growing inside. Again - they certainly affect how we feel, but if we're looking for things to make us happy long-term, nothing outside will ever completely work. It has to come from inside at its core. While "Jerry Maguire" and other movies may promote the idea of the relationship that fills us, in the end we have to be complete in ourselves before we can truly create a "complete" in a relationship. Asking someone else to fulfill us and fill us up is asking too much of anyone - they can't read our minds, predict what we want when we want it, or somehow just know exactly what we need - we have to communicate and reciprocate for a relationship to work, and that means we have to have to have a strong sense of self from which to work from. (And yes, that's hard experience talking as well as training!)
So, being happy comes as much from us as is it does to us. Which brings me back to my original question - What really, truly, deeply makes you happy? Think about it - and you might just be on your way to finding it.
Until next time...I'll be on the other side of the couch, waiting to hear from you.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org