The Pursuit of Happiness: A Lifelong Quest?

Since recently being asked my thoughts on happiness, I have been reflecting on this perpetually relevant topic. The above title is a question that has intrigued, and in some cases, plagued human beings across generations and cultures.

The pursuit of happiness is a captivating topic that has inspired blockbuster films, several catchy tunes (“Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin), and countless forms of written and spoken word (from our Founding Fathers’ Declaration of Independence to this current blog). How often do we think about our own and/or other people’s happiness? I would reckon fairly often, but granted, I am probably biased being in the field of psychology and regularly addressing the human struggle to “be happy.” People often say some iteration of the following: “You should be happy,” “Do what makes you happy,” “I deserve to be happy,” and “I’m trying to find happiness.” But, what do we all mean? Are we referring to the same thing? What is this elusive construct we call happiness

Research suggests that happiness/joy is one of several basic human emotions, transcending generations, race, ethnicity, gender, and cultures (Ekman, 1992). While it may be a similar phenomenon across people, I believe it is still a highly subjective experience, varying on at least several important dimensions—the origins/causes (i.e., what contributes to someone’s subjective experience of happiness), duration (i.e., whether it is fleeting or enduring in nature), and the expression and communication of happiness.

Ask a child what makes him/her happy. The answer is often something relatively simple and concrete: ice cream (!), winning a game, seeing an awesome movie (Minions!), running around outside, sleepovers, acing one’s test. Of course, there are also more complex things that undoubtedly make children feel happy. These are things that they may or may not be able to consciously identify or articulate (i.e., a parent acknowledging their accomplishments and uniqueness, feeling accepted by peers, gaining self-confidence).

At some point, as we grow into adulthood, happiness becomes much more complicated and muddled. Ask an adult what makes him/her happy, and this question is likely to give one pause. We may derive satisfaction from our employment and feeling like valued, contributing members of our household and society. Our friendships and relationships may contribute to us feeling loved and special, but is that enough to “be” happy? Is it a combination of all the possessions, identities, and relationships we have? Achieving certain milestones? If we have a good job, an intimate relationship, and loved ones, does that automatically make us happy? Unfortunately, for many people, the answer is no.

The question of the duration of happiness is also a difficult one, whether someone feels happy in a moment (a state of being that is inevitably changing and variable) or whether happiness is something achieved…a long-term goal that you obtain. Ahh, now that —- (fill in blank) has happened, I’m finally happy. At what point is that achieved–after successfully completing a marathon, having a family, getting a job promotion, becoming a grandparent? Do milestones measure or impact our happiness? Are we overall happier when in our youth or when we are older? If someone achieves happiness, can it last? Or, is it a constant battle between innate desires to be happy and self-sabotaging self-talk to “do or be better”?

It is well-documented that our thoughts and attitudes about situations impact our emotional experiences (Seligman, 2006). If, when a person loses his job, he thinks, “I’m such a loser” or “This is the worst thing that could happen. Now what will I do?,” not surprisingly, he may feel depressed, hopeless, and overwhelmed. What if someone who loses his job were to think, “Well, it just wasn’t the right fit,” “Now, I have some free time and can find a job that is better suited to me” or even, “I didn’t really like the work/my boss/the commute anyway”? Looking at the situation not as terrible or catastrophic, but as an opportunity for something new/better, relates to the concept of learned optimism (Seligman. 2006).

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog (see Altruism: Helping Others to Help Yourself), reframing our way of thinking about situations can be helpful for our mental well-being and psyches. We can preserve our sense of personal worth and goodness if (and this is admittedly challenging) we are able to look at external factors, rather than accept the self-destructive belief, “there must be something wrong with me for being let go from my job.” Is changing your thinking about situations possible…and enough to be happy? 

At the end of writing this stream of consciousness, I’m happily left with more questions than answers. That is okay. I say, be curious, ask yourself the tough questions, allow yourself to take a meandering road in the search of answers, or in some cases, more questions. How would you respond to the question, “Are you happy?” What about: “When were you happiest? What is your happiest memory? What makes you happy?” How do we achieve a personal sense of happiness? Do we feel best about ourselves when we are with family or friends? Is happiness within our control? Dare to ask: “What is happiness to me? Is how I am living in line with my values?” For example, if friendships are significant, are you prioritizing contact and get-togethers with friends? If not, why not? What obstacles are getting in the way, and how can you tackle them so that you can meet this goal?

Our lives need meaning and purpose. When we have this, it may contribute to our sense of well-being and happiness. We also may need to modify our expectations; it is not realistic to feel happy 24/7. By believing the prescription that you “should be happy,” you may be inadvertently setting yourself up for disappointment when you cannot achieve this difficult-to-define state of being. Instead of setting the seemingly impossible goal of happiness for yourself, try making mindfulness your goal. That is, try to live in the moment and experience happiness (or any other emotion) as it comes, rather than focusing on an elusive and potentially unattainable goal. Enjoy your friends and family when you are with them and capitalize on what brings you joy (i.e., immerse yourself in the moment when you are playing with your kids, petting your dog, and having a conversation with a loved one).

Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to the adult population in individual and couples modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety.

REFERENCES

Ekman, P. (1992). “Are there basic emotions?” Psychological Review, 99 (3), 550–553. 

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.

Altruism: Helping Others to Help Yourself

Have you noticed yourself in a seasonal slump lately as the days grow shorter and colder, and the holidays are lurking just around the corner? You may wish to consider helping others, as it may be a way of helping yourself, too. The act of doing for others has been shown effective in improving your mood and sense of well-being (Buchanan & Bardi, 2010; Aknin, Dunn, Whillans, Grant, & Norton, 2013). You may wonder about whether it is truly selfless and altruistic to offer charity that ultimately ends up benefiting you, too. My question to you, then, is: why should you not also benefit from a situation in which others gain from their interactions with you? This is simply a mutually beneficial arrangement. In nature, animals and other organisms frequently engage in symbiotic relationships (case in point: bees and flowers). 

Have you ever volunteered your time at a local soup kitchen or animal shelter, or perhaps given a monetary donation or tangible gift to a child in need? Not surprisingly, we often feel some degree of happiness and pride in ourselves for having done a charitable deed. This is a normal and welcome consequence of our behavior! When we do something kind or meaningful for someone else, it often reaffirms how we perceive (or wish to perceive) ourselves—as empathic, generous, and caring. We might also consciously, or otherwise, hope for reciprocity of this generosity; we may think, “it would be nice if someone helped me if I were in (such) dire straights.” Of course, doing something kind for others with the hopes or expectations that they will later reciprocate can set you up for significant disappointment and frustration. However, if you believe in the concept of karma or the like, your good energy and vibes may inevitably come back to you later in some form (perhaps in a less direct way). 

Another personal benefit to giving to others is that it affords us the opportunity to put our own misfortunes and problems temporarily aside, or at least to gain greater perspective on them. We all need a break from our “issues” now and again, whether it is through reading a captivating novel, zoning out in front of mindless TV after a long day, or listening to a friend regale you with his/her stories and woes. How often have you, a family member, or a friend lamented about having “the worst day ever” in which “everything is going wrong”? You may feel frustrated, overwhelmed, depressed, or devastated. There are those days, weeks, months, or maybe even years where Murphy’s Law seems to be wreaking havoc on your life. 

However, when you compare your problems side-by-side to someone else’s, does it not change the magnitude of your problems ever so slightly? Is your horrible fight with your significant other, compounded by money troubles and a misbehaving child truly on par with homelessness, chronic hunger, destitution, civil war, or terrorism? Is someone else possibly worse off than you? The point of this is certainly not to invalidate or minimize that your life can be challenging, stressful, and just plain crappy sometimes (people have legitimate trauma, sadness, and tragedy in their lives), or, on the flipside, to propose that we should take pleasure in others’ misfortunes. 

Instead, it is merely to suggest that reframing a situation and putting into perspective what you think of as “the worst day ever” may be beneficial. When we can take another person’s or group’s perspective, we may develop greater compassion and understanding for their lived experiences. Imagine how grateful someone without shelter and a reliable food source might feel when you have empathy for their situation and offer a helping hand. In that moment, you are stepping outside of yourself, and seeing someone else’s difficulties as more urgent. Of course, exclusively meeting others’ needs at the expense of taking care of your own runs the risk of compassion fatigue, burnout, and even depression. The key is to find an ideal balance between caring for others and yourself!

So, what can you do to help others? What resource(s) do you have that you are willing and able to share? Is it time, money, a well-stocked pantry, an ear to listen, cooking or knitting skills? What organizations really speak to you and your personal values—a food bank, homeless shelter, animal rescue, nursing home, Church or other religious community? Some suggestions for how to help in your community include:

  1. Volunteer to read/provide companionship to the elderly at a senior center or nursing home

  2. Mentor a child (i.e., Big Brother/Big Sister)

  3. Volunteer at a local animal shelter or farm sanctuary

  4. Collect food and/or toys for individuals in need (donate to a local Church or drive)

Giving and helping others need not be time-consuming, cost-prohibitive, or even a formal endeavor. You may already engage in these random acts of kindness. I propose that you consider intentional acts of kindness, such as offering a well-deserved compliment to a coworker, employee, friend, or family member. Acknowledge their efforts and be more mindful of how you subsequently feel after offering them praise. Being thoughtful and considerate of others can go a long way…try holding the door for someone, saying “thank you” and genuinely meaning it when interacting with the store cashier, smiling and saying hello to a passerby, or doing a favor or kind gesture for someone you care about…. Go on, help someone else, and help yourself in the process!

Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to the adult population in individual and couples modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety.

REFERENCES

Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Whillans, A.V., Grant, A. M., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Making a difference matters: Impact unlocks the emotional benefits of prosocial spending. Journal of Economic  Behavior and Organization, 88, 90-95.

Buchanan, K., & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 235-237. 

Authenticity: Well-being and Living A Values-Driven Life

There are many views of happiness but messages from our society seem to promote the idea that we “should” be happy all of the time, and instantly so. However, recent evidence suggests that meaning, purpose and authenticity are key to well-being. In this post, we will explore methods of getting in touch with your core values and taking steps to live them out today.

From ancient Greek philosophers to modern psychological researchers the question of how to define well-being has been controversial and elusive. The modern definition of hedonic well-being is focused on subjective well-being, the presence of positive mood and the absence of negative mood. In this view people are happiest when experiencing maximum amount of pleasure with the least amount of displeasure. 

The eudaemonic view of well-being places less emphasis on subjectively felt happiness and places authenticity at the center of the definition of well-being. The experience of eudaemonia occurs when people’s daily activities are congruent with their most deeply held values (Waterman, 1993). People who have lives characterized by daily actions that are in line with their core values, they experience a sense of feeling intensely alive and authentic. 

Ryff and Singer (1995, 2000) have described psychological well being which includes actualization across six domains: autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, life purpose, mastery and positive relationships. They have presented evidence to suggest that eudaemonic living can influence both emotional and physical health. 

Therefore, an important step to cultivating a life of wellness and vitality is to define your core values and begin enacting them in your daily life. The idea of living a value driven life is foundational to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a therapeutic intervention developed by Steven Hayes. This evidence-based therapy is part of the third wave of cognitive therapy that incorporates mindfulness practices and values based behavior change. Below are some activities 

Define you core values:

  1. Write your own eulogy.

    • How would you want the people close to you to describe your relationship?

    • What would you want people to say about your character and personal strengths?

    • What would you want people say you stood for in your life?

    • What would you want people to say about your achievements or the legacy you left behind?

  2. Think of someone you admire or who inspires you.

    • Write down their unique qualities.

    • Choose those qualities that you would like to bring to your own life.

    • Write down the various roles you have in your life (father, son, brother, student, husband, wife, etc).

    • Now, take the qualities that you’ve chosen from above and place them in front of your various roles (e.g. loyal friend).

  3. If you are having difficulty defining your core values, consider the list below:

        Acceptance

        Adventure

        Caring

        Committed

        Courage

        Creativity

        Curiosity

        Efficiency

        Engagment

        Fairness

        Friendliness

        Forgiveness

        Fun/humor

        Genuine

        Gratitude

        Honesty

        Integrity

        Intimacy

        Kindness

        Loving

        Respect

        Responsibility

        Self-care

        Sexuality

        Supportiveness

        Trust

Take steps to live out your core values:

  1. Think about the domains in your life (work, family, school, health, community) and specifically how the core values you’ve identified would look in these domains.

  2. Describe a concrete action you can take today to embody your values.

  3. What long-term actions can you take to bring you closer to living out these values?

  4. What are some barriers you have to living out your core values? Explore the thoughts and feelings that may be keeping you from committing to valued action.

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

REFERENCES

Ryff CD, Singer B. 1998. The contours of positive human health. Psychological Inquiry, 9:1–28

Ryff CD, Singer B. 2000. Interpersonal flourishing:A positive health agenda for the new millennium. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4:30–44.

Waterman AS. 1993. Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64:678–91

To read more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy please visit: https://contextualscience.org/about_act

Self-Compassion

Many of the people we see in therapy are inundated with derisive, attacking, and at times, verbally abusive self-talk. So subtle and pervasive is the way that we deal with ourselves, that it is often invisible and nearly impossible to observe. Examining your relationship with yourself is almost like trying to see your eyeball with your own eye. As a psychologist, I have found that helping people to adjust this aspect of their inner life is extremely difficult and profoundly effective in moving towards greater wellbeing in life. 

Many contemporary theories of therapy incorporate self-acceptance as integral to making positive improvements in life. The wisdom traditions also emphasize the importance of self-acceptance. In Buddhism, mindfulness and awareness practices cultivate an openness and warmth to ourselves in a nonjudgemental way. It is important to note that acceptance and self-compassion is not the same as condoning destructive behaviors towards ourselves or others. Rather, it means acknowledging and allowing for our whole self to be present, including our flaws and limitations. In fact, without first accepting ourselves as we are, we cannot begin to move forward and live in line with our true values. Often, the practice of compassion is one that we are more than willing to extend to those friends and family members that we love; however, we struggle to offer that same generosity to ourselves.

There is evidence to suggest that self-compassion actually improves one’s motivation to make positive changes (Breines, & Chen, 2012). In one study, self-compassion exercises led to improved mood and decreased depression in participants (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010). Finally, self-compassion can reduce the negative emotional and cognitive impacts of difficult experiences as self-companionate people may be more able to acknowledge their own role in negative events (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen & Hancock, 2007). Learning how to be kind to oneself is difficult at first, but the rewards are far-reaching. Explore the exercises below to begin to learn to be your own best friend.

Self Compassion practices to try: 

1.) Physical gesture: This can be incredibly powerful as there is something about touch that transcends verbal ways of communicating. Think of a supportive touch that you might use with a close friend, a hand on the shoulder, arms gently hugging, or placing your hand over your heart. Feel the physical sensations that you experience as you offer yourself these same gestures. Notice the sensations where you are touching your body, the sensations of your face and behind your eyes. Using this touch can be very helpful during times of stress, sadness or anxiety.

2.) Letter to Yourself: This evocative exercise is designed to help you nurture and accept yourself, just as you are, with all of your flaws. In the first part of the letter, you are to write about an aspect of yourself that you are ashamed of or that makes you feel inadequate. Describe in detail how it makes you feel, being as honest as possible. Next, express compassion and acceptance towards this aspect of yourself. It might help to think about how you might respond to someone you care deeply about. Consider all of the factors that play a role in the development of this aspect of yourself that you don’t like – unbringing, genes, opportunities, etc. In the letter, explore constructive changes you can make that would bring you greater fulfillment, happiness, and health. The most important aspect of this letter is to avoid judging or criticizing yourself. Save the letter in a special place and come back to read, especially if you are feeling troubled about the aspect of yourself that you’ve written about.

3.) Lovingkindness or Metta meditation: This ancient meditation practice is designed to develop the mental habit of altruistic love. It has been described as a meditation practice that systematically develops the quality of loving acceptance. Typically, the practice includes a series of loving phrases targeted toward 1.) someone you love dearly, 2.) a neutral person, 3.) a hostile person, and 4.) yourself. 

Click here for a link to a free guided meditations focused on self-compassion. 

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

REFERENCES

Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.

Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.

Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 377-389.

The Power of Forgiveness

Ancient wisdom and recent research from the field of positive psychology suggests that learning to forgive may just be one pathway to greater emotional freedom, peace, better relationships and improved health. 

Forgiveness is defined as a deliberate decision to release feelings of anger, resentment and vengeance towards someone who has harmed you, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. It does not mean forgetting or condoning the offenses that were done to you, nor does it necessarily mean that you reconcile with the offender.

Our willingness to engage in forgiveness is typically contingent upon the value or closeness of the relationship to the wrongdoer and the probability that the wrongdoer will harm us in the future. In close relationships, the person who was wronged becomes less motivated to retaliate or remain estranged from the offender and more focused on goodwill towards the offender, despite their past hurtful actions. In more distant relationships, where we forgive a person with whom we do not want a continuing connection, forgiveness is defined as reducing resentment and motivation toward revenge.

In contrast to forgiveness, unforgiveness is a negative emotional state in which the person who was wronged maintains feelings of hostility, anger and hatred towards the person who committed the offense. Holding a grudge has been linked to increased physiological stress, including increased heart rate and higher blood pressure (Witvliet, 2011). Lack of forgiveness can wreak havoc on relationships, shifting partner’s goals to competition rather than cooperation (Fincham & Beach, 2014). 

The key benefit of forgiveness is that it frees the person who has been wronged from corrosive anger. Practicing forgiveness allows the person who has been wronged to heal and move from being defined by the pain that they have suffered. Learning how to forgive can lead to increased self-esteem, better moods, less anger and anxiety, decreased stress and happier relationships. 

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., a pioneer in the study of forgiveness, has developed the “Nine Steps to Forgiveness” that has been used worldwide to help people give up grudges. He states that forgiveness is a process that occurs along the continuum of mourning. He identified three steps that are essential for forgiveness. The first step involves fully acknowledging the harm done, to take in the fact that you’ve lost something and its painful. The second step on the path to forgiveness is to experience all of the feelings normally associated with the difficult experience. If someone has been suppressing their reactions to the event, they will need to experience the range of emotions such as fear, sadness and anger that the harmful event evokes. The third step in the process is sharing your grief with one or more trusted others, as the human connection is central to healing.

Below are the nine steps that Dr. Luskin recommends to work towards forgiveness in your own life.

  1. Clearly define what happened and why it hurt you. Tell a trusted confidante.

  2. Commit to forgiveness in order to release pain for yourself, not for someone else.

  3. Be clear that forgiveness is not condoning the action or necessarily reconciling with the offender. It is something you do for yourself in order to cultivate peace and understanding. It is about changing the grievance story and taking the “life experience less personally.”

  4. Gain some perspective. Your distress is likely coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical sensations you are experiencing now rather than from the offense that happened in the past.

  5. When you feel upset about the offense or the offender, practice a stress management technique.

  6. Alter your expectations. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” that you have for how others should behave. Give up seeking things from other people that they do not choose to give you. You have the choice to work towards your own health, love, peace and prosperity.

  7. Focus your energy on finding positive ways to meet your goals rather than mentally replaying your hurt.

  8. Shift your focus from your wounded feelings and look for love, beauty and kindness in your life.

  9. Remind yourself of your own heroic choice to forgive.

 For more on forgiveness, consider these books:

Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (2010). by Judith Orloff, M.D.

or

Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (2001). by Fred Luskin, Ph.D.

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

REFERENCES

Fincham, F. D. & Beach, S. R. H. (2014). I say a little prayer for you: Praying for partner increases commitment in romantic relationships.  Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 587-593.

Witvliet, C.V.O., DeYoung, N.J., Hofelich, A.J., and DeYoung, P.A. (2011). Compassionate reappraisal and emotion suppression as alternatives to offense-focused rumination: Implications for forgiveness and psychophysiological well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6,286-299. 

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