How Happiness Happens From the Inside-Out
Congratulations – You just got that job! You just got promoted! You just got married! Your kids got accepted into Harvard! What if I told you that one or all of these things were true? More importantly, what if I told you that none of these things will make you happier?
So often we go through life riding the waves of our accomplishments – which is not a bad thing to do by the way. In fact, it may be adaptive because it allows us to ride the wave of joy that is often too fleeting in this life. These joyous occasions lead to bursts of happiness, feeling like we’re living in the clouds. Unfortunately though, the feelings are fleeting and what we held as the image of our happiness destination was actually just a rest stop along a bigger journey.
What if I were to tell you that it’s not just that success leads to happiness, but that happiness leads to success? Science has begun the process of proving that this concept is, in fact, true. Positive affect, a proxy often used for happiness in research, has been shown through dozens of study to lead to more positive outcomes. People who have a more natural happiness level, rooted in their personality tend to show more positive affect and approach behaviors that often lead to further happiness and success rather than avoiding behaviors that are often deemed too fearful. Research has found that those with more positive moods and emotions tend to think, feel, AND act in a way that promotes resource and involvement in approaching their goals.
I want to highlight the word approach. Very often fear is what keeps us from approaching – the fear of rejection, the fear of not doing it perfect enough, the fear of failure. But research has shown that positive emotions often help us approach activities and seek out new ways of achieving our goals. Think about the last time you were in a good mood. Think about the context surrounding it – where were you? what were you doing? who were you with? In these good moods, did you find that you were much more of a “yes” person? When we’re in a good mood, we think we can take on more and get more done because we have hope that something is on the other side of the mundane task.
This concept is not all that different from what the self-help world was crazy about several years ago when The Secret came out. Many people see the Law of Attraction as hoo-ha and complete bogus. And I can get on board with that sentiment, but I would also argue that there is something to it that is more subtle and indirect. The Law of Attraction doesn’t have to be this magical thing where you put a picture of the Academy Awards up there and next thing you know you’re up there accepting the Best Actor/Actress Award. It’s actually much much much simpler. Simply doing those acts of having a vision board or thinking that you’re going to have some dream come true may put you in a more hopeful state. That hopeful state may help yield more positive results because you go out into the world happier, friendlier, and more energetic to see what is coming next in your life.
A person who goes to a job interview with low energy, little hope, and an apathetic attitude is a lot less likely to get a job than a person who goes upbeat, happy, and ready to get the job done. Of course you need the substance behind you to make yourself qualified, but once that gets you in the door, it’s your demeanor that often seals the deal. A woman is much more likely to say yes to a man who asks her out confidently than a shy guy who prances over and stutters his way into asking for a date. These are the micro decisions in our lives that often can produce transformative results. Begin to be mindful of what energy we’re bringing to life’s situations – Is it hopeful? Is it optimistic? Is it doubtful and fear based? As Shawn Achor has said, “it doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty if the pitcher to fill it up is right next to it.” You are the pitcher and you can fill your own glass up with hope, courage, strength, and resilience. At the end of the day, you are the lens through which you see the world.article continues after advertisement
We’ve all heard about chronic medical conditions, but chronic happiness is not a term that comes into our vocabulary naturally. However, it might be worth incorporating as those with chronic happiness often shower higher levels of optimism, altruism, energy, sociability, and originality. Think about where those qualities can get you in your own life.
I also can’t talk about happiness without acknowledging a few caveats. There is another side to happiness, which is sadness, heartbreak, depression, and grief. All those feelings are real. None of what I’m saying negates them, but what I’m saying balances out those feelings. With happiness comes sadness. With grief can come gratitude. Life is always a balance between seemingly opposite things because if someone were always happy and cheery, it would get very annoying very quickly. It’s not fun to be around those people because it makes us feel like they are inhuman or have some kind of rose colored glasses on. There is a lack of vulnerability and perhaps a lack of empathy. Part of the human experience is connecting to someone else with all types of emotions. It is through the hard times that we often find our greatest sources of strength and support. So what I’m saying is that you can have all those difficult feelings, but just know that you don’t have to live in them forever.
It’s also easy to read these kinds of posts on happiness and think about how condescending and blatantly obvious sounding these positive psychology writers are. They try to make it sound so easy and you think “duh, just be happy!” It sounds like “Be happy and all these things can happen!” Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not easy. Sometimes it requires work. Sometimes it requires effort. Happiness is a practice. When we get stuck in the cycle of depression, sadness, negativity, or just pessimism, it’s not easy to see the light at the end, but the light is there. Above the dark clouds, the sun is always shining above. And as one of the people in the substance abuse group I run once said, “you can’t always control how hot the sun is, but you can control what you choose to wear.”
So I’m asking you now, what clothes are you choosing to wear? Are your clothes filled with despair, hopelessness? Or is there a small part of your clothes that can see that there is some light there? Find that small piece of light and bring it closer to your awareness until it begins to expand. Who knows where that positivity might get you – I’m guessing it’ll get you somewhere better than the negativity. article continues after advertisement
Citation: Lyubomirsky, S., et al. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.