True happiness isn't about being happy all the time

January 10, 2018 by Lowri Dowthwaite, The Conversation
Credit: hilalabdullah/Shutterstock.com

Over the past two decades, the positive psychology movement has brightened up psychological research with its science of happiness, human potential and flourishing. It argues that psychologists should not only investigate mental illness but also what makes life worth living.

The founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, describes happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, excitement and contentment, combined with deeper of meaning and purpose. It implies a positive mindset in the present and an optimistic outlook for the future. Importantly, experts have argued that happiness is not a stable, unchangeable trait but something flexible that we can work on and ultimately strive towards.

I have been running happiness workshops for the last four years based on the evidence from the above field of psychology. The workshops are fun and I have earned a reputation as "Mrs Happy", but the last thing I would want anyone to believe is that I am happy all the time. Striving for a happy life is one thing, but striving to be happy all the time is unrealistic.

Recent research indicates that psychological flexibility is the key to greater happiness and well-being. For example, being open to emotional and the ability to tolerate periods of discomfort can allow us to move towards a richer, more meaningful existence.

Studies have demonstrated that the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives has more influence on our happiness than the events themselves. Experiencing stress, sadness and anxiety in the short term doesn't mean we can't be happy in the long term.

Two paths to happiness

Philosophically speaking there are two paths to feeling happy, the hedonistic and the eudaimonic. Hedonists take the view that in order to live a happy life we must maximise pleasure and avoid pain. This view is about satisfying human appetites and desires, but it is often short lived.

In contrast, the eudaimonic approach takes the long view. It argues that we should live authentically and for the greater good. We should pursue meaning and potential through kindness, justice, honesty and courage.

If we see happiness in the hedonistic sense, then we have to continue to seek out new pleasures and experiences in order to "top up" our happiness. We will also try to minimise unpleasant and in order to keep our mood high.

If we take the eudaimonic approach, however, we strive for meaning, using our strengths to contribute to something greater than ourselves. This may involve unpleasant experiences and emotions at times, but often leads to deeper levels of joy and contentment. So leading a happy life is not about avoiding hard times; it is about being able to respond to adversity in a way that allows you to grow from the experience.

Growing from adversity

Research shows that experiencing adversity can actually be good for us, depending on how we respond to it. Tolerating distress can make us more resilient and lead us to take action in our lives, such as changing jobs or overcoming hardship.

In studies of people facing trauma, many describe their experience as a catalyst for profound change and transformation, leading to a phenomenon known as "post-traumatic growth". Often when people have faced difficulty, illness or loss, they describe their lives as happier and more meaningful as a result.

Unlike feeling happy, which is a transient state, leading a happier is about individual growth through finding meaning. It is about accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, enjoying the positive emotions, and harnessing painful feelings in order to reach our full potential.

Explore further: Secret to happiness may include more unpleasant emotions

Related Stories

Secret to happiness may include more unpleasant emotions

August 14, 2017
People may be happier when they feel the emotions they desire, even if those emotions are unpleasant, such as anger or hatred, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

How much people earn is associated with how they experience happiness

December 18, 2017
People who earn more money tend to experience more positive emotions focused on themselves, while people who earn less take greater pleasure in their relationships and ability to connect with others, according to research ...

The search for happiness: Using MRI to find where happiness happens

November 20, 2015
Japanese researchers have mapped out using MRI where happiness emerges in the brain. The study, published in Scientific Reports, paves the way for measuring happiness objectively—and also provides insights on a neurologically ...

Science confirms you should stop and smell the roses

November 3, 2017
Is it any wonder that most happiness idioms are associated with nature? Happy as a pig in muck, happy as a clam, happy camper.

Why other people make us happy

August 26, 2015
Telling other people about good things that have happened to you, and feeling socially connected, can make you happier, according to new research from Victoria University of Wellington.

Don't worry, be happy

May 8, 2013
To most of the Western world, happiness is the number one goal, and a happy life is seen as a good life. But is it as simple as that?

Recommended for you

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.