What Does It Really Mean to Be Happy?

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What Does It Really Mean to Be Happy?
By Stephanie Booth
“Happiness isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do.” I used to think I had a clear idea of what happiness looks like. I came to the US at 13. My family emigrated from Russia, and we lived outside of Detroit. It was a really rough time, especially because I didn’t speak English. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and self-doubt. The only time I felt OK was when I achieved anything—the day I was moved from remedial English, the day I moved out of the projects. I thought, “This is how I’m going to be happy: I’m going to achieve things.” I lived my life with this attitude. I’ll be happy when I get into a good college. When I graduate. When I move to New York. When I get married. When I’m able to take care of my family. I was always proud of my achievements. I think that is the happiness.
When I started to do about gratitude nine years ago, I needed to say three things that I was grateful for to make me happy. I told my husband and daughter that each day, I’d write down something I was grateful for and say “thank you” to someone at least once. I noticed a difference right away. It’s not like I became a happy-go-lucky person, but I started to find joy in small, everyday moments. Tiny things, like my daughter running up to give me a hug. Even driving to work in minimal traffic and suddenly enjoying the commute.
Before I began practicing gratitude, I wasn’t present for those moments. I only stepped on them before running away. Happiness, I now realize, is not something you feel, but something you do. We don’t have to earn it, or be “good enough.” We just have to practice.
“Winning the lottery won’t make you happy indefinitely.” Even though money matters, it’s not the only thing that contributes to our happiness. If money means covering all of our basic needs, it can positively contribute to happiness. However, after basic needs are met, we still cannot be satisfied with everything. It states that the increase in someone’s happiness in response to life events, such as winning the lottery or moving into a bigger house, will return to its baseline after time. This theory teaches us that we should enjoy the journey, not the destination, of life events. It’s important to remove the illusion that there is any one thing in this world that will make us permanently happy.
“Being happy is more than satisfying your impulses.” Many neuroscientists would tell you that all happiness is a chemical and electrical process in the brain: motivation, followed by reward. As much as I love neuroscience, I like to stay curious about the possibilities beyond what science is ready to prove. The more I learn about timeless happiness, the more I see that it correlates with three experiences—relationships, contribution, and mastery. By “relationships,” I mean a feeling of connection and belonging—being seen for who we really are. By “contribution,” I mean a sense that we’re offering something to the world that’s uniquely our own and makes a difference to others. And by “mastery,” I mean growing and working to be better versions of ourselves. To have happiness, we need to say yes to things that strengthen our relationships, help us contribute to the world, or allow us to master new skills—and learn to resist things that just satisfy our impulses. In other words, spend less time looking at screens and more time looking at nature, the people you care about, and yourself. Do that, and you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction: You’re doing more than just what your brain is telling you to.
“We can find happiness at work.” The quality of your relationships is the number one factor for your happiness. If we’re working full-time, we spend more time with our colleagues than with anyone else. Why wouldn’t we try to invest in those relationships? So it’s important to pay attention to how you’re showing up at work, because that’s what you’ll get back from your coworkers later on in the day. We’re all affecting each other, and research shows it extends out, not just to your colleague but your colleague’s colleague. Invest whatever and however you can in relationships. Practice forgiveness, though it’s easier said than done. Practice kindness. And don’t just band together when things are going wrong; celebrate your successes when things are going great. That’s when you can really solidify your bond.
“Don’t chase happiness—look for meaning instead.” Happiness is typically defined as a positive emotional state. People quote Aristotle as saying, “A good life is a happy life.” But really, the Greek word that Aristotle uses in his teachings, eudaimonia, better translates to “flourishing” than “happy.” Flourishing is living a virtuous life where you pursue excellence in your work, relationships, and community. Doing those things might not make you feel happy all the time. They’re hard. They can be stressful. Being a parent or leader takes effort. But it leaves you with a deeper sense of meaning. I advocate for the pursuit of a meaningful life, rather than chasing happiness. People who believe their lives are meaningful have less of the brain plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and they’re less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. One of the key aspects of a meaningful life is transcendence—those rare moments when you step outside yourself and feel connected to a higher reality. It might happen on a trip to the Grand Canyon, or while you’re meditating, or sitting in church. Transcendent experiences exist on a wide range, and they can change you.


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