“Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.” ~ Aldous Huxley
What is Happiness?
We talk a lot about happiness all dressed up and pretty. But what does it look like when it’s standing in nothing but its birthday suit?
As I’ve studied and practiced, researched and questioned, written and talked with people about happiness, I’ve become increasingly convinced that many of us define the term in very different ways.
This is no unimportant matter either. Because some of us understand happiness so differently, we can easily misunderstand what it takes to get more of it. And so we’re often found groping in the dark for something that was never put where we’re groping for it in the first place. We’re understandably left frustrated for trying.
This post, then, is less about how to be happy (though it’s implied in its description) as much as a post dedicated to describing what happiness looks like once you have it.
Happiness is the Goal, but Not the Target
Happiness isn’t much like most other goals we pursue. You can aim directly at losing weight, for example, or learning Chinese or overcoming the productivity drag of procrastination. But not so much with happiness. That’s because happiness is the natural byproduct of other traits. And while those traits can be targeted more directly, happiness itself is difficult to grab hold of directly.
So, what is happiness when it’s stripped of everything but the parts that comprise it?
If happiness was stripped to its essential elements, what would they be? Or, in other words, if you were to take the thing called happiness and dash it to the floor so it broke into smaller pieces, what would those pieces look like? I hold they would look something like the following:
Happy people are content. They feel good about life. While happy people often strive for more in life and set goals to achieve greater heights of success, perhaps yearning to spread their reach and influence, they are not consumed with that need to “have it all” right now.
Their identity and purpose isn’t tied to what they do, or achieve, or accomplish, or own. There is an internal sense that they enjoy being who they are and traveling the road of life they’re on even as they keep taking the road that keeps climbing higher.
Happy people have an inner-calm about them. They are no longer battling internal demons. They are at peace with who they are, with the world, with God, and others. They are at peace with their looks and life-circumstances. They are at peace with their conscience, their thoughts and their pasts, no matter how pain-filled those pasts may have been.
Childhood no longer causes inner turmoil. They have reconciled themselves to the challenges and pains of life. They can spend long periods of time with no one but themselves, happy in their own company, immersed in their own thinking. They are no longer prisoners to their pasts or knocked around by circumstance. They are simply grounded.
Those plagued with insecurities, with thoughts that they just don’t measure up, that they lack what everyone else seems to have, robs them of a measure of personal happiness. They often feel less-than, inadequate and in some significant way disabled.
By contrast, happy people feel good about who they are and what they can accomplish. They are confident they can learn what is necessary to achieve what they set out to achieve. They like themselves and have faith that they can deal with the challenges of life just fine.
Their confidence is not a cocky disguise of hidden fear. It is a quiet assurance that they are not victims of circumstance. They see themselves as empowered players on the stage of life, with a confidence born of the perceived ability to choose their own direction and destination.
Happy people have the feeling that life is good. Their work is fulfilling, whether because they do meaningful work or they have found something meaningful in it.
Many happy people talk of having found their life’s purpose. There is a sense of fulfillment in knowing they are doing what they were meant to do and becoming what they were meant to become.
Their marriages, family life and friendships are also fulfilling, not necessarily perfect, but richly rewarding. They often have deeply fulfilling and rewarding spiritual and religious lives as well, which itself adds to the overall sense of the purpose and meaning of life.
Happy people tend to smile and laugh a lot. They enjoy themselves and don’t take life or themselves too seriously. They can laugh at uncomfortable situations they’re in even while the discomfort is being experienced.
They see the beauty of life and enjoy it. They see the richness of life and engage it. They see the good in life and are grateful for it. They find joy in the simple things, the daily things, the things most people too often take for granted.
Happy people are excited about living. They have hobbies and pursue challenging professions or avocations or both. They learn and grow and experience life on a level the unhappy don’t. They regularly venture out into the unknown.
Happy people have diverse interests. They are curious. They seek to learn and explore and discover. They push themselves to develop in ways the unhappy try to avoid. They are passionate about people and self-discovery and personal development and so much more that surrounds them.
Those who respect themselves also accept themselves with all their warts and wrinkles. But this is no complacent or indulgent brand of self-acceptance.
Self-respecting people respect themselves enough to continue working on their own personal growth, developing their talents and building their character and fine-tuning their attitudes and personalities.
They don’t compromise their integrity to appeal to the crowd or to the pressure of others’ expectations. They stand firmly on principle and values. They treat themselves respectfully in word and deed as much as they expect others to treat them that way.
Self-abuse and self-respect are mutually exclusive conditions and happy people have little inclination to undermine the respect they hold themselves in as God-created souls.
Life is not simply about having fun. And fun cannot produce happiness where it’s lacking. But happy people certainly have tons of fun living their lives. Two people can experience an identical situation and one will walk away grumbling at the boredom he had to endure while the other excitedly explains how fun it was.
Happy people are too engaged in the experience to worry about things like apathy or indifference or what others think about how cool they hope they appear. Happy people relish life’s experiences. They take advantage of them and seek them out, planning them into their schedules.
Life is a wild, fun-filled adventure to those who are deeply happy. They see awe and wonder and humor too in so much of the daily grind. In short, life to a happy person is very often just plain fun.
Unhappy people feel depressed and sad and anxious and angry and frustrated and guilty and resentful and dissatisfied and restless and insecure and afraid. Any particular unhappy person will feel one or some combination of two or more of those unhappy conditions at any given time.
By contrast, happy people feel good. They feel positive and see things positively. It’s not that they can’t see the negative and the ugly; they just have a disposition (often studiously developed over time) that pays more attention to the good and beautiful.
So there you have it: Happiness in a nutshell.
It’s not that happy people feel all these things all the time, but that they are the generalities that can still be made about the lives happy people lead. Some people will experience more of certain characteristics and less of others. But they are nonetheless the components of happiness.
And the good news is that all of them can be worked on and developed. So don’t worry about moments that are not fulfilling, joyful or enjoyable. Life is a mix of these and many other things. The trick is to add a measure here and a measure there on the road we travel, making the road that much a better ride.
Oh, and by the way, you might want to start by going outside and having a little fun!
- How do you define happiness?
- What characteristics would you have included?
- What would you have omitted?
- How are you doing with the characteristics of happiness I outlined above?
- Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Photo credit: timo.c