Every social movement has its naysayers. And one movement I engage with – the happiness movement – definitely has met resistance in the last few years. The backlash is based on the following arguments. Happiness is not your birthright. It’s not a realistic way to live, and trying to live happily just sets you up for unhappiness. Real suffering happens in life, and it can’t be fixed by staring at a kitty poster that encourages one to “Hang In There!” Plus, you learn from the bad stuff so why avoid it?
I don’t disagree that suffering is part of life or that you can learn from it, but to living happily going through hard times are not mutually exclusive. If the last year of my life has taught me anything, it’s that real transformation in my outlook on life is possible. I can change for the better from within. And still, bad things (and bad moods) are going to happen. And that’s okay.
I guess part of me can’t wrap my head around why being happy or trying to live happily is so off putting to some people. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of understanding of what the word means in this context. So let’s start with a proper definition.
According to top leaders in the field of positive psychology, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Martin Seligman, and Ed Diener, happiness doesn’t mean you live with a smile plastered on your face, thinking of nothing but warm fuzzies all day. To paraphrase Lyubormirsky, happiness involves experiencing contentment and finding life worthwhile. Seligman says happiness is three-dimensional and incorporates positive feelings, engagement, and meaning. Diener coined the synonym “subjective well-being” for happiness, and subjective well-being reflects your life satisfaction, which is based on your attitude, relationships, spirituality, engagement, and meaningful goals. These are the elements that make happiness.
Note that none of these definitions says that happiness is a 24/7 good feeling. None of these definitions says things will go great for you all the time if you’re a happy person. That’s because trying to live happily isn’t a magic pill. It doesn’t mean you approach every situation with Pollyanna like optimism and it’s all good. Rather, it means that you have sustained psychological health and life purpose. That is to live happily.
Wait, shouldn’t that be everyone’s life goal – sustained psychological health and life purpose?
So being happy is not doing anyone a disservice. If anything, it’s providing enormous and real benefits. People who practice happiness as a way of life have the ability to deal with it when the shit hits the fan (which it always does at some point). Happy people have the skills needed to foster their own emotional resilience. Yes, they still have moments of anxiety, sadness, anger, and disappointment. Those feelings are unavoidable in life. But rather than being swallowed up by those feelings, a happy person responds constructively (meaning he or she doesn’t open a bottle of wine or fill the void with some other unhealthy behavior or substance). That alone is reason enough for me to work on being happy. But, on top of that, happy people have better relationships, incomes, work lives, and health.
So, what’s stopping you from trying to make this your way of life?
This post was inspired by my girlfriend Diana. Love you a hundred times over. To our lifelong friendship and happiness.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (2008). New York: Penguin Press.