Happiness has been a big media topic over the last few years (and it likely always will be); it is the “holy grail” of life – who doesn’t want to be happy? We tell ourselves “I’ll be happy when...my kids are older…I have more time…my business takes off…I get that promotion…I retire…place your happiness clause here. Happiness is often framed as a future state, not something we are experiencing in the here and now, and that may well be because if we are thinking about our happiness at all its usually due to it’s absence. When we are enjoying feelings of happiness we tend not to think about it, openly acknowledge it (we might “jinx it”), or really celebrate it…we may even take it for granted, which is why we feel happiness is something that is always available to us once the right conditions are in place.
Except that isn’t true. Happiness (true happiness) is available to us without conditions. Does this mean we will always feel happy? No, of course not. Happiness is a state that is always with us, but it cannot support us unless we unlock it through intention. It is important to acknowledge the intention we have when we experience happiness; as an example there is a world of difference between “eating a peanut butter cup” (something which I know makes me happy) and “enjoying a luscious dessert with family and friends” (also something that I know makes me happy). Neither of these two activities is necessary for my well being per se (the caloric content and nutrition values alone make them entirely optional) but the circumstances under which I participate in those two activities will be entirely different and that is what I mean when I say happiness cannot support us unless we access it with intention. I know if I am eating a peanut butter cup it is likely because it is available, I can do so quickly, I may be looking for a “quick hit” of something joyful and I am NOT sharing it with anyone (I am likely eating it in secret so I won’t have to). Does that sound like “happiness” to you? Me neither.
Eating a peanut butter cup (inhaling it, actually), or doing anything else for a cheap “hit” is not happiness, yet we make these trade-offs throughout our days and weeks to maintain or provide fleeting feelings of joy, self worth, pleasure, etc. When we are doing something with the intent to be happy it is something that provides a path to happiness now and in our future. Here is another example, logging in to your laptop at home to get on top of your working day rather than using that time to go for a walk (or to the gym, etc.). Staying on top of your work has benefits, but work will always be there, it is a “Sisyphean” task (one you have to will do over and over again); cleaning up your e-mails will only make you feel better temporarily. A walk, on the other hand, provides a mental break from work, fresh air, change of scenery and pace. The physiological benefits of a walk will be with you for hours long after you are back at your desk and are cumulative if you choose to give yourself time for a walk each day. Most of us can’t say that about time spent keeping up with our e-mail.
When you break it down there are two different categories of activities we engage in to give us access to happiness; the “fast and cheap” kind and the “intentional” kind. Think of them as “imitation” happiness versus “real” happiness. I can think of many things I do for “imitation” happiness, some of them daily. I work instead of going for walk (even when I have time for a walk). I propose eating out rather than making a more nutritious meal at home (and marginalize the quality of time I spend with my family because of it – “Yes! We want fries with that”). I watch TV to “numb out” and I sometimes drink wine just to relax (rather than enjoying a glass of wine because I am already relaxed – big difference). Happiness is something we access intentionally (sorry Hollywood, your plot lines are wrong) and happiness clauses are what we put in the way of allowing ourselves to be in the here and now, accessing what already is here for us and can make us happy (I’ll make a nice family meal when I have more time…). Are you trading imitation happiness for the real thing? It can affect your quality of life at home and at work. No one likes to feel under-the-gun, anxious, stressed, frustrated, upset or some other energy-sucking emotion. However, preparing a family meal with love (even if it is humble mac and cheese) and have everyone come to the table together will do far more for your happiness then squeezing off that last phone call at work. Just because we can quickly access whatever we want to hold negative feelings at bay, from take-out to on-demand TV, doesn’t mean we are getting any happier, especially when these things are consumed as a way to escape something (rather than to celebrate or truly enjoy something).
Real happiness is possible when we intentionally chose to engage in things that take time and effort (not just money) and that have a cumulative effect on our well being. Going for walks, seeing family and friends, enjoying nourishing food with loved ones, making ourselves a priority (getting to the gym) and taking the time needed to put the “big rocks in first” (planning for our development and life, not just our “to do’s”) have a far greater impact on our long-term happiness. So the question becomes not “are you happy”, but “what are you worth”? Imitation happiness or the real thing? What will you invest in to provide for your own happiness?
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.