4 Things You Need to Know About Happiness
Thomas G. Plante
We all want to be happy. Who doesn’t? But most people fail to realize why their attempts to secure happiness are typically fraught with disappointment and failure. They often chase this elusive state of being in misguided ways that ultimately fail them. They also tend to ignore quality research that highlights the true dos and don’ts of pursuing happiness. Much has been written on this topic in both the popular and academic presses. As I review this work, as well as reflect on my experience treating patients in my clinical practice for three decades, I tend to think that the following four principles should always be kept in mind as we seek happiness:
- Forget about obtaining happiness; aim for life satisfaction
An exalted state of happiness is challenging to obtain and nearly impossible to sustain. Certainly both minor and major life events will give us moments of happiness and joy, but then we quickly return to baseline levels of happiness (or unhappiness), a phenomenon which has biological and psychosocial bases. Rather than striving to maintain an ongoing state of happiness or bliss, then, aiming for life satisfaction is more realistic—and sustainable. It's a better goal.
- Money might rent happiness; it won’t buy it
Money can provide us with lives and lifestyles that are comfortable and enjoyable, but far too many people believe that money buys happiness. It just doesn’t! Both research and clinical practice have demonstrated this fact again and again. We are reminded of this insight when we hear about the great distress, major life troubles, and even suicidal behaviors of our society's rich, famous, and powerful. Many celebrities find themselves deeply unhappy and suffer through drug addiction, bitter divorces, difficult relationships, and tragically self-destructive behavior, including suicide — all despite wealth. Research has clearly shown that after securing basic needs like food and shelter there is surprisingly little connection between happiness and money.
- Relationships matter
It is especially sad to see so many people spending so much time and energy chasing after money and status that they neglect their significant relationships with family, friends, and others. I see this often in Silicon Valley, where many people work so hard that they neglect spouses, children, and close friends. It’s been said so often (because it's true): few people say on their deathbeds that they wished they had spent more time at the office, or securing a bigger bank account. Rather, they tend to focus on key relationships because that's what truly matters. Act accordingly.
- Happiness and life satisfaction is often secured when you aren’t the center of the universe
We live in a “me first" narcissistic culture. The focus on me is assumed to result in more happiness. It doesn’t! Surprisingly, people actually find more happiness and satisfaction when they put themselves in the background—and put others in the foreground. Focusing on the welfare of others and moving the focus off ourselves often gives us great, unexpected joy. I have heard this time and again from my patients. They so often find themselves happier and more satisfied when they focus less on themselves and more on others. There is empirical data to demonstrate this as well; see the references below to a few of our studies on this topic.