Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thoughts on Happiness

Today I was thinking about a conversation I had with my boyfriend a few months ago.  It all started with the question, “are you happy?”  As simple a question as it may seem, it is quite a loaded one.  “What do you mean?” I replied.  “Am I happy right at this very moment?  Am I generally happy?  Am I a happy person?” my retorts abounded.  But no matter how many clarifying questions we ask our answer is likely to remain the same.  If you are happy, you know it and you are ready to tell the world (and clap your hands) no matter how the question comes up.  If you’re not happy, you probably know it too, and it’s time for some change!

We are likely to agree that happiness is internal – that is to say happiness does not miraculously fill your soul when you acquire some shiny material possessions or lose that last five pounds.  Yes, buying a new toy or trimming our waistlines can certainly bring us short-term excitement, but true happiness is much more complicated than that.

Finding your happy

Because happiness is such a complex emotional state, I believe that each of us experiences happiness in a different way.  That is, my happy might be very different from your happy.  No matter our own unique definition, we each have a right to experience happiness each and every day. 

But how?  If being happy were easy there wouldn’t be so many of us roaming through life like zombies trying each fad diet, motivational tool, and super fudge brownie ice cream that comes our way in an attempt to ease our discontent. 

In my own quest for happiness I have made a recent discovery, and it aligns with an article entitled “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B”.  In the article, Steven Kerr proposes that the problem with many organizational systems is that we reward behaviors that are actually counterproductive to the results we seek.  In applying this concept to my own life, I realize that oftentimes I take actions I think will make me happy when, in reality, they make me miserable.  While I may be the only one who has experienced this phenomenon, I am sure there are others who are operating under the same circumstances.

A couple examples:  As a teenager I had issues with my body and fell into a cycle of looking into the mirror and critiquing everything I saw.  My hips were too wide, my nose too big, my butt too flabby… To combat what I saw I did everything from crash dieting to lose weight to spending countless hours at the gym to layering on makeup.  As I’ve aged I held onto the notion that I will be happy when I finally look in the mirror and am pleased with the image I see.

I also operate under the assumption that I will be happy when I achieve financial security.  As a college student my income is minimal and my expenses high, but I have continued to add to my savings $20 at a time.  However, putting away that money has meant missing out on one-time experiences with friends and waiting out many dull nights at home because sushi with the girls would have broken my budget for the week.

These two examples illustrate my own folly – thinking I will find happiness by doing things (changing my body and saving too stringently) that have never brought me happiness before.  While there is a time and place for each of the above practices in a healthy way (exercising and eating right and saving for goals by realigning your priorities), I had taken my actions to the extreme – and it got me anywhere but happy.

There are many other ways for this folly to manifest itself.  Perhaps you went to school for a degree that you expected to bring you security or practicality, but in reality you wound up in an unsatisfying job that the paycheck didn’t make up for. Maybe you sought to quell your inner uncertainties by joining a religious group based solely on promises of salvation without a vested interest or real commitment to the principles of the sect. You could be on a continuous quest for the final fix that will solve your problems - obsessively reading The Secret, going on a cupcake and lettuce diet, taking up therapeutic underwater basket weaving - but never achieve satisfaction and instead move on to the next "big thing".

What do you think? Have you encountered this conundrum? Do you find that the things you expect to bring you true happiness fall short? Tomorrow I'll explore one way to rediscover and attain happiness in our own unique way. 

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