True happiness is much more than just a burst of dopamine – it is a jumble of positive feelings and is often described as a sense of peace and a feeling of contentment.  A sort of “wanting what we have feeling”.   Not everybody is born with a “sunny” personality, but we all can learn to bring more meaning and satisfaction into our lives.

Often clients sit opposite me and ask the same question “what can I do to be happy”?  This question and the feeling of helplessness it evokes in me have led me to do some research on happy people.  Here are some of the facts that research shows:

  • Happy people allow pleasure and purpose to work together.  Happy people know that enjoying momentary indulgences such as playing with a baby, vegging out on the couch, or reading a great book is important to living a satisfying life.  They do take time out in their busy schedule to “sharpen the saw”.
  • Happy people opt for seeing the forest but not the trees.  It is said that satisfied people are less critical and detail oriented.  They tend to be open to strangers and are uncritical of others.  In short they don’t overthink things.  Paying attention to detail is good but “sweating the small stuff” often is emotionally draining.   Happy people may frequently possess a “devil-may-care” attitude about their performance – as concentrating on the minutiae can lead to decision paralysis.
  • Happy people view anxiety as an optimal state.  To sustain happiness is not only doing the things that you love, but pushing the boundaries, to grow and adventure beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.  To put it simply, happy people are curious.  Although wondering into the realm of “not knowing” can be anxiety producing – curious people know that sometimes being out of your comfort zone is the most direct route to learning new lessons and gaining a sense of mastery.  Happy people opt for the familiar loved routines and having novel experiences.
  • Happy people celebrate others’ good fortune.  In the workplace, social support has been found to be the biggest predictor of happiness at work. The happiest people share in the good fortune of others wholeheartedly, and bask in the glow when their own achievements are reflected back at them.    Research has found that discussing a positive experience with a responsive friend actually changes the memory of the event.  Equally important is that you will feel uplifted by your friend’s positive experience. Happy people have the ability to listen mindfully and put their own concerns/emotions aside.
  • Happy people don’t hide from negative emotions.  They view them as part of life, confront them head on – either standing up for themselves, letting it “roll off their backs “– or accepting responsibility and making some changes to their behaviour.
  • People do differ in their happiness matrices – some will find happiness in social belonging and doing things for others – while others prize a sense of mastery and achievement.  But all agree that a life well lived is more than just feeling up – it is a mixture of feeling content, occasional sadness,  a sense of purpose, playfulness and psychological flexibility, and includes control over one’s life, a sense of belonging and feeling loved.

In short, to visualize a happy person’s stance, one foot will be rooted in the present, with mindful appreciation of what one has – and the other foot reaching for the yet-to-be uncovered sources of meaning in the future.

Sources and further reading: 

“Your best life now”  Joel Osteen (2004)

“Happiness” Richard O Connor (2009)

“The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”.  Stephen Covey. (1989)

“What happy people do differently” Psychology Today. 8.8.2013

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