The Quest for Happiness
"Life, Liberty and the persuit of Happiness" -these ringing words from the Declaration of Independence of the United States are familiar to most of us, and most of us would agree that happiness is a desirable goal. But what exactly is happiness, and how can one attain it? These questions are not as easily answered as you might expect.
Happiness is closely related to life satisfaction -people who feel happy tend to believe that their lives are satisfying. Of course, there are factors in everyone's life that can't be changed, and some of them can result in unhappiness. However, people can use certain strategies to exercise greater control over the way they respond emotionally to their life situations.
Remove your Rose-Colored Glasses
Optimism, that is, having a generally positive outlook on life, is an important factor in maintaining a sense of well-being. However, do you know what it means to "see the world through rose-colored glasses"? the expression derives from a French metaphor, voire la vie en rose, (to see life in pink), that means to see things more favorable than they really are. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has studied the connection between decision making and happiness (Gilbert et al., 2006). He points out that we are often disapointed when we make decisions based on what we believe will make us happy. For example, the belief that a new house will make us happy motivates us to save money, spend time searching for a house, and go through the stressful experience of moving. But within a very short time, we discover that the new house did not bring ud the bliss we expected. Gilbert says that we do the same thing in relationships. In pursuit of happiness, we date, married, have affairs, divorce, have children, reconcile with estranged relatives, cut of communication with troublesome relatives, join clubs to find new friends, and on and on, only to find that we revert to our original emotional state after all is said and done.
Does our tendency to overestimate the amount of happiness a given life change will bring us, that is, to see our world through rose-colored glasses, mean that happiness is impossible? No, in fact, some degree of dissatisfaction with our present state of affair is probably necesary to keep us motivated to continue improving ourselves and our life situations. However, Gilbert's findings do mean that keeping our expectations in balance may be critical to enjoying the happiness we do experience. So, how do we avoid becoming trapped in the never-ending cycle that comes from the notion that happiness will be found in the other side of the our next big decision?
Count your Blessings
Perhaps we can avoid the hope-dissappointment cycle Gilbert's describes by learning to be more appreciative of that which we already have. Psychologist Martin Selingman and his colleagues (2005) have used a number of exercises geared toward increasing people sense of well-being by getting them to focus on the positive aspects of their experiences. One such exercise is "Three Good Things." Selingman instructs participants in his studies to keep a journal in which they record three positive things that happen each day. They have found that participants report feeling happier after having kept the "three good things" journal for only a week. Furthermore, those who continue the practice after their participation in the study has ended report enduring effects.
Likewise, we can take a cue from research examining the attitudes of contented older adults. Such elders have been found to judge their current state of well-being by comparing themselves to others who are doing more poorly (Frieswik, Buunk, Steverink, & Slaets, 2004). Thus, although elderly characters who proclaim, "it could be worse!"are often the targets of humor in television and movie scripts, it turns out that it is precisely the attitude embodied in this expression that enables older adults to cope with the trials and tribulations of aging.
You will also feel happier if you get so caught up in an activity that you become oblivious to your surroundings. Psychologists refer to this state as flow. To be in flow is to be unself-consciously absorbed (Csikszeentmihalyi, 1990). People who are engaged in some activity that engages their skills -whether it is work, play, or simply driving a car- report more positive feelings.
You may not be able to control every aspect of your life situation, but you do have some control over how you respond to it.
The World of Psychology p. 380
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