Before we wade into the mire of confusing, anecdotal advice tossed carelessly around by celebrities looking to turn a quick profit by authoring a book, let’s look at what happiness, and for that matter, contentment, are.
For the purposes of this article, I shall use happiness to define a moment of joy or elation, ordinarily brought about by an event, or the acquisition of something desirable. Whilst the length of time for which this feeling lasts can vary, it is temporary. Contentment, on the other hand, is a state. It indicates a level of homeostasis, a balance across all of one’s life, and a feeling of well-being and of moving in the right direction. Needless to say, it is the latter which we shall be seeking, happily littered with moments of the former.
The main thing we need to address in order to reach this ongoing state of contentment, is our mindset, chiefly our perception of all things external to us. One of the biggest struggles in ‘the pursuit of happiness’ for the majority of people is how they perceive the world around them, and especially their perception of others’ opinions of them. Whilst it takes a little practise to implement, the mindset is very simple; you cannot control what others think of you, so you should not waste your time worrying about it. Most of us, when pushed, will admit that we are our own worst critics, so why would we worry about meeting the expectations of anybody else? I know the prospect can seem daunting, but even the vicarious aspirations of our parents are usually targets we need to avoid aiming for. As Robert Greene points out in his book ‘Mastery’, our parents are very often limiting factors and the very reason we end up on a career path to which we are not well suited.
This brings us on neatly to our career. I’m fully aware that we each need to make a living. Beyond that though, money has been shown to have no bearing on happiness. In fact, once we make enough money to remove financial stress and worry, there is no significant increase in happiness as wealth increases. For further empirical evidence, you need look no further than the tribes of the Sahara or the Amazon, where anthropologists frequently report levels of contentment considered out of reach by large swathes of Western society, in people who have no money and very few possessions. So our career then, being that we spend such a large percentage of our lives at work, should facilitate a contented life, but not take over it. This is of course unless your work is something that you truly enjoy and can share with loved ones, in which case you may find it to be one of the main sources of contentment in your life. In short, you have two options; you can find a job that enables a contented lifestyle, without adding too much stress, or you can find a career which you consider to be your life’s work. These prove time and time again to be the happiest ways to live. If moving to either of these options involves risk, consider this, you know for certain that you’re not happy where you are now, whereas there’s at least a chance you’ll be happy if you make a change. I don’t say this lightly, it’s the exact decision I had to make just over 2 years ago, and I can happily confirm I’m more content with my life now than I have ever been.
The ancient Stoics, the philosophy school founded in Greece by Zeno, espoused ‘Memento Mori’ or remember death. As sinister as this might sound, the sentiment is far from it. They wanted you to remember that your life could end at any moment, and encourage you to focus on what you could control, and focus on the present moment. If we are the best we can be, in each and every moment, that in itself ensures if we have a future, it will be the best one we are capable of creating.
This all leads very nicely to external stressors. I’ll take some common examples, and explain how to reframe your view of them to decrease stress, bearing in mind that, unlike the ancient Greeks, we now know that the chemical and hormonal imbalances caused by stress are very real. Let’s begin with traffic. I’ll hold my hands up and say openly that I’m still a recovering road rage enthusiast. Whilst I’ve never taken leave of my senses, I have sworn loudly, gestured and occasionally even beaten the steering wheel over incidents that have happened on the road. Whilst this is by no means fully fixed, the difference is quite literally night and day. So let’s imagine you get stuck in traffic. It’s a hot day and you’re running late. How could getting angry possibly make any of this better? Well when we examine the situation coldly, it can’t, but moreover, it can and will increase our stress levels and have a knock on effect to the rest of our day. Accept that there is nothing you can do about the traffic, and you’ve already achieved the first step. Predict that there may be traffic, and set off early, and you’re part way to turning things to your advantage. Have an audiobook, podcast, or simply a great playlist lined up, and you’ve turned this unexpected delay into an opportunity to learn, or lose yourself in a fictional world of a novel or song. What if in spite of all of your preparedness, you’re now going to be late? Well, stress will only worsen the aftermath. If you’re due in a meeting, but retain your calm when arriving late, you can probably still achieve what you need to, whereas arrive flustered and you’re already off to a bad start. Once you’re late, you’re already late, that falls outside of your control, but how you react, and how your mood is when you do arrive, are both firmly within your control.
Another key area of frustration oft cited by those who are constantly unhappy is feeling underappreciated. This can quite simply only be the case if you expect to be appreciated. This might sound odd, but stay with me a moment. Why are you doing the things you do? For recognition? For applause or praise? All of these reactions are outside of your control. Set your expectation to simply perform a task or complete a project to the best of your ability, and meet your own standard. Once you have met this standard, you have achieved what you set out to achieve. People may well praise and applaud you for your efforts, and you can graciously accept these plaudits, but they are now a nice bonus, and were never the aim.
Be under no illusion, reframing your view of situations to be less subjective and more objective, and focusing on that which is within your control, takes practise. But like anything else, that practise will pay off if you persevere!
The final theme I’ll address for this article is ‘haters’. With the prevalence of social media and its encouragement commenting opinions that would otherwise probably be left unsaid, it’s easy to get drawn into thinking everyone is out to get you. It’s true, there is a lot of unnecessary and hostile trolling online, and to a degree, in real life too. This creates a dangerous mentality though. We’re encouraged to ‘ignore the haters’, a comment you’ve probably seen circulated on a few memes and heard uttered by friends and celebrities alike. If we take a step back for just a moment though and take our personal feelings out of the equation (the subjective part) we can see that opinions that oppose ours, are the ones we can often learn the most from. These can act as the voice of reason, as the devil’s advocate, and can help guide us in our everyday decision making. We just need to reframe these comments, and see them for what they really are; a different opinion. That’s not to say there are no downright hurtful and needless things said, but if you take a pause, it’s easy to spot the difference and delete the useless ones from your mind.
The pursuit of happiness
Or as I would term it, contentment, has been one of our greatest endeavours. As the technology and means to help us find it progress though, we seem to be taking a step backwards. There’s no shortage of irony in the fact that the very devices made to make our lives easier, are largely responsible for our misery. With that in mind, I advocate taking cues from simpler times, contextualising the content and fitting it to your everyday life. I have found no better guide as yet than 'Happy' by Derren Brown. Combined with other reading, this will give you some simple practises and exercises to incorporate into you lives which I believe will make a dramatic difference.
Have you read something that’s helped improve your life? Maybe you have an opinion or method of your own? Please share it in the comments, along with any thoughts on what’s written here, especially if it has impacted you. Good luck combining these methods with the rest of your healthier habits!