Everyone wants to be happy, like it’s an end goal, a permanent state. But is it? Can you live happily ever after? Or is it the case that everything changes?
The Science of Happiness
Scientists are now researching what it takes to be happy. So far, they’ve found that being grateful, compassionate, mindful and generous lead to people feeling happier. Studies indicate that individuals who make and keep friends and are ‘pro-social’ tend to be happier than those who don’t or aren’t. Having a positive mental attitude, being in a state of flow, laughing often, and appreciating beauty, all contribute to happiness, as does having a positive sense of purpose or meaning. Lots of people do these things naturally, and it becomes a self-perpetuating circle. The more they do, the higher is their baseline of happiness and contentment with life. But in reality, happiness is a feeling. And feelings come and go, just like everything else in the world. Change is the only constant.
I often find myself moaning at doing the housework – ‘But I only dusted last week!’ Yes, and now you have to dust again. Grass grows and the lawn has to be mown every week. You have to do the washing up every time to have clean dishes to eat from the next. Any state you want to keep, requires constant attention and maintenance. Even majestic cliffs crumble and mountains rise because everything changes.
You may find that perfect job. or perfect partner, or donate time to a charity and bingo! you are happy. For a while. It doesn’t last. A new emotion will follow the last as surely as the ocean’s waves continue to crash against the shore.
Sometimes we’re happily driving along the motorway, and someone cuts us up. Personally, just because I’m feeling great doesn’t mean I won’t direct a swear word in their direction! But I won’t dwell on it nor work myself up into a rage. In the next moment, I’ll just go back to singing merrily along with the radio (whilst remaining vigilant). Happier characters bounce back from setbacks more easily.
Occasionally we experience loss, grief and sadness too. It’s okay to feel sad, but we don’t have to be sad all the time. I remember a very funny moment at my mum’s funeral, where we were laughing our socks off at a story involving her and a massage in Thailand! Enough said.
In spite of the grief, remembering that one incident sparked off a plethora of loving and happy stories that uplifted us joyfully for a while. It demonstrates beautifully that you can experience the emotion of happiness more often if you choose to do and think things you know will generate positive feelings. If circumstances outside of your control have thrown a spanner in the works, it’s even more important to do the maintenance.
Generalising a Pattern
Of course, repeating one behaviour or pattern of thought often will make an overall impression from which we generalise. The human brain loves to fill in the blanks! We will call someone a sad person or a happy one, depending on how we experience them most often. Last week I read a report about a recently bereaved mother talking about her bright, angelic, loving son who’d been stabbed in the street. Others described him as a nascent gangster, over-confident and looking for trouble. It was the same boy, but different behaviours and moods in different contexts.
Cause and Effect Goes Both Ways
The same goes for ourselves too. We will say we are happy because we are enjoying our work and going out having fun with our partner and friends. It is interesting to note though, that the causal effect works in reverse. Feelings generate behaviours, and actions generate feelings. If you’re feeling down, asking your mates for support, and making an effort to find the satisfying elements of your work, will help you to feel better faster than staying in on your own ruminating on your woes.
Notice and Generate What You Want
So, if you want to build up your happiness levels, the next time you’re feeling happy, notice it. Observe that it is another (extremely pleasant) moment in this extraordinary experience of living, and move mindfully on (and the same goes for all the not-so-pleasant-to-experience emotions too). You can do happy things and think happy thoughts more often, and you will start to believe yourself to be a happy person. But just like the housework, you have to keep doing it, until, unlike the housework, it starts come more naturally because you’ve trained your brain. When the dark moments come, you will be happier if you keep in mind the old adage: this too shall pass. Because it’s right. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. There is no happily ever after unless you keep making it so.