Happiness – it’s everywhere these days. Books such as Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Project, The How of Happiness, Happiness by Design, and The Happiness Hypothesis are lining the windows of book stores, many touting a claim they will enrich your life with more happiness. Entire podcasts, video series and training programs have been developed with the sole focus…how to find, increase, and hold onto happiness. Many of us associate positive thoughts and emotions with the word, others annoyance and frustration, but what does it really mean to you? What is your personal definition of happiness? What does it look like in reality? What steps can you take to manifest your vision for happiness?
I find the notion that we ought to be in tireless pursuit of happiness to be a bit flawed. That is not to suggest that the books listed above make the argument that we should be in tireless pursuit of happiness. There are some exceptional books on happiness! The point is that happiness has become a bit of a loaded buzzword, a cultural fixation. What do you think? Through my own experiences, I have found that happiness is often perceived as a state of being that stems from the sum of one’s pleasurable of joyful experiences, as if happiness comes and goes, based on a series of variables and circumstances. For example, I overheard an exchange between two people the other day, in which one asked the other if she was happy. In response, she proceeded to come up with several reasons to support her happiness. A stable job, a good relationship, and, recently, a super fun weekend.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson recognized the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. What did he mean? Is happiness something we feel? Something we have the opportunity to experience moment to moment if only the stars align in our favor? Is happiness a set of events or memories or relationships? Finally checking that half-marathon off the bucket list, or nabbing the dream job? Perhaps there is more to it. Let’s say you get called off from work on Thanksgiving, you hit all the green lights when you’re running late for yoga, and you absolutely love your brother’s new girlfriend. Conversely, your babysitter cancels on you last minute, it downpours immediately after you assemble your 6-person tent, and you have to change your entire patient assignment ninety minutes before it’s time to clock out. All of these moments can coexist with happiness.
Happiness is something we can actively cultivate in our lives. From Psychology Today, “more than simply positive mood, happiness is a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life—that is, with a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction…research shows that happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort.” When I sat down to write this blog post, I planned to take it in a very different direction. I began by writing, “take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the answer to the question, what brings you happiness?” I paused and considered the objective of this question, and in that moment I decided to shift my focus completely. While joyful experiences are certainly a component of this topic, happiness is too deep, too beautiful, and too complex to be encompassed by singular points in time. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who is science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, teaches that mindful presence, apologizing, forgiveness, contributing to causes bigger than ourselves, and gratitude all contribute to our happiness. A 2010 study demonstrated that people are happier when they are actually “focused on what they are doing, right when they are doing it.” In this study, it didn’t even matter what people were doing – it was the focus and present moment awareness that led to greater happiness!
Carolyn Gregoire of The Huffington Post writes about people falling “into the trap of running on the so-called hedonic treadmill – chasing after pleasures and external recognition that they believe will bring happiness, rather than finding more pleasure in the experiences they’re already having.” She goes on to describe a risk of this behavior, which is that “we will begin to fear or devalue painful, negative emotions and challenging experiences. Our struggles and difficult experiences add to the richness of our lives, and they are inevitable. Persistently working to avert all challenging experiences and avoid facing difficult emotions will result in disappointment, not to mention this ignores the richness of the human experience. (As an aside, this more complex view of happiness is known as “eudaemonic…which is a more complex construct characterized by personal growth, authenticity, and meaning in life” as opposed to hedonic (Armenta, Fritz & Lyubomirsky, 2016)).
Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay says that it is “wholeness, not happiness…we ought to be striving for.” Contrary to aiming for a greater sum of positive experiences, wholeness includes all the parts of our experience as human beings. You have a difficult conversation with a colleague, but as a result you learn something about yourself. Your partner had an extra tough day at work, and it offers an opportunity for you to listen, empathize, offer love, and connect. Your boss asks you to deliver a presentation. This terrifies you, but in doing so you prove to yourself that you can rise to the challenge! These experiences, ones we might not toss into the “happy” category, are part of the wholeness and richness of our lives. Mackay encourages us to replace the word “happiness” with “wholeness.” He suggests asking ourselves, “is this contributing to my wholeness?” He says that “if you’re having a bad day, it is.” Even the tough days – especially the tough days – help us to grow, learn, reflect, renew, and flourish. Remember Bobby McFerrin’s catchy song from the ‘80s? “Don’t worry, be happy!” he sang. Well, it turns out your happiness is not contingent upon your ability to throw your cares to the wind. Happiness stems from the wholeness of your experience, even the challenging parts.
I would like to offer a few additional thoughts, specifically about what we can all do to foster wholeness in the workplace. Look for meaning and cultivate joy in your workplace. Take pause throughout your day to think about the tremendous impact you have on our patients and their families (whether directly or indirectly – your role matters). Cherish your connections with coworkers. We are fortunate to work with people who make us laugh, who practice teamwork, who teach us, who may sometimes test our patience, and who challenge us to grow in more ways than we often recognize. Celebrate the small things, lend your support, and share good news! Grow your resilience, and connect with your purpose. Above all, remember the words of Hugh Mackay, who said it is wholeness we ought to be striving for.
Cheers to happiness and wholeness in the month of August and beyond!
Further Readings & Listening:
- Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Ignore the title! Great article.)
- How Science Reveals that Well-being is a Skill
- What is Happiness Anyway?
- Happiness Project: How Happiness Became a Cultural Obsession
- TedX Talk: Breathing Happiness by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D ← Check out her website!
- Five Science-backed Strategies for More Happiness