One of my clients runs a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Personally, he has been through every drug and drink known to man, trying to find happiness, but suffered emotionally before, during and after his addiction periods.
He describes a drug user’s life as the chase of highs that never ends. He says that highs last less and less time and the in-between periods become more and more difficult and stressful.
That made me think about the way life seems to be going for many people these days and about how we are being encouraged from every direction essentially to live the life of drug addicts or alcoholics. Our drugs are legal, but we are no less dependent on them and they do us a very similar amount of harm.
Our drugs are money, fame, gadgets, brand names, number of followers on Twitter, number of fans on Facebook, trophies and grades, our kids’ trophies and grades, rank or title at work, the size of our house, the model of our car, being up to date with the latest gossip, our highest level at some video game and so on. They may not be chemical, but they are all addictive. We chase them, they give us a short “high” and then we need to go after the next “hit”.
People who live like this are never happy. Not really. They are very happy occasionally for a little while, but most of the time, they feel frustrated, stressed and depressed. Many people have an alcoholic member of their family who becomes abusive when drunk. This is no different to having a member of the family addicted to video games or chat when they are not “using”.
But is the way to happiness not through reaching a comfortable life with all the trimmings? Are we not going to be happy when we have enough money, enough things, enough room in the house for all the things, a good enough car that never breaks and so on?
No, we are not, because the feeling that we have enough is not related to what we have or how much we have of it. Our happiness is not linked directly to our lot in life. That connection is made through our mind and through our perception of ourselves and what we have.
What we need to look for are ways to feel good and be happy for a lot longer. What we need are things that make us feel better the longer we do them, so if we never actually accomplish them, that is a good thing.
Dr. Martin Seligman is a famous happiness researcher and the founder of the field of Positive Psychology. While the rest of the psychology and psychiatry academics tried to help mentally ill people recover and return to healthy society, Dr. Seligman wanted to help normal people discover how to live “the good life” and be happy.
I recently watched Seligman’s TED presentation on positive psychology. Among other things, he talked about the different kinds of happiness we can aspire for, which did two things for me. It gave me a clear and concise description of the way to happiness, which I will share with you below. After talking about it with Ronit and the kids, I also realized how happy my own family was and why.
Pleasure – Short Term Happiness
We get pleasure from eating something tasty, watching our favorite show, having sex and buying something we like. The feeling is strong and satisfying. We feel present and alive, as if every nuance of the experience is distinct and powerful – the depth of flavor, the cleverness of the jokes, the touch of the skin and the way we picture ourselves using or wearing our new purchase. It feels great!
But it does not last. If you like coffee, you know the best sip of any cup is the first one. The last bite of food does not taste nearly as good as the first one. And what happens when you hear a joke the 4th time?
Also, most of the time, we do not eat or drink. Our favorite show is only on for a short period each day and if we bought things all day long, we would run out of money very quickly and the pleasure will more than disappear.
We can extend pleasures if we capture them on paper, film or in digital form and relive them in our memories, but that normally gives us a weaker experience compared to the original.
Bottom line: pleasure makes us happy, but not for long. Find out what gives you pleasure and you can have more of it. Capture your great experiences so they can make you happy again, but remember that total pleasure seeking is like being addicted to drugs.
Flow – Medium Term Happiness
Have you ever been so absorbed in reading a book, engaged in building a model airplane or “giving it your all” in a sporting activity that you “woke up” from it after 2 hours and wondered where the time had gone? At the same time, you probably felt like what you had been doing was well worth your time and that you had been happy doing it.
This is what “flow” is. It is being so involved in what you are doing, the rest of the world ceases to exist for you. It is performing at the peak of your abilities and being so completely focused you achieve many times more than you would if you were preoccupied or stressed.
We are in flow when we do things we like to do and things we are confident doing. Top athletes are in flow when they are engaged in their sport. They know they can do it well and they enjoy it, so they are “in their element”. The good results only reinforce their confidence and increase their flow, which creates a positive cycle.
Top sales people are in flow when they talk to clients. Top artists are in flow when they paint, sculpt, compose, sing or play an instrument. Top authors are in flow when they write.
No matter who you are, there are things you do well and like to do. You may not perform at Olympic levels, but you are confident enough to be relaxed and focus when you do these things. You enjoy doing them so much you can do them for long stretches – hours, not minutes.
Ronit and I are in flow when we help people feel better about themselves. We spend hours every day doing just that. When we finish a session with a client, rather than feeling worn out, we feel refreshed and energized, having spent our time in happiness.
To create more opportunities for flow, find out what you are good at and enjoy doing and choose it as your profession. This way, you can be happy more of your time. Similarly, choose to spend your time with people who make you feel good and share your interests. By setting goals to achieve desired outcomes in your life, you can also increase your focus and engagement (and possibly your pleasure).
Still, there are many things we need to do that we do not like, are not good at or both, so flow does not make us happy all the time.
Bottom line: flow makes us happy for longer and is related to our skills and preferences. With the right job, hobbies, goals and people, you can be engaged and happy more of your time, but still not always.
Purpose – Long Term Happiness
Is there anything that can help us accept boredom, discomfort and hardship in life with a graceful smile? Is there anything that can help us view what needs to be done as achievement?
Yes, there is, and the people who have found it are the happiest of them all. It is called “purpose” or “meaning”.
No matter what gives meaning to your life, it simply makes everything you do worthwhile. If you find your meaning in raising your children, changing a diaper is an act of love. If your fulfillment comes from helping the homeless, anyone with ragged clothes and rotting teeth may be an opportunity to be kind. If your purpose is to improve the gender equality in our society, a heated public debate is a chance for you to deliver your message and make a difference.
Purpose put everything we do in life in a different perspective, so it makes us continually happy, no matter what happens.
Ronit and I believe that empowering parents is the key to changing the world and creating a society based on acceptance, respect and harmony. Everything we do in life and business either directly serves that purpose or sustains us so we can keep serving our purpose. Imagining our kids living in such a warm and friendly place makes us happy every day, no matter how many obstacles the universe throws at us. It is all worth it.
Find your “higher calling”, the thing that gives significance to your life, that makes you and everything you do very very important. Write that down and post it over your bed and in your office. Spend your days making that dream a reality with everything you do, directly or indirectly, and be happy in life.
Bottom line: purpose makes us feel important and part of a great thing at the same time. It is always there to guide us and give us meaning and thus, it makes us happy.
May your days be filled with pleasures, may your time flow and may your purpose guide you to happiness