In a recent documentary on TV narrated by Marci Shimoff (NY Times Best Selling Author of “Happy for No Reason”), it was reported that when asked “what do you want most in life?”, the majority of people said “Happiness”. When studied in more detail and in pursuit of the answer as to how to be happy, the conclusion about what that looked like is quite different than what many of us have been led to believe.
Every day the TV commercials inundate us with advertisements that promote all kinds of stuff – along with the message “Get this and you will be happy!” The people in the ads look happy (gorgeous and thin), but if you got the thing that was being sold, would you actually be happy? Maybe. But typically only for a limited period of time, until your mind had you chasing after it in higher quantity, a bigger version, or the newest one out there. And that scenario, based on various studies, seems best be described as the path to unhappiness, often leading to despair and emptiness.
So what does make us (humans) happy? And why do we need to turn away from the culture of bigger, better, and more in order to attain it? The documentary shed some answers. Here are seven of them:
1. Intentions matter. In the country of Bhutan, the government chooses to measure the country’s effectiveness based on Gross National Happiness, not Gross National Product. Here is a clear distinction: what you choose to focus on as a priority becomes the direction in which you look, seek, and achieve. Unlike Bhutan, Japan places an emphasis on achievement, which often causes such extreme stress, fear and overwork that people are dying on the job. (And the USA is moving in that direction as well.)
2. Community and family matters. In the happiest country in the world, Denmark, people often house together in groups or community living. The support from others not only feels good, but provides more leisure time to be together and do those activities as a family that matter most. (Wouldn’t you rather cook one meal a month for 40 people, than a meal every night of the week and faced with doing the dishes afterward? I would!) In addition, the kids have more than their family to care for them, because they feel all adults can be their “parents” in a situation when they need help or assistance. Pretty neat, I’d say.
3. Clean living and good friends matter a lot. In Okinawa, the island of tremendous longevity where many people often live well over 100 years old, the recipe seems to be good hard work, eating healthy local food, and again friends and community support.
4. Caring about something bigger than oneself and making a difference in the lives of others truly matters. A successful and wealthy businessman had an ‘aha’ moment in giving a dying man a glass of water, and found the experience so compelling that he gave up his job to work in a home for dying villagers. In hearing him speak, his face was bright with light and filled with radiant joy and peace.
5. Serving the needs of others clearly increases happiness and truly matters.‘Work’, one of my favorite topics as a Career Coach, seems to produce a great deal of happiness (I call it Joy) when the focus is not solely oneself, but more on providing a service or contribution to others in need. Of course, this is not a ‘should do’, but when one has certain gifts and talents that align with his or her passions, contributing to others is clearly a recipe for happiness.
6. Quieting the mind of self-focused thoughts and placing attention on intrinsic values of showing kindness and compassion to others matters. People who meditate on compassion and loving kindness are happier and more at peace. And meditating with a community group of like-minded people works best for me.
7. All these factors are great, but also are: play, having adventures and new experiences (that cause us to be very present in the moment), and appreciating what we have (versus focusing on having more), are big contributors to happiness as well.
In looking back over these seven plus factors that incline us to be happier people, live longer, and find more meaning and value in life, it can be summed up best this way: giving attention to and practicing intrinsic values such as appreciating and enjoying what is; sharing time with family and friends; showing kindness, compassion, and love to others; and focusing on altruism/helping others in need is what counts most. And being caught in the trappings of accumulating stuff — theexternal trappings of wealth recognition, or the latest fad in what others are wearing on their torso — more often than not take us down a path toward self-focused emptiness.
When I asked my son and daughter-in-law what made the happy, the answers came easily and quickly and reflected the above with one addition. Doing what they love also counts — such as being engaged in activities that really enthuse them. For example, my son experiences great joy as an avid sailor, paddle boarder, and skier, and his wife loves teaching Yoga. But they both have a great balance of engaging in fun activities, maintaining family closeness, and being engaged in work that provides a valuable service to others.
Seems to me that what we have to do is to buck the trend of thinking that having more (wealth, bigger houses, fancier cars, extravagant vacations, etc.) is the answer that many corporations want us to believe will make us happy. It just ain’t so. In the end it is up to each of us to find our own true path to happiness, and in my mind extricate ourselves from being caught in the misnomer that happiness comes from being overly self-involved and ‘more is better’. We need to turn the focus more toward “being with” and helping one another. And if we can pull it off, maybe we can end war, save the planet from pollution and the human race from destroying itself.
While it won’t happen overnight, (no pressure here!) — it is up to you and me to make it happen. Just by adding one or two acts of kindness to your everyday life, you and I will make a difference in the long run. And the great news is this: doing so will add a boatload of happiness to your own experience as well!
“Don’t worry . . . Be Happy” 🙂