What is happiness? Whether you believe it to be an instinctual emotion that we are born with, or a learned behaviour, it is a state of being that many of us yearn for, but seem unable to fully realize in our adult lives. Happiness is often celebrated in our culture as being attained simply by the accumulation of friends and material possessions. In reality, it is a much more complex emotion that is grounded in inner contentment. You may know someone who radiates genuine happiness: someone who appears to be lit by love and life from the inside. Many of us, however, accumulate inner blocks to this kind of contentment over a lifetime of experience: work stresses, relationship and family difficulties, financial problems, chronic physical and mental health conditions, concerns about the future, among others. When our inner lives are clouded by such concerns, what is apparently simple – being happy – is not that simple at all.
What do I mean by practical happiness? I mean authentic inner contentment. I mean finding the joy in the small moments in life: the acknowledgement of something beautiful in nature or our loved ones, a conversation with a trusted friend, or a shared joke that leaves our bellies aching and our eyes watering. By practical happiness, I mean developing skills for contentment that begin to manifest in a reasonable timeframe, and can be built upon in a lifetime.
For many of us, learning to be happy takes hard work and commitment. People often put a lot of effort and resources into improving their physical selves and their environments, so why should we baulk at the fact that we may have to put effort into being happy? It takes years to accumulate the old tapes and self-sabotaging behaviours that prevent us from feeling inner contentment, so it is reasonable to expect that it may take a long time to learn new skills for living that have the potential to bring us lasting happiness. The good news is that the pursuit of practical happiness, in itself, rewards us immediately with moments of genuine joy, self-esteem, and self-determination, which only increase in frequency as we walk this path.
The following are some of my principles of practical happiness. I encourage you to use them as prompts to learn skills that will lead to more moments of happiness in your own life, and practice taking regular steps, however small, to implement them.
Imagination – As children, imagination is an integral part of our inner lives. It is easy to visualize ourselves as whomever we want to be, in whatever situation we choose. When I turned fourteen, my mother was concerned that I would not become a responsible, contributing adult, and began to pressure me to put aside childish things, including writing, play-acting, and imagination. Mum meant well: she wanted me to succeed in the world on the terms that she understood it. However, years later, as my mind, body and spirit fell prey to several chronic illnesses, I lacked the ability to creatively deal with my new life challenges. I succumbed to my genetic heritage of major depression, and saw only the ’limitations’ of my life. More recently, I have rediscovered imagination and found it a vital tool for working with my challenges. Imagination is the ultimate form of problem solving. Albert Einstein made his breakthroughs in relativity theory using ’thought experiments’. Likewise, imagination is essential in visualizing the results of a life change or achievement of a goal. Not only is imagination fun, it is powerful!
Playfulness – Life can often be overwhelming: full of responsibilities and difficult challenges. We are often conditioned to take life very seriously, as we face demands that require dedication and hard work. We become so ingrained in our roles as breadwinner, housekeeper, caregiver, and even care-receiver, that we forget to step outside our roles. There are bills to be paid, people to take care of, communities to support, and in the process we forget that the strength to do these things must be replenished. You may need to learn how to play, or to be the child you wanted to be. Do something child-like each day, even if it is just for a few minutes: get your shoes wet at the beach or in a puddle, draw and paint what is in your heart – even if it is just a glowing yellow squiggle, roll down a grassy hill, make a mess. Don’t worry, your responsibilities will still be there, and you’ll feel recharged when you get back!
Expression – As adults, many of us do not know how to express our emotions. Perhaps we came from childhood environments where certain emotions, such as sadness and anger, were frowned upon and even emotions such as happiness were ’toned’ down. There are no ’bad’ emotions. All emotions are valid and important when experienced with the intent of helping others or improving ourselves. Without understanding the spectrum of our emotions, it’s hard to know happiness without the reference of sadness. Years ago, I discovered the idea of "expression time", by going to the movies alone. By watching lots of different types of movies, I learned better how to express my emotions. In the anonymity of a dark theatre, I could cry and laugh out loud, knowing that I didn’t have to be ashamed of my feelings. Perhaps you find your expression time in other places: in a hobby group among peers, in solitary walks through the forest or by the beach, or with a trusted friend who allows you to be exactly who you are. Whatever your method, it is vital that you regain the skills to connect to your emotions, as you did before you were conditioned not to feel them or experience them in depth.
Achievement – A lot of unhappiness is generated in our achievement-driven culture by the need to succeed and produce. Mission statements are no longer for corporations: they’ve been projected onto the individual, and it seems our worth is only as good as how much work we can contribute toward generating corporate, familial, and individual wealth. For those who deal daily with limitations – whether those imposed by the responsibility of caring for others, or dealing with our own physical and mental health challenges – the inability to "contribute" in a meaningful way can rob us of the self-worth so vital to our inner contentment. We assign ourselves impossible "to-do" lists and expect achievements that would typically require a team of dedicated workers to accomplish, and then berate ourselves when we cannot meet the unreasonable goals we set for ourselves. While it is important to strive for goals that challenge us, it is vital that they are reasonable and allow us to move with the natural flow and ebb of our energy. With my physical challenges, it takes more time to plant and nurture the growing things in my garden. With my mental challenges, it takes more time to complete a task I once found trivial, like writing this article. It is important to foster a sense of value in our achievements, no matter how small, by putting them in the framework of what we can honestly expect of ourselves. As a consequence, our self-confidence and self-esteem grows and with them, contentment begins to flourish.
Authenticity – In our daily life, we often have to adopt "masks" to move through the world. These masks may help us survive difficult or unfamiliar situations, or to help us fit into testing environments. However, when we do wear masks, it is important to do so consciously, knowing that a mask not only protects but also conceals us – most fundamentally – from ourselves. The freedom to be oneself is perhaps one of the most critical principles of practical happiness. Look at different areas of your life: family, work, cultural, spiritual, recreational, etc. Do any of these areas make you feel the happiest? Is it because that area gives you the opportunity to be authentic? If you feel lost in your life, chances are there is little opportunity for you to be true to yourself, and you are wearing masks more frequently than is healthy. In the long term, you may need to consciously make changes to your relationships, environment, and other areas of your life to allow more opportunities to be authentic. Make the effort to foster relationships, friendships, and peer groups where you are accepted as yourself. It is not only important to allow yourself the freedom to be, it is important to have key people in your life who reflect back at you positive images of yourself.
Practice – Reconsider your principles of practical happiness often, and celebrate areas you have improved in. Don’t give up if you slip back into old habits – try again – and continue to surround yourself with people who support you in your efforts. Remain conscious, in as many moments of your day as you can, yet forgive yourself lapses along the way. For some of us, happiness is something to be learned and worked at, every day of our lives. Allow yourself to feel, dream, imagine, and play: realize smaller goals and know that with each one you move toward the larger ones. Above all, remember to practice your skills for happiness as often as you can in this journey of life!
Jane Waterman is a freelance writer, editor and scientist. She is working on her memoirs and a first collection of short fiction, which she hopes to publish within a year.