This post is a bit late. Sunday 20th May 2016 was the International Day of Happiness. And to be honest it sort of just passed me by. Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. The UN just launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek to end poverty, reduce inequality, and protect our planet – three key aspects that lead to well-being and happiness.
I have some mixed feelings and thoughts about ‘happiness’. Mostly because so often we see - and I have fallen into this trip over and over again - that striving for happiness often leads to people feeling the opposite. Reasonably miserable. Have you ever fallen into the cognitive-happiness-expectation trap, where you think - ‘When this happens? When I have this? When this is resolved? Then I will be happy?’ Only to arrive there and things not to be all that much different to how they are now.
But mostly, I worry when we humans place too much emphasis on just one of the emotions available to us over all the others.
All of our emotions – and when I talk about emotions in this post, I’m referring only to those that are in the spectrum of ‘normal’ experience and functioning. I’m not discussing the emotions that can cause significant impairment, distress and mental illness – can be seen as reactions to what happen to us day by day: the people we meet, the experiences we have, the challenges we face. Sometimes these emotions act as alarm bells warning us we’re in danger of being harmed. Sometimes they reward us with feelings of joy and euphoria. Often they send us darker signals as well, like sadness, disappointment or anger, alerting us that something isn’t quite right or a something needs to be learnt.
When we look closely at happiness, it is all lovely and good, but it doesn’t actually teach us much about what it means to be fully human and fully engaged with the life we lead and the world we live in. For most people, it’s not all that difficult to handle the emotions of satisfaction, pleasure, euphoria, contentment or triumph. But dealing with sadness, suffering, disappointment and failures is much harder. But if we give ourselves time to experience them, reflect on them, learn from them and reflect on them, we learn things. And we become stronger. If we ignore them and focus on instead only on the experience of happiness, the opportunity for resilience and growth can be lost.
My concern is that if we become obsessed with only experiencing happiness, we might become scared of sadness. And that makes us much less resilient as individuals, as families and communities. The important truth about being human is that all of our emotions are really, really important. They are instructive. They are trying to teach us things about ourselves and the world. Sadness is not only as authentic an emotion as happiness, but it’s also far more instructive. The fleeting moments of bliss and joy, make sense only because they represent such a contrast with the experience of pain, trauma, disappointment or sadness, or even with those times when we might feel ourselves trapped in a tedious or dull routine. It’s vital that we become aware and acknowledge these feelings for what they are. And it’s quite okay to feel them. They’re trying to tell us something.
If people are encouraged to pursue happiness single-mindedly as their primary goal, either they are going to risk surrendering to the delusion that it’s possible, or they’re going to be frequently disappointed and frustrated. Neither is healthy.
As a person who has experienced some pretty significant episodes of major depression, I’ve noticed that a number of people in the general community there’s a perception that the opposite of depression is going to be happiness. This is just not right. For someone recovering from depression, sure moments of happiness will be great. But more importantly, coping with the really difficult emotions is going to be way more important. This is where the strength and resilience is going to come from.
So when I went to do some research into International Day of Happiness, these were the thoughts/cynicisms coming with me. Are there things we can do to increase our experiences of happiness? Hell yes! But I’ve always been a bit cautious about promoting them as a single mode of action for improving general health and wellbeing. Because I really do believe all the emotions are important.
But when I downloaded my ‘Action for Happiness’ guidebook I was way impressed. These weren’t quick fixes for instant gratification. These were evidence-based practices that when consistently applied to ones life can improve not just feelings of happiness, but other things as well. The beauty of these ‘happiness’ activities is that if you’re open to these ideas who knows what aspect of the human experience you’ll uncover.
The ten actions (in a very brief and neat numerical list) are:
- Giving – do things for others
- Relating – connect with people
- Exercising – take care of your body
- Awareness – live life mindfully
- Trying out – keep learning new things
- Direction – have goals to look forward to
- Resilience – find ways to bounce back
- Emotions – look for what’s good
- Acceptance – be comfortable with who you are
- Meaning – be part of something bigger
You can find further information on these ideas, the evidence behind them and easy tips for implementing them into your life at www.actionforhappiness.org. Who knows what you might uncover.