In December (2013) our article “Come On, Get Happy” (linked on the left side in the Related Content box) posted on this site, where we asked you to consider your own level of happiness and asked if this is the year for you to start making positive strides toward improving it. We referred to a Psychology Today article by Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd B Kashdan (“What Happy People do Differently”) and presented a series of generally shared traits research had uncovered in studies of happy people, with the idea you can begin examining yourself and your practices comparatively. In light of the research we encouraged reflection and self-examination.
This month we shift gears to encourage action and ownership of your own happiness, and provide four steps necessary to move forward to real happiness.
Defining your own happiness
The simple fact is we are all going to be unhappy sometimes. Sadness is to be expected but when it has become your default condition, as it does for so many people, you need to make some fundamental changes to how you view and negotiate the world. The first step to becoming truly happy requires defining what happiness is for you.
What does my happiness look like?
Being happy requires effort and the first effort is to answer for yourself this question: “What conditions are necessary for me to be able to say, ‘I’m happy’?” A lot of chronically unhappy, depressed, and stagnant people simply become mired in their dissatisfaction, wishing for something better to magically appear but without even knowing what that “something better” might be. This isn’t about longing for the greener, better tasting grass over there that really won’t satisfy, but about determining a real vision for your happiness.
Create a portrait of your “perfect world”
In creating your perfect world, we like to use this example: If you were given a magic wand and instruction manual to work it, you’d probably lead off improving and molding your personal environment into that most likely to guarantee maximum happiness. I definitely would. Now, maybe later you’d get around to ensuring world peace and curing cancer later but, just being honest here, for most of us there’s first gonna be a few pretty significant tweaks in our immediate surroundings.
So what would that “perfect world” look like? Over-the-top wealth and grandeur, major changes in our personal circumstances, or a pain-free do-it-yourself physical upgrade? Or would you opt for more subtle, realistic tweaks: more money (or less debt)?; a different station in life?; improved relationships with the family and friends to close emotional distance and lessen interpersonal conflict?; better health for yourself and those who you love?; or would you choose the opportunity to go back and make different life choices? What would your realistic “perfect world” look like?
Come to terms with the unrealistic, unattainable, and your “lost causes”
For many of us unhappiness has to do with past disappointments or unresolved mourning of missed opportunities. Some disappointments can be rectified but more often missed opportunities are forever gone.
Coming to terms with and accepting our “lost causes” – those things in our life we wish were different or we could have another shot at – is crucial to your search for happiness. Staying stuck in wishful thinking wastes time, creates a cycle of disappointment, and paralyzes forward movement. All of us have missed out on something because of our own poor choices, personal shortcomings, or sometimes just plain bad luck. Assign the blame, mourn your loss, and move past it. Seek out help if you need but refuse to hold onto your regrets. Learn to let them go or, better yet, use them to spur self-improvement by perhaps laughing at the screw-ups, shortcomings, or evil fortune while vowing to not lose out again. Staying stuck in regrets guarantees unhappiness.