What is this feeling called “happiness” which most people seem to want, and many crave above all else?
The United States has the concept of happiness enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, where the “pursuit of happiness” is equated with “life” and “liberty” as “inalienable rights.” By designating happiness as an overriding right, it is ingrained in each American’s child consciousness as vital core need.
It’s no wonder that people feel an inherent social pressure to be happy at all times. There are myriad “how-to-be-happy” books on the market, and we’re constantly exhorted to “Keep smiling,” “Put on a happy face,” and “Look on the bright side.” In her book, Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about the relentless promotion of positive thinking, the message being that we must feel happy or there is something terribly “wrong” with us.
We do know that money and materialism do not ensure (“buy”) happiness, and that citizens of the richest country in the world are decidedly not the measurably happiest people.
But what do we mean by happy? Perpetual elation? Bliss? Ecstasy? Many critics abroad feel that setting perpetual happiness as a primary goal is a set-up for disappointment, that this pursuit as unattainable, an unworthy conceit, even an example of American immaturity. Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have written about happiness as a worthy but temporary state of being, but neither posited it as an ultimate nirvana.
Contentment and gratitude are much better designations of what we can and should aspire to. When we are grateful for our blessings and content with our lives, there are measurable biological changes we can observe: Our levels of enhancing immune factors and chemicals like dopamine and endorphins increase, as well as beneficial changes in neurocellular firing seen in imaging studies of our brains.
Perpetual happiness is a manufactured myth. States of continuous extreme happiness can be seen in psychiatric conditions such as the euphoria of bipolar mood disorder, or in cocaine-induced highs, and even these always come to an end, often followed by depression. There is a clear difference between a sustained positive mood and the fleeting ecstasies induced by “sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll”.
People who are grateful and content tend to have a more appreciative view of the quality of their lives, and they tend to be more tolerant and empathetic. That positive mind-set has an appealing and beneficial effect on others, so that they “spread” their positive vibes, in a phenomenon known as “social contagion.” They attract those who feel warmed by their mood, who in turn feel energized.
They are able to experience more pleasure in their lives, and feel grateful for their family, friends, and other positive relationships and activities. These moods are even more prevalent when they have a core value system and sense of meaning, beyond materialism, in their lives.
Contented people have no illusions that life will be easy sailing. They recognize that just as there are joys and pleasures in life, there will inevitably be upheavals and even pain. They are better able to accept life’s successes and setbacks with equanimity. Their setbacks are more often met with with resolve and resilience, and their successes are followed by humility and grace. They recognize that neither state is permanent, nor is either an accurate predictor of the future. The natural flow of life includes periods of tranquillity, to be sure, and there are inevitable and unexpected achievements and challenges.
Contented and grateful individuals appreciate the smallest of pleasures, a hot bath when cold and tired, soup and a sandwich when famished, a comforting voice or touch when lonely, a smile and hug when feeling down, and of course, the smell of flowers just about anytime. It is crucially important, for our personal health as well as the quality of our own lives and those we are close to, for us to savor the positives in our lives. Gratitude and Contentment are the cores of an enriched existence.