What Will Make Me Happy? Finding Answers To One Of Life's Most Important Mysteries
“What will make me happy?” That is the question people have been asking even before they could put it into words. On one hand, it’s an issue that has been debated by some of history’s greatest philosophical minds, those who were also asking “what is happiness?” and “what kind of happiness is best?” On the other hand, it’s a question most people find themselves asking every single day, often without thinking about it, using it as a guide to answer the myriad choices they have thrown their way every day; e.g. Drive or walk? Soup or salad? Splurge or save? Sometimes, the deciding factor is simply an understanding of what will make us enjoy life the most.
Still, navigating happiness is not always as simple as this-or-that decision-making. It’s not uncommon for people to feel unhappy with their lives as a whole, and addressing that larger unhappiness requires asking questions much bigger than deciding what food they’re in the mood for. Looking for the answers to lifelong happiness can be a lifelong journey. For many people, the journey is as important as the destination, and for others the journey is the destination. Let’s take a closer look at what psychologists have discovered about happiness, and what lessons we can take from their findings.
What Does It Mean To Be Happy?
If there were an easy answer to this question, you probably wouldn’t be here right now. But since it’s such a huge problem to face, it’s vital to understand that the way we approach this question is at least as important as any possible answer. In recent years, the field of Positive Psychology has developed to try and break down happiness in a way that’s understandable and manageable. In many ways, positive psychology seeks to find answers to what Greek philosophers including Socrates and Plato called “Eudaimonia”, which they considered the highest possible state of wellbeing which all people should strive for. Naturally, people tend to have widely differing opinions when it comes to how we should be striving for that happiness.
But the truth is that, for the most part people have a tendency to overthink happiness. We may not be constantly monitoring our overall happiness, but if we stop to really think about it we tend to know whether or not we’re happy with our lives.
So, if you haven’t done so recently, try to really take stock of what you are happy for in your life, and what you aren’t happy for. Take a moment to meditate, write down, or just sit and think about these questions:
When do I find myself feeling happiest?
What do I think will make me happiest in the future?
What did I used to think would make me happiest in the future? Was I right?
Which people make me feel happy when they’re around?
What did I do today that made me happy? And why did I do it?
None of these answers will settle the age-old question of “what is happiness”, but they might help bring that answer into focus. At the very least, they will help you begin to paint a picture of what your version of happiness looks like—and that’s a great place to start.
Cultivating Lifelong Happiness
As anyone who’s experienced the sugar-high and inevitable crash after eating too much candy knows, chasing fleeting happiness is not an efficient or sustainable goal. Of course it’s important to find happiness in the moment, but those pursuits should not exist at the expense of long-term happiness.
In one of the longest-running studies of adult life, Harvard University researchers have collected data on a group of one-time undergraduates since the late 1930s. Since its beginning, the study has also grown to include the original subjects children—many who are now in their 50s and 60s—as well expanding to other people in their communities. The result is over 80 years of records on the physical and mental health of the subjects, and the most expansive study ever performed on what is most likely to create a happy life.
In particular, the study focused on what aspects of people’s lives were the best predictors of long-term happiness. What they discovered was that, more than anything, people who were satisfied with their relationships with other people at age 50 were much more likely to be happy at age 80. Next to that, they found that people who took the best care of their bodies throughout their 20s, 30s, and 40s also had a higher likelihood of reporting lifelong happiness.
So what can we learn from this study, which is as close to a scientific answer to “what will make me happy?” as we have available to us. Let’s try to distill those lessons into two points:
1: Social Connections Keep Us Both Happy And Healthy: The researchers in the Harvard study have unequivocally asserted that people with strong connections to their friends, family, communities, or any combination of the three will live longer, happier lives. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to start getting as many relationships as possible. Some people are happiest with just one or two relationships, and will still receive the full mental and physical benefits as long as those relationships are meaningful. Quality, not quantity, is the key.
This is our biggest takeaway, but there are a few important things to remember. First of all, “relationships” do not always have to be romantic. Forming quality friendships is just as important for our mental health. This can take time, but it’s worth it!
Secondly, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. The Harvard researchers noted that even their subjects who reported being happiest in their relationships still bickered with their partners from time to time. What was important was that, when push came to shove, they entirely trusted their partner to have their back. Remember to hold other people, and yourself, to realistic standards. No one can be perfect all of the time!
2: Orienting Your Priorities Towards Happiness: In his TED Talk, Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the Harvard study, mentions that the most commonly reported life goals for millennials were fame and fortune. However, over the 80 years of the Harvard study neither of those were nearly as strong predictors of happiness as having strong relationships. Sometimes when we orient ourselves towards long-term material goals, we do so without knowing if they will really make us happy in the end.
For example, some people dedicate their entire education to careers that will make them financially successful, only to discover in the end that they don’t enjoy the work itself. This isn’t the case for everyone, but just goes to show that we can never count on prioritizing goals based on money or status to give us fulfillment. It’s important to keep perspective and, when you’re really trying to figure out what will make you happy in the long run, to prioritize the things you know will make a difference in your happiness.
Try to write down a list of five things that make you happy, and five things that you think will make you happy in life. Take the time to realize which of these are short-term goals, and which are long-term. Don’t be afraid to ask other people for their advice or input. Everyone’s version of happiness is a bit different, and there’s always something to be learned from telling and listening to other people’s experiences.
How Therapy Can Help
The truth is that the question “what will make me happy?” is almost always too big for any one person to handle on their own. It’s a question that’s occured to almost every person since the beginning of time, and yet it’s still debatable whether there’s one true answer. Thankfully, no one has to go it alone. Talking to a therapist can be immensely helpful when trying to figure out what answers will work best for you.
With online therapy, patients can reach to their therapist through video calls and text, making it easier than ever to communicate with your counselor. Sometimes just having someone’s professional, objective opinion to bounce your thoughts off of can make all the difference. Online therapy, which is often even more accessible and affordable than in-person therapy while being just as effective, provides an amazing opportunity to have those professional voices.
For many, the key to finding happiness is understanding it’s a journey, not a destination. It requires a constant awareness and effort to understand ourselves, to set intelligent goals and to surround ourselves with positive relationships and experiences. By being honest with ourselves, staying true to our values, and striving for personal growth, we can all hope to one day discover true happiness.
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