What is Happiness & How Happy are you?

My entire career, until the last few years, focused on chronic unhappiness. After all, what is depression, post traumatic stress disorder, histrionic personality disorder, or bi-polar but psychiatric terms to describe specific states of unhappiness? Are these states real and measurable? Yes. Do we need to treat them in every way we can? Obviously.

But about three years ago, a shift occurred in me internally. The shift occurred first in my understanding and treatment of depression. What is depression, I asked myself. On one hand, depression is a debilitating psychological problem that no one wants. On the other hand, depression can be broken down into its component parts, or symptoms, and each of these symptoms can be treated individually. Isolation, lack of exercise, poor diet, withdrawal from activities once found enjoyable, irregular sleep patterns, negative self-talk, hopelessness, etc., are many of the symptoms of depression. When looked at as a whole, depression is just too big to treat, but when we focus on one symptom at a time, depression can become much more manageable. There are simple practices we can do to effectively deal with isolation and poor diet for example. We can do something about lack of exercise, withdrawal, and any of the individual symptoms of depression. By attacking symptoms individually, we can slay the dragon. This thinking is not novel or new in the literature, but what follows was very new to me and quite likely new to you. 

In the fall of 2010 I opened a random BE Success Survey data chart. If you don’t know, the BE Success Survey is a behavioral assessment our company uses to understand a person’ behaviors, personality and motivators.

Patterns in this data set, which I opened from pure intuition, made me feel sick. I tracked the person down. He was a complete stranger to me, but I called him and let him know who I was, and that I was worried about him. He was shocked, then pissed off, then he started crying. So did I. It was very weird. So am I. He was also contemplating suicide. Thankfully, at the time, I was not. 

We decided to look first at his symptoms. From there we were going to engage in everyday practices that happy people do in the (research based) hope that these simple practices might just change his brain chemistry. And this series of events marked a change in my core thinking from a focus on what is wrong to a focus on the simple behaviors that anyone can do to be happier and more productive. 

I did what clinicians typically do: I asked my new friend about his relationships to assess isolation. I asked him about his hobbies to assess withdrawal from activities he once found interesting. I asked him about his exercise routine. As expected, he had not spent time with friends in months. He no longer rode his bike which was something he once “loved to do,” and he was eating and sleeping “whatever and whenever.” 

Jim (not his real name), despondent and completely miserable, lived in a studio apartment in Manhattan with a view of Central Park. In one of our first conversations I asked him to look down at the park as I asked several questions. “Can you see the colors of the leaves? Can you feel the cool air? Can you see someone down there laughing? Doesn’t it suck?” I asked him. He laughed, or something kind of like it. 

When we are depressed, we focus on what is wrong and we practice activities that will support our worldview of suffering. Colors of leaves, the feeling of cool air, a focus on people laughing and other simple gifts of nature are blind to us. Returning to the conversation… 

“I think we need to plan a dinner party” was my comment to him. “What the f***!?” was his comment back. “Actually,” I continued, “you need to plan a dinner party to apologize to your friends, but we can do that after your bike ride to the deli.” After some spirited banter, he agreed. 

This was the beginning of the treatment plan. Some of the thinking behind the plan were ideas such as: Jim cannot isolate at his own dinner party, and riding his bike to the deli was the beginning of an exercise program. A deli sandwich had to be better than “whatever, whenever.” 

The emphasis of “therapy” was simply doing the things that happier people do. We argued. We talked of pain. We reviewed his failures. We discussed the typical things depressed people and therapists like to talk about, but we also planned an awesome dinner party, and he rode his bike in central park, and he ate deli sandwiches, and he went to bed before midnight consistently. 

The dinner party was a complicated, multi-course dinner complete with a well- practiced apology speech. All of the courses and the speech were rehearsed. The apology was about abandoning his friends. At the end of the speech he had to ask for forgiveness. They would forgive him. “The party was awesome,” he admitted, begrudgingly, and “it was fun.” 

We next planned a trip to see his girlfriend in Florida. There are of course many forms of happiness that a girlfriend can provide that I certainly could not. He gave me reasons he could not do it. We argued. We talked of pain. We reviewed failures. He was persistent. So was I. He went to Florida. 

One by one we attacked each of his depressive symptoms with the typical, normal things that happier people do. The therapy was a success. Nothing fancy, just the fundamentals of happiness. After 12 weeks of happiness practices, his mood returned to normal. After two years, he has his own business and is much happier. YEAH. 

So, I’m thinking to myself, can happiness really be based upon simple practices? I think the answer is yes. The facts that happiness can be measured- that change, lasting change, is possible, gave me new hope, hope for a better life for everyone, yes everyone (I’m a hopeless romantic like that). Perhaps even more powerful is the truth that there are simple practices that will lead us to a happier and more successful life. Wow! Can I believe it? Maybe. Can you? I hope so.

What is Happiness?

Back to basics – What is happiness? Happiness is generally feeling positive about who you are and what you do. According to the foremost expert in positive psychology, Martin Seligman, happiness can be broken down into three measurable parts:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Engagement
  3. Meaning

So how much of happiness is truly biological and how much can be learned? Researchers have determined that approximately 40% of our happiness is our genetic “set point.” 10% of our happiness is based on circumstances, and the remaining 40% is based on a combination of what we believe and how we act, or in other words, the behaviors we practice.

Our net happiness can also be explored through the lens of psychological needs. This section of our discussion draws heavily on the work of Cloé Madanes. To me, Cloé Madanes may be the greatest living psychotherapist. She has studied with renowned helpers including Milton Erickson, Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley, and she now works with Tony Robbins. She has published several books, written many articles in professional journals, and her methods are taught in Universities world-wide. Through a career that expands over several decades, Cloé has no doubt trained, coached or supervised thousands of counselors, psychologists and helpers of all types and races. 

Some time ago, Cloé developed a framework around what she described as the six core psychological / emotional needs of all people. The six needs Cloé brings forward are listed below along with a seventh that I added from studying the work of Michael Singer (Untethered Soul), and Wayne Dyer. 

  1. Growth
  2. Certainty
  3. Contribution
  4. Variety
  5. Significance
  6. Love
  7. Freedom

One or more of these needs will drive your behavior, and if the need(s) is not met, you will feel unhappy. Imagine a life where you were growing as a person, all these needs were met, you were certain that the universe was good, you made continual contributions to your self, family, friends, work and community, you had unlimited variety, a deep sense of significance in all you did, the freedom to do whatever you wanted with whomever you wanted, whenever you wanted, and an abiding sense that you were deeply loved by many people. 

Theoretically, if we had all of the above seven needs met, we would be happy beyond our wildest dreams. Is this true? I don’t know. But I do believe these needs are real and that we can meet them in ways that are either productive or unhealthy. 

Which of the above needs most resonate with you? Are the needs being met? If not, what can you change? The answer is simple. You. So how do you change you? The core you, the spiritual being that inhabits a body, need not change. The spirit is complete. The spirit is perfect. This conversation is outside our scope here, but will be addressed in a subsequent article (maybe.) The other parts of you, your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and practices are all, as we continue to discuss, malleable and open to change. 

Needs can be real or perceived. How we meet our needs is partly defined by our locus of control. Locus of control is a psychological phrase that relates to the fundamental way each of us views the world. Locus of control is described as being either internal or external. Those with an internal locus of control believe we are responsible for the change we seek and that change is within our control. Those with an external locus of control believe that external or outside events control our worlds, moods, and behaviors. 

If we believe that external events such as the weather, our boss, our spouse or anything else is responsible for our happiness, or meeting our core needs, we are powerless to change. We are simply reactors to our environment and helpless. There are of course, billions of occurrences, events or phenomena that we cannot change or influence, the seasons, the economy, etc. And certainly, some of these external events will influence us profoundly. The death of a loved one, for example, will change our lives. But in order to move in the direction of fulfilled needs, we can focus on the internal locus of control, those things that are within our power to change. How many times do we watch the news and worry? We cannot change the events on the news but we can certainly change how often we watch the news. A focus on the things we cannot change leads to feelings of helplessness and despair. A focus on the things we cannot change will not improve net happiness.

So How Happy are you?

Let’s do some diagnostics. Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina describes the happiest emotions as joy, gratitude, serenity, amusement, interest, pride, awe, inspiration and love.  

Please take out a piece of paper, or your notes on your iPhone, and write out those 9 emotions. Now, next to each word, rank yourself from 1-10 on how often you experience each of those emotions in a given day. 1 is never, 10 is always. Are you happy with the results? If not, don’t worry. Proven help is on the way.

As we have seen, 40% of our happiness set-point is trainable and is determined by how we think and act, so the question becomes, what are the qualities, attitudes and practices that lead to happiness? Here’s what I believe they are: loved ones, exercise, meaningful work, thankfulness, mindfulness, positivity, nature, compassion, forgiveness, and faith. These concepts and their corresponding practices, dear reader, are what we believe to be the ten commandments of happiness and success.

Remember, huge change begins with small decisions practiced over time. We can decide to become more courageous, then we can find people to support us. Then we can identify small practices that improve our ability to be courageous like saying no or expressing our true opinions. Small practices lead to big changes. Small changes are easy. Big changes are often hard. There are times in life when big changes may be necessary, but so much of what we want can be accomplished by simply engaging in simple practices that become big strengths over time. As we become stronger through practicing, we can handle bigger and bigger challenges. This concept holds true for most things in life. The first time someone attempts the violin, they’re probably not going to sound like Itzhak Perlman. At age four, for most, reading is impossible, but by age fourteen, most of us read Shakespeare in high school English. Think and practice with the long term, big picture in mind. Think and practice in nature. Think and practice with the seasons in mind.

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