Standing back from our day-to-day goals and challenges, our ultimate human desire is for personal fulfillment and happiness. In the U.S., a strong culture of the “Protestant work ethic” yields a strong economy, but a relatively unhappy population. (Based on measures of happiness among the 35 OECD countries, the U.S. ranks in the bottom half.) That is not to say a strong work ethic prevents happiness or fulfillment, but rather that work should be a means to well-being instead of an end in itself.
On the one hand, the purpose of life and the related concepts of fulfillment and happiness have been contemplated and studied since before humans could write. And as soon as our ancestors could write, they wrote about it. On the other hand, only recently, through the new field of Positive Psychology, has the issue been subjected to the scientific method, much of it confirming what our ancestors concluded, but with surprising exceptions as well.
Scientists refer to the domain of happiness and life satisfaction as “subjective well-being,” but varying definitions and measures abound in the academic literature. Partners in Thought® conception of life satisfaction includes two primary elements: (1) hedonic pleasure and comfort; and (2) feelings of purposefulness and meaning. Based on this definition, for example, having children may result in little or no change in life satisfaction; having children reduces day-to-day pleasure and comfort but is equally offset by day-to-day feelings of meaning or purpose.
Eating, experiencing a massage, and absorption in a video game each generates pure pleasure with little or no sense of purpose. Volunteering at a food kitchen or mentoring a youngster may provide little or no pleasure but lots of purposeful achievement. Purposeful activity today (earning money) often leads to more pleasure in the future (spending that money on a hedonistic vacation). Based on the law of diminishing returns, if you are one who experiences a lot of purpose but little pleasure, you should increase activities that provide you pure pleasure. Conversely, if you devote a lot of time or energy to generating pleasure, you should increase the level of purposeful activity in your life (including purposeful activities that will increase pleasure in the future). High achievers are particularly prone to over-weighting purposefulness and under-indulging in pleasure, consistent with Ernest Hemingway’s observation in The Garden of Eden that “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” and with J.R.R. Tolkien’s observation that “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Pleasure and purpose even affect our sense of time: an hour massage may feel like only 10 minutes while 10 minutes of pulling weeds may feel like an hour.
Evidence suggests happiness is derived from . . .
your actions and activities, which in turn are largely driven by their expected effects on your future happiness. But most people devote too much energy to what they think should make them happy instead of what actually does. Discovering your true values, purposes, and sources of pleasure must therefore be the first step towards increased happiness.
how you allocate your attention. Learning to attend to stimuli that increase your happiness (which automatically results in reduced attention to stimuli that decrease your happiness), is an effective behavior for maximizing subjective well-being.
having a meaningful purpose and achieving milestones in pursuit of the purpose, even more so when the purpose is to serve something greater than one’s self. As Pollyana as it may sound, research indicates that the most reliable method of increasing well-being in the moment is doing an act of kindness.
manipulating your environment to either maximize pleasure or achievement or to minimize displeasure or distraction.
sufficient material comforts; but, research indicates that income beyond about $75,000 per year generates very little happiness in Americans, if any. In fact, one study concluded that increased income beyond this level had ZERO impact on happiness for the average American. A central premise of Buddhism is that material comforts are incapable of providing lasting or deep happiness because they change all the time, we get used to them, we worry about losing or damaging them, and we suffer when we lose them. The joys they bring, though often wonderful, are short-lived. Fulfilling your desires will not be as satisfying as reducing your desires.
consistency between your ideal self and your actual behaviors. The greater the gap between your ideal self (e.g., intrinsic desires, aspirations, hopes, or positive images of self) and your perception of your actual self, the more dissatisfied and unhappy you become and, from an evolutionary standpoint, the more likely you are to take actions to close the gap.
remembering joyful events (but analyzing those memories reduces happiness).
spending your resources on experiences instead of material things. The mere anticipation and planning for the experience increases happiness and excitement as opposed to the anticipation of delivery of a material good, which engenders edginess and impatience.
exercise and physical wellbeing. Exercise not only is a highly purposeful activity, but the chemical reaction to exercise improves hedonic pleasure, as well.
letting go of attachments to ideas, people, material comforts, and perfection.
Partners in Thought® tools and methods address all of these factors that affect happiness, whether through self-discovery, meditation, self-hypnosis, achievement, behavioral change, emotional regulation, or essential thought-partnering. And one of the Partners in Thought® interactive workshops is devoted exclusively to improving and maintaining happiness. Above all else, our primary goal for our individual clients is a more pleasurable and purposeful day-to-day life.
Not only is your well-being an end in itself, but research indicates that your happiness or positivity can increase the length of your life. In fact, job satisfaction is a better predictor of a longer life than smoking or exercise habits. Your emotions can also improve the happiness and well-being of those with whom you come into contact because emotions are contagious. One study found that a leader’s emotional status influences the whole climate of one’s team as much as 50-70%.