Image Credit: Medium
I wrote an article last fall in which I said that the pursuit of happiness may be misguided in the sense that even if we find it, it tends to be temporal. And that is particularly so if that “happiness” is connected to money or other material possessions. A more meaningful pursuit may be to find purpose. On the other hand, we do observe people who seem to be “happy,” or at least content with their lives. To the extent that it is possible to live happy lives, what does research tell us leads to such contentment? And what doesn’t provide that outcome? It appears that there are a handful of things that people who consistently enjoy their lives have in common.
Attitude Not surprisingly, one of those things is simply their attitude about their lives. This is complicated because none of us wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, I’m going to be a pessimist and think my life sucks no matter what happens.” Our attitudes are influenced by many things, external and internal, but the really interesting thing is that for people who can see life through a more positive lens, they actually feel more content regardless of the circumstances! My father, for example, was an eternal optimist, despite many data points to challenge his perspective. He faced many successes and difficulties, some severe, in his life, but he always verbalized that he was incredibly fortunate and that there was some level of positivity to everything that happened. He did this consistently and hearing himself say it did, in fact, influence how he actually felt. Even for those of us who default to a glass half empty perspective, probably the simplest way to support a positive attitude is by noting gratitude.
Social Connection We are social creatures and genuine connection with others not only supports contentment, it also supports physical health. Studies show that loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day in terms of cancer risk! Importantly, the power of social connection can be fully realized with a single, meaningful relationship or even multiple, “casual” connections such as pleasant conversations with someone at the supermarket, with an Uber driver, etc. Regardless, we are deeply wired, for evolutionary reasons, to connect with others, and doing so affects our neurochemistry, which affects our emotional state. Key point: although online interaction can provide some meaningful social connection, it does not provide the same neurochemical benefits that face to face interactions and physical touch do.
Limited Stress Interestingly, the absence of stress is highly predictive for contentment, while the chronic presence of stress, like loneliness, not only mitigates against happiness, it actually makes both physical and psychological illness more likely! Similar to attitude, stress is strongly correlated to how we feel about or react to a given circumstance. Two different people may face the same situation and one person is crippled by stress and the other feels little or no stress at all. People who experience healthy levels of stress tend to do two things. First, they limit the stressors in their lives that they can control such as exposure to toxic people, workplaces, etc. Secondly, they tend to be good at self-calming and self-regulation through practices such as meditation, breathing, yoga, etc.
Physical Activity I wrote a recent article about the ongoing collective decline in mental health in which I noted that from an evolutionary perspective, we have spent almost all of human history living very active lives, mostly outdoors. Now, many of us live sedentary lives, mostly indoors, for which we were not designed. Extensive amounts of time on social media also negatively impacts happiness. The research is overwhelming that exercise and other physical activity not only promotes physical health, but that is has substantial implications for emotional and cognitive health as well. Physical activity also helps the body metabolize stress, which, like meditation, turns out to be critical in helping our mind-body return to homeostasis. The good news is that what is required to support contentment and wellness is very doable by most people. It does not require hours per week in the gym. It can be walks or gardening or recreation.
Mindfulness People that enjoy their lives tend to spend more of their attention and effort in the present. The therapeutic definition I use for mindfulness is simply: awareness, in the moment, without judgment. Because content people spend less time regretting the past or worrying about the future, they are able to notice what’s happening in the now. This is really important because much of our stress, and almost all of our worry, are related to things that aren’t actually happening in the moment. In fact, the more time we can live mindfully in the present, by definition, the more our feelings will be unencumbered by regret and worry.
Purpose and Control Not surprisingly, people who have found purpose in their lives and some level of control over how they live, tend to be more content and satisfied with their lives. While happiness supported by the factors noted above can be real and worthwhile, it tends to be less sustainable and resilient to environmental challenges than purpose, which tends to better endure life’s ups and downs. As for control, the research suggests that being able to spend a meaningful amount of time how we want to spend it is far more valuable than money related to our wellbeing. In fact, some of the least happy people in society are those who have earned large amounts of money, but have sacrificed their time and relationships in the process.
So, whether we use the word “happiness” or “contentment” or “enjoyment,” etc., there are people whose sense of their own lives tends to be more positive than that experienced by other people. We know that factors such as attitude, social connection, limited stress, physical activity and mindfulness support a greater sense of wellbeing and, thus contentment. We also know that once our basic needs are met, that neither money nor status nor material acquisitions correlate with happiness. And, as I noted in my article on happiness vs. purpose, “when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation.” Even if we manage to achieve a kind of contentment, having meaning in our lives might be the more powerful objective.