FOR centuries we have pondered the meaning of life and, for a similar period of time, we have come up with simply “to be happy”. Yes, there is a certain appeal that comes with happiness because happy people are healthier, more productive and are more likely to have better relationships.
In Western society we have posited that we would be happy once we had more time, more income, better health, and no war. Yet despite being in the best place in history when it comes to disposable income, time to spend it, low-infant mortality and longer life, we don’t seem to be happier. In fact, there is more self-harm, suicide is a significant cause of death, particularly among young people, and the World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will soon be the most significant health issue in the world. Happy? It doesn’t sound like it.
Much of our psychological research has focused on what makes and keeps people unwell, but in recent times we have turned also to looking at what keeps people well.
Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that rather than looking at your deficits, incorporating strengths such as humour, originality and generosity into everyday interactions is a better way to achieve happiness.
Perhaps it is our focus on individualism, together with the crumbling of that idea, that has encouraged us to focus on ourselves and our pursuit of happiness, leading to what some would suggest is a narcissistic society.
In his book The Good Life, psychologist Hugh Mackay suggests that people focusing on building their self-esteem and spending less time giving to others is a problem for us all. He believes we should think less about pursuing happiness, which after all is a transient state, and more about giving to others and growing our relationships, with happiness being the spin-off.
Psychologist and researcher Brene Brown suggests that rather than happiness, it’s courage we should seek. Courage that comes from pushing ourselves into something new and introducing variety.
Perhaps the pursuit of happiness isn’t the goal. As Seligman suggests in Flourish, having positive emotions, engagement in the moment (mindfulness), a sense of accomplishment (from courage), a sense of meaning (about life) and good relationships (from empathy and giving) is what we need for well-being, rather than happiness.