Dan Baker, PhD
Dig beneath the surface of what people say they want -- health, love, money, etc. -- and you'll find that they really want happiness. But something so precious can be terribly elusive.
Happy people aren't richer or healthier than others. They're not more powerful or of higher status. Their lives aren't blessed by exceptional good fortune and may even be scarred by tragedy. But they know something that others don't.
THE UNHAPPY AND HAPPY BRAIN
The struggle for happiness is rooted in our complex biological heritage. Though we are highly evolved, our brains remain identical, in some ways, to those of our oldest ancestors.
We share the fear circuit, buried deep in the most primitive parts of the brain, with every animal from reptiles on up. It's essential survival equipment, driving us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of danger.
The fear circuit can be activated by anything from paying bills to feeling we're less than perfect -- and fighting, fleeing or freezing won't help. When the fear circuit is in charge, we can't be creative, hopeful or even fully conscious of our surroundings. We can't be happy.
We do have an almost magical source of compensation. It is the higher brain, or neocortex. This distinctively human mental equipment enables us to act instead of react, to grow emotionally and intellectually, to open ourselves to all that life has to offer -- and to find happiness.
AVOIDING HAPPINESS TRAPS
Happiness is harder to find when we waste energy looking in the wrong places. I call these the "happiness traps" -- they seem to offer the illusion of happiness but they never pay off.
Trap: Money. Everyone knows that you can't buy happiness, but how many people really believe it?
In fact, researchers find little correlation between wealth (beyond the poverty level) and self-rated happiness. One particularly striking study compared three groups of people -- lottery winners, healthy people and victims of sudden paralysis. The lottery winners were no happier than average, and the paralyzed, once over the shock, not much less happy.
Trap: Social status and possessions. Here, too, more doesn't mean happier. Position and belongings offer the illusion of freedom -- and then deliver the opposite. It might be flexibility that we truly desire, and that frequently comes with simplicity.
Trap: The pursuit of pleasure. We naturally want enjoyable experiences. But while pleasure masks fear momentarily, it doesn't overcome it. And since any pleasure pales when it loses its freshness, we just rush on to the next. The pursuit turns into a treadmill. Happiness remains elusive.
Trap: Believing that you can force happiness. Happiness is not an end in itself, but a by-product of qualities such as love, optimism, courage and purpose. It takes more than will. It takes work -- very satisfying work.
APPRECIATION: ANTIDOTE TO FEAR
If fear drives us back, what propels us forward to a full form of happiness is love. And while there are many kinds of love -- romantic, religious, brotherly, love of children, parents, country, nature -- the ingredient they all share is appreciation. It lets you open up to growth and joy.
Feel the power of appreciation for yourself: Think of someone or something you appreciate. What are the qualities of this person, place or thing that you are grateful for? Focus on them and be aware of your appreciation. How do you feel, right now? You may be surprised how long the glow of happiness lasts.
The benefits of appreciation grow stronger with practice. Try this: Make a list of what you deeply appreciate or are grateful for -- people, places, objects, memories. For three to five minutes, three times a day, focus on one of these favorite things.
Generosity and altruism are appreciation in action. It really does feel better to give a heartfelt gift than to get one. A surefire way to increase happiness is giving of yourself by volunteering to help in a hospital, school or homeless shelter.
Even when bad things happen, or we're stuck in a situation that's difficult to change, we still have the all-important choice of how we feel.
Example: A tornado flattens two adjacent houses. One family is stunned by the devastation, mute, passive, overcome. The family next door is hugging each other, thanking God for the miracle that they all survived.
Which family would you rather be part of? It's up to you how you interpret the world.
IMPEDIMENTS TO REAL HAPPINESS
The following common false beliefs get in the way of happiness...
I've been victimized. The world can put obstacles in your path, but holding on to the hurt keeps you feeling passive and powerless.
I'm entitled to more. When you feel you have it coming -- money, love, respect -- you're resentful when it doesn't arrive. And you lose the deep satisfaction of getting what you want through your own efforts.
I'll be rescued. Counting on outside help to solve problems leaves you thinking, "Am I good enough?"
Someone else is to blame. In laying responsibility for mishaps and disappointments elsewhere, you abdicate your own power.
LEAD WITH YOUR STRENGTHS
Instead of dwelling on what you're doing wrong, heighten awareness of what you're doing right, and do more of it.
It's more than just positive thinking. Nothing succeeds like success. The satisfaction you get from feeling on top of things will crowd out behavior that makes you unhappy.
Example: Even if you're almost always in a cranky mood, there must be times when you feel content, no matter if it's just five minutes out of every hour. Become aware of those times. What thoughts, situations, activities bring them on? What makes them last? Find ways to increase the place that these things have in your life.
LIVE A MULTIDIMENSIONAL LIFE
If you have money to invest, your financial adviser will probably counsel you to put some in stocks, some in bonds, some in very safe investments and some in high-profit, riskier ones. That way, if one sector goes down, you'll still have lots left.
Diversify your life in the same way. Distributing your energies among friends, family, work and leisure means there will always be a source of happiness to draw on.
Bottom Line/Retirement interviewed medical psychologist Dan Baker, PhD, founding director of the Life Enhancement Center, which offers programs designed to help people through significant lifestyle changes, at Canyon Ranch, Tucson, Arizona. He is coauthor of What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better (Rodale).