Happiness. It’s something we all aspire to. But when was the last time you told someone you were happy – and meant it? Can you define what happiness is for you, and how to stay happy when you get there? If these questions seem hard to answer, you aren’t alone. Despite its popularity in our social media feeds, our understanding of true happiness has become somewhat hazy.
Thanks to our always-on, increasingly digital world, happiness can seem permanently just around the corner. Something others have, but we don’t … yet. Our feeds are stuffed with advice on how to be happy. Meditate. Get a new job. Have kids. Don’t have kids. Take a holiday. Treat yourself to something you’ve been saving for. But when we make these decisions or achieve our goals, too often we find we still aren’t there. Happiness is a target that seems to move each time we approach, tantalisingly close but always just out of reach.
1. Understand What Happiness Isn’t
It may sound counterintuitive, but a key part of learning how to be happy is to understand what happiness isn’t. And that’s the very thing it’s so often portrayed as: a goal or destination. An enduring state we’ll all reach one day, if only we make the right decisions. Permanent happiness is actually impossible – no matter what their social media says, no one is happy all the time.
As humans, we simply haven’t evolved to feel this way. In fact, we have a bit of a negative bias: loss, failure and sadness can have a greater impact and seem longer lasting than simple satisfaction or a sense of pride in an achievement. It’s why bad news sells better than good news, and several positive reviews are needed to outweigh one bad one.
2. See Happiness as Layers That Contribute to Your Well-being
While our brains are quite receptive to negative thoughts and feelings, positive ones can be trickier. Happiness is often seen as the end of a string of goals: the big thing we’ll achieve when we’ve ticked off everything on our wishlists. And although happiness can be understood as a series of levels, they’re not like the ones in a video game. These levels aren’t ones we progress through, but different layers that contribute together to our overall well-being.
1st Layer: The Pleasant Life
Scientists working in the field of positive psychology have identified three distinct levels, or paths, that make up human happiness. The first is the ‘pleasant life’, which tends to be what we focus on when we think about feeling happy. It includes satisfying physical needs (such as food, comfort, sex) and other things that make us feel immediately good (like buying a new dress or watching a funny film).
2nd Layer: The Good Life
The next level is the ‘good life’, which involves doing things we’re passionate about and skilled at. If we recognise and regularly use our personal strengths and core values in hobbies, activities and interactions with other people, we can boost our creativity and self-esteem. This generates happiness on a deeper level.
3rd Layer: The Meaningful Life
The final one is the ‘meaningful life’, which is about using our skills and passions to benefit not just ourselves but also others. This might be contributing to a local community, protecting the planet or being part of a belief system. Helping other people and belonging to something bigger than ourselves gives us an enduring sense of purpose and fulfilment.
3. Don’t Confuse Pleasure With Happiness
Framing happiness in this way can help us think about how to feel happy in everyday life. Often, the things we aim for – a dream holiday, owning a home, a well-paid job, even a delicious meal – will bring us pleasure, but of a kind that’s short-lived. That’s not to say we shouldn’t aspire to these things at all. There’s nothing wrong with feeling joy or excitement. But they aren’t true happiness, which comes from a stronger focus on personal fulfilment and connection to others.
Unlike what the media tells us, happiness is not a destination or a goal to strive for. Instead, it’s a practice – like a skill or muscle that you can train to become stronger. Just like when you learn a language or take up a new sport, it isn’t something you’ll be great at every day, and maybe sometimes you won’t feel like doing it at all. That’s OK. We all need a break now and then. By accepting negative emotions and not thinking of happiness as something you must achieve, you’ll take the pressure off – and this, ultimately, can improve your well-being.
4. Practice Happiness
A lot of how we practise happiness is extremely individual. Because it’s so closely linked to our passions, strengths and personal connections, it’s impossible to write a universal recipe for how to be happy. However, there are a few simple things you can do in your everyday life that have proved to impact positively on how we measure our contentment levels. And this is where AIME can help.
Practising gratitude can be a good place to start: at the beginning or end of each day (or both), write down three things you’re grateful for. Big or small – everything has value. If you’d like to take this further, you could also try journaling. Finding just 15 minutes a day to write a personal diary of your thoughts and feelings can help you to see not only the positive ones, but also become more aware and accepting of the negative.
Look Inside Yourself
Looking inside yourself is a good way to learn what makes you feel happy and fulfilled. You might like to try our guided journal on core values and qualities, so you can integrate these more into your everyday life and routines. And because helping and connecting to others leads us on to the path of a ‘meaningful life’, AIME can also guide you through techniques to overcome social anxiety, communicate effectively and grow as a couple.
However you choose to begin, remember: happiness is a practice, not a goal. It’s highly individual, but something we share with others. And AIME will always be here to help you strengthen your skills.