“Don’t worry. Be happy.”
I know, I know. I can practically hear eyes rolling at the simplicity of the platitude. Who has time for happiness? I mean, sure, everyone wants to be happy, but I need to get my kid to school and he still hasn’t gotten out of bed yet and I just found out that I don’t have enough lunch meat to make his sandwich and our clothes dryer isn’t working, which means I need to hang all the wet clothes, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal except did I mention that I need to get my kid to school and he still hasn’t gotten out of bed? (True story, although I left out the part about our water heater also breaking down last week.)
It’s not that societies don’t value happiness. According to the United Nations, all 193 member states have adopted a resolution that calls for happiness to be given a higher priority, and March 20th has been declared the International Day of Happiness. The United States was at least partially founded on the “pursuit of happiness.” Bhutan, a tiny country bordering China, has even started measuring its success as a nation not just economically, but by measuring Gross National Happiness (http://www.gnhbhutan.org/about/.)
At the same time, I think part of the problem is that we don’t identify why happiness is important. As an example, even when he was lobbying for the British government to take a greater responsibility for nurturing the happiness of its citizens, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics specifically stated:
We can list all kinds of goods we value: health, freedom, accomplishment, wealth and so on. But for each we can ask why we value it, and we can have a reasoned discussion. For example, health is good because sickness makes you feel dreadful. Or freedom is good because oppression makes you feel awful. But if we ask why it matters if we feel bad, there is no answer. It is self-evident. It is basic to the way we are, as humans.
To a certain extent, I agree: when we let go of our stories of why we’re stressed or frustrated or angry or sad, the human psyche does seem to revert to a natural state of contentment. But knowing the intrinsic nature of happiness may not be enough to motivate us to to live in that state — especially if we feel guilty doing so.
Because let’s face it: there is a lot going on in the world to be upset about. Headlines are filled with tragedy. As of July 30, 2014, www.internationalrelations.com lists no fewer than 10 wars (defined as inflicting over 1,000 battle-related deaths in a single year) and 8 “serious conflicts” (between 200 and 999 battle-related deaths in a year) going on right now. The Ebola virus is starting to infect the doctors who are battling its spread. And children die in freak accidents every day.
Being happy — truly happy — is not just about pretending that these things don’t exist. It requires a full acceptance of the complexity of life. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” Life simply is.
So why make an effort to be happy? Because it makes our lives better.
Think about something sad. How does it make you feel? I don’t just mean the emotion, I mean the physical experience of being sad. Do you feel the weight of it? “Depression” is an accurate conveyance of being pressed down. When it’s heavy enough, it’s harder to get out of bed. Sometimes, it’s hard to even breathe.
How much can you accomplish carrying that much weight?
Now imagine that feeling, that sadness, starting to dissipate. It becomes like clouds, like mist, loosening its grip on you as it rarefies… dissolves into the air… and… disappears. Warm sunshine embraces your skin. A bird chirrups delightedly as it dips and soars, relishing the freedom of uninhibited flight. You involuntarily break into a grin and throw your arms out, soaking in the light and warmth, inhaling deeply to fill your lungs with crisp, fresh air, and you are amazed at how beautiful the world can be.
Feels good, doesn’t it? 😀
But it’s not just about “feeling good,” although that is pretty awesome. It’s about what feeling good can do for your life.
When you’re happy, you’re more motivated to do those things that move your life forward — and you have more energy to do those things.
When you’re happy, you’re less reactive. Your buttons don’t get pushed as easily, which means that you are better able to pause and assess a situation before responding, leading to your making better decisions.
When you’re happy, people around you respond more positively to you, leading to better relationships, whether it’s with your family, friends, colleagues or clients (or potential clients!)
When you’re happy, you are better able to have a positive impact on the world.
So when all is said and done, for all that happiness is intrinsically a wonderful way to experience life, it’s also very practical — which is a pretty great combination and very worth striving for.