When you were younger and you were asked about your dreams and goals for adulthood, it’s likely you envisioned a mansion with a glistening pool, an outrageously attractive spouse, and a shiny black BMW. You probably had dreams about being a famous actress or singer with adoring fans on every continent, despite having as much talent in the arts as a meat pie. As we undergo various life experiences and the realities of mediocrity or mundanity (and in no way are these negative things) become increasingly obvious in our twenties, arguably our goals begin to shift. Nowadays, if you were to ask me or a number of my close friends what they want out of their life, the answer is as simple as this: to be happy. To experience the absence of sadness and to feel predominately content in our lives has become the overarching goal for most of us who have realised the value of our limited time. It’s a pretty simple desire to articulate and it sounds almost childlike, but achieving it on a consistent basis can be quite difficult. Once we have determined that our fundamental goal in life is to experience as much happiness as possible, our priorities need to shift so we can embark on daily quests to do as many things that we can that lead to our happiness, and attempt to discard any sources of potential misery.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what influences our happiness, it’s important to first explore what exactly happiness means. On our collective pursuit of happiness, many of us seem to conflate the idea of “pleasure” with happiness, not realising the importance of distinguishing between the two. Arguably “pleasure” is a transient state that is derived from external sources. It is the good feeling that immediately arises when you obtain some reward or benefit, causing your brain to release chemicals that make you feel good. You might experience a sense of pleasure whilst the soft texture of the Snickers bar you’re eating melts in your mouth. An online clothes purchase, or a brand new car might send a jolt of excitement through your body and cause you to hum the tune of Pharell Williams “Happy” for the remainder of the day. There’s an endless list of things that make us feel pleasure, ranging from your favourite football team winning the grandfinal, to the line of cocaine you snort in the bathroom at the afterparty. Happiness, on the other hand, is more complex to define. It is an overarching sense of contentment and fulfilment with your life. It is more enduring than the ephemeral concept of pleasure. Significantly, happiness more often than not comes from internal factors – such as self-esteem, gratitude, and a belief that you are connected with others in the world. On the basis of this dichotomous understanding of pleasure and happiness, arguably there are some key factors that influence our happiness levels and overall satisfaction with our life.
Self-esteem and Self-worth
Growing up in Australia, if you showed even a hint of pride in your own achievements or made a complimentary comment towards yourself, it’s fair to say that those in your vicinity would think you were a dickhead. Silence would immediately fill the room and everyone would wait patiently for you to promptly correct yourself and make a joke about the pimple on your forehead or your lack of intelligence. It’s an Australian tradition to dismiss every achievement or decent quality we have because we want to appear self-effacing and likeable. Whilst this has changed slightly, particularly if you were to go on instagram and see everyone showing off their incredible achievements and abs that make you want to throw your Oreo cookies in the nearest lake, a lot of us like to remain humble and unpretentious. Nevertheless, I think there’s a fine line between constantly tearing yourself down and actually having low self-worth. It’s important to retain a sense of humour and to remain grounded and humble, but it’s even more important to know our innate value and worth. This is because there is a clear link between having good self-esteem and happiness. So what does it mean to have “self-esteem”.
Self-esteem can be described as your subjective sense of self-worth and value. Having a healthy self-esteem means you like and appreciate yourself, despite external circumstances or factors. It’s knowing your innate worth as a person. Your self-esteem can be influenced by a number of factors, such as your sense of connection and belonging with other people; your confidence in your ability to achieve things; feeling a sense of security; your identity i.e. knowing who you are – your likes, dislikes etc; and your general feelings of competence and self-efficacy. Whilst we might have grown up brushing off compliments and openly criticising ourselves in a humorous manner, this doesn’t necessarily mean we lacked self-esteem. This is because a healthy self-esteem can be difficult to spot sometimes – and those with the flashy cars and objective wealth might actually have incredibly low self-esteem compared to those with a modest house and who bring up the size of their gigantic forehead in every conversation. This highlights the crucial factor of self-esteem – it comes from within. It is fostered by good relationships in your childhood and continuing through adulthood. It’s knowing you are valued and worthy simply because of your characteristic of being human. It is the awareness that we are all flawed and that just because we made individual mistakes doesn’t mean this changes our value as a person.
So what does this all mean for happiness? Research suggests that those with healthy self-esteem are more likely to experience long-term happiness. This sounds pretty obvious, but perhaps it might provide the impetus for you to consider how you view your self and your own self-worth. Is your self-esteem based on your external achievements, on instagram likes and comments from random people that are trying to sell you terrible makeup products? Is your self-esteem as fallible as a crumbling cookie at a bake sale? If the negative opinion of someone else is enough to send you into a spiral of sadness and despair, it might be necessary to do some self-esteem building exercises. This is particularly the case if you experienced trauma in childhood, and the parenting styles you were subjected to were inconsistent, chaotic or altogether absent. If you were constantly berated as a child, or if love and affection was sporadic and conditional, then you may have unintentionally grown up with a lack of self-worth. This might explain self-sabotaging behaviours, dreadful relationships, and an inability to cope with conflict and life challenges. So if this all sounds familiar to you, in order to experience more happiness in your life, it will be important for you to actively engage in exercises that build your self-esteem. This might involve attending upon a psychologist, or developing a consistent journalling routine. You might actively ensure you stick to habits and goals that you set out for yourself, to build up your confidence in your ability to see things through and achieve your goals. You may dispute some of your negative perceptions you have of yourself through providing evidence against those beliefs. You might also put yourself in situations that you have been avoiding due to a lack of confidence, and prove to yourself that novel situations aren’t as daunting as they seem, and that you can persevere through any difficult task.
The importance of expressing gratitude to all the things you have in your life is a consistent piece of advice that crops up in all self-help articles. It’s hard to imagine what instagram influencers wrote in their captions before “gratitude” became the new buzzword. Whilst the trend-setters and deviants of the world might roll their eyes at the painfully cliche concept of gratitude, if we want to give ourselves the best chance at improving our happiness we need to disregard our preconceptions. Research indicates that those who adopt a consistent gratitude practice tend to experience greater levels of happiness than those who meander through life with limited appreciation of their fortunate circumstances. Whilst it can seem pretty rudimentary to sit down and write statements like “I am grateful for the warmth of my coffee in the morning” or “I am grateful for my Mum”, it’s hard to deny the positive feelings that arise as your appreciation of what you have increases. If you are reading this, it’s likely that you have many things you can be grateful for, and that you have experienced a relatively prosperous life, with an abundance of opportunities and wealth.
I have personally implemented a routine that involves expressing gratitude daily for people around me and of my circumstances. Whilst it’s not exactly a rigorous scientific study, my personal experience gives weight to the notion that gratitude increases our long-term happiness. I have journaled every day this year and can say that my happiness and levels of satisfaction have increased significantly. It’s probably due to a combination of factors, but I think that valuing my blessed life and all the things that I have has given me the realisation that my life ‘aint that bad at all, in fact it’s fantastic. On many of the days, particularly after a heinous working week, it might feel as though discovering a cure for cancer would be a simpler task than thinking of just one bloody thing i’m grateful for. But for the most part, you can just look around the room and find something you appreciate, like the fridge for housing the delicious oreo cheesecake you will devour later. One tip that I learnt when I felt like I was struggling with thinking of new things to be grateful for (there’s only so many times I can express gratitude for my boyfriend before he gets a big head), is to envision horrible things or circumstances happening to you. You can think about accidentally dropping your phone in the pool (or toilet…I see you), or on a much more dramatic scale, losing a limb in a car accident. When you put yourself in that situation for a moment in your mind, and then realise hey! my phone works perfectly and all my limbs are functioning adequately, you realise how lucky you are to still have them. It’s easy to become grateful of things when you lose them, so this is a good trick to implement to increase your levels of appreciation, and in turn, your long-term levels of happiness.
Our Social Connection
For all of us, relationships and other people in general can often be a source of frustration and anger from time to time. After attending a party with a bunch of obnoxious and inebriated acquaintances who feel the need to debate about politics and climate change for several excruciatingly painful hours, you might feel like going home and living in isolation for a decade. Even going grocery shopping is enough to make me want to board the next flight to Antarctica to live with the penguins. This desire for solitude is particularly common amongst introverts who might feel overwhelmed in the presence of others. Notwithstanding all the crappy experiences you’ve had with people, there’s no denying the impact of relationships and feeling a sense of social connectedness has on our happiness. Research indicates those who lack intimate relationships and who report themselves to be isolated are less satisfied and fulfilled with their lives. The more social you are, the happier you will feel. Whilst it can be difficult to muster up the effort to connect with a friend or loved one, if you have a desire to reap as much happiness as you can from this life, it’s imperative that you focus on building and maintaining your relationships.
Having people you can rely on, confide in and simply just connect with is fundamental for our well-being. Nothing can be more painful and debilitating than a sense of loneliness and detachment from those around you. People who report having limited social connections tend to score lower on the well-being scale, and not to mention are more likely to experience a range of physical health problems and an increased risk of illness and death. Moreover, it seems as though the amount of friends we have isn’t as important as the quality of the relationships we have. If you feel close with someone or a small group of friends, and you feel as though you can rely on them in times of need, then you are more likely to experience long-term happiness. If only I could go back in time and tell my year eight self that I didn’t need 60 friends and to be invited to every party to be happy, but rather the close friendships I had were truly what mattered (and also tell her that the reason you come home and eat three meals is because you had an apple for lunch. Eat regularly you goose). So if you have just one other person in your life that you can confide in, discuss important thing or call up if your car breaks down then this might just be enough to sustain your happiness.
Mindfulness/Awareness of the Present
I know I am not the only one who can say they’ve spent the majority of their life evading the present moment. My thoughts have either been focussing on the past and ruminating about something I’ve done, or they’ve been fantasising about potential future occurrences. Very rarely do I spend my time truly immersed in the present, appreciating the moment at hand. I can say that my journalling practices and desire to achieve “flow-state” experiences has given me a fresh appreciation and awareness of the present moment, and at the very least I try to focus more of what I am doing now as opposed to what i’ve done or will be doing in the future. It seems that this human propensity to let our minds wander might be precluding us from experiencing a sense of satisfaction and overall happiness with our lives.
Studies have shown that present-moment awareness has the ability to improve our overall mood. This might be because when we are not focussed on the the moment we are directly experiencing, we could be reflecting on previous negative experiences and obsessing over what we could’ve done differently, or because we feel a sense anxiety about the uncertain future that lay ahead. When we focus on what we are experiencing in the present moment – whether generally when we are concentrating on a task or a conversation with a friend, or specifically when we are honing in on what our immediate senses are experiencing – we remove these distractions and judgments of our thoughts and simply be. From this perspective, it’s easy to see how mindfulness can impact our overall happiness levels, because if we can improve our moods on a day-to-day basis, then naturally we will experience less stress.
Sleep and Movement
Balancing our need for adequate sleep and the significance of exercise is fundamental on our path to improve our happiness. Sleep has an important role in dictating our mental health. We all know what it’s like to experience a bad nights sleep, and then having to pretend like you don’t want to slap your annoying co-worker in the face as they greet you in the morning. A tad harsh, but there’s no denying the times when i’ve made an unnecessarily snappy remark or I’m feeling generally low, and I can attribute these instances directly back to the minimal sleep I had the previous night. It’s easy to see how the accumulation of several sleepless nights can have a damaging affect on our mood and overall levels of happiness. People who are sleep-deprived report increased negative emotions such as anger, irritability and sadness, and are more likely to develop psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Since our happiness is the product of our day-to-day habits, it is therefore imperative that we focus on doing whatever we can to get enough sleep. The amount varies between the individual, but if you calmly respond to someone who didn’t give you a courtesy wave when you let them in on the road, then that probably means you’ve had an adequate amount of sleep.
Conversely, increasing our levels of movement and activity is fundamental if we are to improve our happiness levels. Regular physical activity has been shown to have positive affects on our mental health, as well as reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. On a more specific level, exercise promotes the release of dopamine in the brain – a chemical responsible for feelings of happiness and satisfaction. It also helps reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, chemicals that can cause stress if present in high amounts. Here we can see the disparity between short-term pleasure and long-term happiness come to the fore, because exercise has both immediate pleasurable affects, as well as more sustained positive implications on our general levels of happiness. So whilst buying a new item of clothing might also trigger the release of dopamine in the present moment, it is highly unlikely to create long-term happiness in the same way that regular exercise does. Those who implement a consistent exercise regime are more likely to feel a sense of satisfaction in their lives, and even though you’d sometimes rather stick pins in your eyes than go for a run, you know how much better it makes you feel when you’re finished. A lot of the times promoting our overall happiness requires us do something we don’t want to in the present moment, in the hope of receiving a delayed gratification. This reigns true with exercise, as you often don’t reap the benefits until afterwards or when you reflect and consider how much your innocuous morning walk to the sunrise has impacted your overall levels of happiness.
Happiness is an elusive beast at times. We often get confused by what actually influences our happiness because we assume short-term pleasure and long-time happiness are the same thing. But recognising the difference between the two is crucial if we are to inject as much fulfilment in our lives as we can, because achieving happiness often means rejecting a reward or instant gratification, in exchange for immediate pain but long-term happiness. Whilst we think that material objects and the five bedroom house with the moat around it (I thought King Arthur might be reading this) is what is going to make us content and fulfilled, but it’s simply not the case. Factors that contribute to our happiness significantly include our strong social bonds, the gratitude we express on a daily basis, our presence in the moment we are currently experiencing, the quality of our sleep and how much movement we are getting. Significantly, if we want to improve our level of happiness it’s important we address our underlying demons and negative self-talk, and we focus on building our self-esteem because we know we are innately valuable and incredibly important despite our fuck-ups and flaws. This all might seem like startlingly obvious stuff to most, but if you aren’t living a life aligned with these concepts, yet you question why you lack life-satisfaction, then it’s time to implement some radical changes in your life. Because ultimately, if we aren’t experiencing happiness, what’s the point of it all?