The Route to Happiness

Many struggle with situations at work or home that cannot be altered or avoided. You may find yourself talking with friends and family about increasing levels of stress. It can feel like happiness is more illusive than ever before.

Happiness is different things to different people. To some, it is a life without doubt, anger or sadness. To others, it is the ability to receive pleasant things or to focus on what is good rather than fixing what is wrong. In finding the route to happiness, I am defining happiness as an internal state, usually positive, based on your feelings, traits and strengths. According to Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology and author of Authentic Happiness (2002), there are three levels of happiness:

• the pleasurable life

• the good life

• the meaningful life.

Exciting research shows that although there is a genetic link for depression, happiness can be learned or increased because it is not something that happens to you. It is something you make happen. In addition to Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmehalyi and Dan Baker have conducted research over the last decade on “Flow” and happiness. This information gives you more insight into how to increase levels of happiness, gratification and/or meaning in your life.

Seligman had identified six virtues that define “good character” in almost every culture. These virtues are:

• wisdom/knowledge

• courage

• love/humanity

• temperance

• justice

• spirituality/transcendence

He has also identified twenty-four strengths that describe behaviors that lead to the above virtues. Each person has five strengths that are Signature Strengths. When used daily, they define what will give you a sense of gratification and meaning in your life. To determine your strengths go to http://www.AuthenticHappiness.org or http://www.viastrengths.org. It will take about 45 minutes to answer the 240 item inventory. There is no charge.

In addition, we know that positive emotions broaden your intellectual, physical and social resources by:

• helping you be more creative, open and maybe smarter.

• helping you select appropriate goals and persevere in achieving them.

• increasing productivity, income and satisfaction with your work.

• helping you be more social and have good relationships.

• increasing empathy and generosity.

• improving physical health.

One client, having moved back to the Midwest after being in California for two years, recently shared with me, “The weather was beautiful; I had completed my degree, and my career was going well. However, I wasn’t happy. What I want, more than anything, is to be happy.” I shared the following research with her which indicates that the following external circumstances have little to no effect on happiness:

• money, especially if you have enough to meet basic needs

• one major physical illness or problem

• higher education

• your race, social class

• living in a sunnier climate

• age

• gender

In contrast, setting appropriate goals, having a strong social network, being married, religiousness, level of leisure activity and avoiding negative events and emotions have a moderate to robust effect on raising levels of happiness.

Also, there are important internal states which can be controlled in order to increase positive emotions and feel like you are living a “good life.” To increase your level of happiness, follow the route to happiness by:

I. Letting go of the past. It is liberating and your individual responsibility to move on from negative, early past events in your life.

2. Looking for and finding things and/or people from your past to appreciate and savor; keeping a gratitude journal.

3. If necessary, forgiving the person(s) involved in negative events to set yourself free from the past. You will still have the memory; however, the hurt will be transformed. This may or may not be followed by reconciliation.

4. Disputing negative thoughts by effectively challenging your beliefs. Ask yourself, what is real?

5. Spreading out pleasures and savoring them; be mindful of things in the present.

6. Choosing challenging tasks that require skill and concentration to forward the action toward your goals. This may not always be pleasant because it may take effort. However, it moves you toward enjoyment and gratification – the “good life.”

7. Identifying your Signature (top 3-5) Strengths. Use them daily to recraft your work and personal life. Feeling gratified comes about by exercising your signature strengths and virtues. Using them for something larger than yourself gives meaning to your life.

Someone once said that the secret of having it all is believing that you do. According to Seligman, increasing positive feelings gives you a pleasant life. Using your Signature Strengths brings gratification and a good life. Using your strengths to contribute to something larger than yourself will bring meaning into your life. Doing all three allows you to lead a “full” life. I challenge you to follow the route to happiness and discover where it leads you.