“I just want to be happy!”…. I wonder how many times has this sentence been said, thought, written and over the last decades, googled. I am pretty sure the words related to “happiness” have been one of the most frequently googled terms. How to be happy? What makes a person truly happy? How do you measure happiness? Who makes us happy? What makes us happy? All these questions make millions of people wonder whether they are making their life choices right, but my question is: Do we approach happiness in a “right” way? I personally, tend to approach the question in big picture, to address my overall condition of happiness as a whole. And slowly, I discovered that this kind of attitude might have few disadvantages: First of all, the bigger the subject, the more overwhelming it is to address it; the less frequently you have the desire to analyze it and in the end, you might end up avoiding the issue and postponing it for the next day, since the question is too big. Maybe few glances of concern before sleeping, sudden concerns in the transport, when deep questions start to arise unexpectedly while you are in a hurry or being squeezed among people in the subway. But sadly, it might not go further than that, at least for me…
Recently, the parts of the puzzle started to come together for me, forming a certain picture that might be worth sharing even if it is not a sure way or shortcut to happiness.
As most things playing out in our messed up minds, also my puzzle starts in my childhood. I have an old video of me being around 4 years old, where my dad films how I run around in the garden, caress the small flowers and I am putting a stick in the ground, thinking that I planted a tree. I remember the feeling of great pride, when I imagined how big that tree (I believed it was supposed to be a pear tree) would grow and how nice it would be to pick a pear from it, when I would be a “big girl”. Here it is, the moment from my childhood, when I know for sure, I was happy. It was a mixture of positive emotions: feeling loved by my parents, who were teaching me about nature, feeling hopeful about something I did and simply having lots of fun. Did I know anything about goals of life back then? Did I realize consciously that it might have been one of the happiest moments of my life? No, of course not. But, I know it now and it helps me understand my ways of being.
Over time, of course I became less excited about small things in life and I started to worry about big future, about bigger questions as I grew up in the 90’s of Georgia, when Georgian society was facing one of the hardest periods with all the possible social and economic problems. I remember being small and looking up at the adults who were repeating this conversation over and over again:
“How are you?”
“I am fine…of course, If you can call THIS a life, I guess I am fine”
“Well yes, we all are in the same horrible condition. This has to end someday soon”
“Yes, let’s hope”
It was extremely confusing for me. I understood something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly the adults were talking about, since I had all I needed: loving family, brothers and place to play hide and seek if there was no electricity. I didn’t understand what better life they were talking about that they missed and wished so much. Then slowly, I understood that money could be a big problem and that if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive with your skills and you have to have some goals in life. I guess, from an early age I put a lot of pressure on myself in order to grow up and find a good job, sustain myself and not to have to say to my friends that I would meet on the street: “Well, my life cannot really be called a LIFE”.
Well then, I went through all the boring phases that kids go through: school life, high school life, being mad and angry at the whole world, finding comfort in books and music, the first emotional heart break, the first boring and mind-numbing job, going abroad and I remember a conversation that I had with my colleagues back then about happiness. It is a Georgian tradition to say long toasts with alcohol and I remember my tipsy friends and I were wishing each other lots of happiness and it triggered a discussion about the subject. People were talking about something in the future, something that one can touch and something that can happen to someone like an event and after which, one just remains “happy ever after”. I was obviously trying to impress my friends, trying to be smart and said that in my opinion, the big happiness might not exist and it might just be a collection of small happy moments in life that arise maybe even every day but remain unnoticed and only when we try to focus on them, they might gain value and that’s when we might realize, we have been taking those moments for granted. I received mixed reactions from my friends. Some preferred to keep believing in big “rain of happiness” that comes from sky unexpectedly and others agreed with me partially. I am not sure how much I realized what I was actually saying or whether I truly believed in my words back then. But the more I think, the more sense it makes to me now.
It might be the result of confirmation bias, of course, but I tend to find all kinds of “proofs” for this notion of happiness. I realized that the more focused on big goals in life I am, the bigger the questions of how to achieve perfection and life satisfaction, the more insecure and scared I become; the more I became afraid to fail and to disappoint myself and my loved ones. And if I took things slowly, day to day basis, the easier it became to breath, to live and finally, to be happy.
Recently, I took the online course of “Positive Psychology” on https://class.coursera.org by Barbara Fredrickson and it made me think about many things that were unnoticed for me before. First of all, I liked the approach which does not ignore or avoid the subject of negative emotions, neither is it about smiling all the time for no reason or the meaningless recommendation: “Stay Positive!” It offered much more than that for me. The most valuable thing might be the notion of “Negativity Bias”. With simple words, it means that people tend to pay more attention to negative events in their lives, because we are alert to dangers, simply for self-defense reasons. So, in reality, there might be a lot of positive events taking place in our lives, but we disregard them often and stay fixated on negative emotions. When I first heard this, my reaction was: “Really?! And I read all the meaningless quotes about happiness on the internet, all the things that tell me to simply stay or become happy and no one actually told me that people might naturally tend to notice negative things more?!”. I realize it is not internet’s or Facebook’s “homework” to make me happy, but at least I would expect to get minimum of useful information about certain things. Anyway… Another useful discovery for me was the list of positive emotions, which according to Barbara Fredrickson are less studied and analyzed since psychology has focused a lot going through all the negative emotions and their effect on people’s minds. I had so much fun even to read about those positive emotions (love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe) and the subtle differences between them. At first sight, you might think it all just means happiness and nothing else, but with time, you might realize each positive emotion is unique and deserves separate attention.
Of course, it is one thing to know new things in theory and it’s a completely different story to put them into practice. I am starting to think that everything comes down to habits. I didn’t think before that one might develop the way of thinking, just because over time, it became a habit to always expect the worse, to hope less, to enjoy the small moments of life less, simply because we don’t think it might be of as much use to cling onto those small positive emotions and connections and here you are, realizing one day that you have pessimistic patterns in your way of thinking that might be so hard to change.
Recently I started to read “Love, Freedom, Aloneness” by Osho and even though his categorical way of “teaching us how to live” makes me want to protest a bit, it also makes sense for my newly acquired attitude to happiness. What I don’t like about his way of writing, is him suggesting that there is only one single way of thinking and living and that the reader has been doing everything wrong so far, until he/she read Osho’s book and that he will teach us the true way to happiness. However, what stayed in my mind vividly, is Osho’s notion of “Selfishness” and how he encourages the certain way of “Selfishness” in people. He argues that the unhealthy selfishness and big ego arises exactly when people try to sacrifice themselves to others and to the society, because actually, it is impossible to care only about others disregarding own needs and desires. He states that people’s happiness is closely related to each other, because “a man is not an island” and unless you are selfish in a way and try to make yourself happy, you cannot make anyone else happy and vice versa, by making others happy, you make yourself happy, which is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is a wonderful thing: We simply need others to be happy and that is why most of us cannot be fully selfish since it will get in our way of being happy. So, we will be “forced” by ourselves to be nice and kind to each other and we shouldn’t even consider those good deeds as sacrifices, because if we are honest to ourselves, it makes us happy and yes, that is a good thing! Also, he puts great weight on every day, small things and watching ourselves in everything we do, to be present, to simply be NOW and HERE.
Finally, I should mention that today, I had many small moments of happiness. It was a sunny Sunday in Bucharest, I enjoyed the final of tennis tournament “BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy” with my boyfriend and I simply followed the flow of the day. Nothing special really happened, just few shared laughs, delicious self-made sandwich and an afternoon nap. I might not have these kind of moments all the time, but now, I tend to notice them more and try to prolong their positive effect not to become the “victim” of my own negativity bias. Slowly, I might be healed of my pessimistic approach to life, which I sadly developed over the last few years.
I wish luck and patience firstly to myself, because apparently, selfishness is good 😀 and I wish luck to all of you in developing more positive habits every day and ultimately, to become and remain happier in the big picture. I hope we will be able to answer more often to the question: “Are you happy right now?” with a sure “Yes!”