Can you learn how to be happy all the time? Nah, I don’t think that’s really possible. But I seriously believe that you can learn to be happy almost all of the time. And why do I think this? Well the way I figure it, since there are people out there that have learned to be flat-out unhappy almost all the time then it logically follows that the opposite should also be true.
Here’s a case in point: I had an employee once that had a lot going for her. She was smart and attractive; she performed well with clients and worked hard. She had one major flaw though, and that flaw became more and more evident the longer she worked for us. The flaw? When she wasn’t in front of a client, she was always gloomy. Maybe it was the job, maybe it was her life outside work or maybe it was even me, I don’t really know. But what I do know is that she was never cheerful, never looking on the bright side, and almost always tended towards the negative aspects of things.
I struggled with whether or not to cut her hours back or let her go because I liked her as a person and valued her work. But her fellow employees began complaining about her negative attitude and she was starting to bring the whole place down whenever she was on the clock. Ultimately my decision was made for me because she decided that the grass was greener with a competitor of ours and moved on. Of course, I was the one who interviewed her, I was the one who had hired her and fittingly, I accepted the blame for bringing such a disruptive force into our fun, peppy work environment. This person was great in her job interview and her resume and references didn’t raise any red flags. But it only took a week or so for her to become comfortable enough in her new surroundings for her true personality to rear its ugly head. She consistently exhibited a depressing demeanor that could suck the air right out of a room. No thanks. In the end I found it somewhat validating to hear that it was not just us; this person was equally unhappy and negative while employed by our competitor as well.
Psychologists have been studying sadness for a long time now, but it’s only been in the past decade or so that they have really started to look into exactly what it is that makes people happy. And their findings are really cool. For example, despite all the ramblings about human misery and suffering by poets, writers and artists throughout history, in general people are happier than you might think. As a matter of fact, recent research has shown that 93 percent of the people on the planet actually feel happy about their lives as a whole. And this percentage was consistent regardless of income, education, or where someone happened to live. I find this totally refreshing to hear.
But I think the biggest takeaway is that, for the most part, peoples’ happiness depends very little on their external circumstances. According to Ed Diener (probably the leading researcher on the subject of happiness) and David G. Myers, the amount of money that a person has does not really have that much of an effect on their overall happiness level. They conclude:
“People have not become happier over time as their cultures have become more affluent. Even though Americans earn twice as much in today’s dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors from the National Opinion Research Center that they are ‘very happy’ has declined from 35 to 29 percent.
Even very rich people – those surveyed among Forbes magazine’s 100 wealthiest Americans – are only slightly happier than the average American.”
Interesting, don’t you think? What this means to me is that when you realize that the incremental increase in happiness brought on by having “more money” is really not that big after all, then you will realize that the true value of money is not in the money itself, but rather in the things that you can exchange the money for. And my advice is to exchange that money for a higher purpose, whatever that may mean to you. One thing I’ve learned about money is that in the end it is fruitless and hollow to go after money just for the sake of “having lots of money”; just to “be rich”. Wealth should never be looked at as an end, but rather as a means to accomplishing many ends.
Okay, so maybe that old saying has a lot of truth to it, maybe money doesn’t really buy happiness. So what does bring on an overall sense of happiness? What is it about the always-cheerful-people that makes them the way they are? Well, the results of tons of studies have basically shown that people who are happy almost all the time have a few things in common; they share certain traits. And what are these traits? According to the research of Diener and Myers, four basic traits stand out:
“First, especially in individualistic Western cultures, [happy people] like themselves. They have high self esteem and usually believe themselves to be more ethical, more intelligent, less prejudiced, better able to get along with others, and healthier than the average person. (Such ﬁndings bring to mind Sigmund Freud’s joke about the man who told his wife, “If one of us should die, I think I would go live in Paris.”)
Second, happy people typically feel personal control. Those with little or no control over their lives—such as prisoners, nursing home patients, severely impoverished groups or individuals, and citizens of totalitarian regimes—suffer lower morale and worse health. Third, happy people are usually optimistic. Fourth, most happy people are extroverted. Although one might expect that introverts would live more happily in the serenity of their less stressed, contemplative lives, extroverts are happier—whether alone or with others.”
So does this show that if we don’t have all these traits that we can never expect to be a happier person? No way. It shows that there are certain behaviors, lifestyles and attitudes that will result in a happier day-to-day life. It means that, like a lot of other things in life, if we do a little studying and do a little work we can learn to do something new. We can take ownership of some of these traits, make them our own. It’s not really that hard when you boil it all down to its essence:
- Look at the bright side.
- Hang more with your homies.
- Quit Jonesing for your neighbors’ bling.
- Measure yourself by your own yardstick.
- Do more things that challenge your mind.
- And most importantly, forgive and forget.
See? It’s really that simple. You don’t have to be some mental giant or a self-discipline freak to start bringing on some changes right now that will help you live your life in a happier way. Just work on your version of these traits a little each day, think about them a little more the next time a bunch of crap is flung your way. Keep at it and it will become habitual, you’ll see.
One last thing; remember learning about Helen Keller back when you were in that crazy teacher’s class in elementary school? In case you forgot, Helen Keller was deaf and blind; yet she got a college degree, wrote books, gave lectures and became a kick-butt activist. Want to know what she had to say about how you can learn to be happy? She said:
“Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”