When we're growing up our parents try to teach us how to be happy. "Get good grades so you can get a good job...be pleasant and friendly....make a lot of money....be beautiful so you can attract a great spouse or partner...be great at sports" are the types of messages we get. As we mature we get other messages from advertising and society on how to be happy, "be sexy...don't argue....look out for number one...get high....buy the right (car, house, handbag, watch, whatever). No wonder we aren't sure. People who are overweight think they will be happy if they become slender, people who are poor think they will be happy if they become rich and people who live in one place think they will be happy if they move somewhere else. None of these formulas are foolproof. In fact, many people with a lot of money are miserable and how you look doesn't ensure happiness either.
In recent years the science of positive psychology has grown as scientists try to study the question of what makes us happy. The results thus far are pretty surprising. Large international studies show that older people tend to be the happiest. With age and accumulated wisdom most people do improve at not sweating the small stuff. Also, getting closer to the end of your life definitely focuses the mind and helps you to appreciate the good things you do have. In general, wealthy countries with open political and social systems create the greatest opportunities for happiness in it's residents while war torn countries or socially repressive cultures are unlikely to show as much reported happiness among their citizens. But across all cultures, the oldest group reports the greatest satisfaction and contentment with their lives.
As a psychologist I often meet very unhappy people who feel guilty because their lives are good but they are still miserable. If you suffer from depression or have experienced trauma it can be hard to be happy even if everything around you is good. Trauma and depression can be helped but only a small percentage of people who need help seek it.
Scientists are also trying to look at resilience and happiness. For example if you study a group of children raised in very difficult circumstances such as poverty, abuse, lack of education or support it is not surprising to find that many of those children in adulthood do not have very good or satisfying lives. Often, however, there is one kid who makes it, who beats the odds and goes on to a successful and happy life. That is the person psychologists are studying and we are beginning to learn the reasons why they have flourished.
Researchers estimate that about 50% of our ability to be happy is influenced by our genetic makeup:the personality we are born with. Some children really do seem to be born shy and anxious while others seem naturally sunny, content and outgoing. Most of us are somewhat in the middle. Parents often focus on giving their children material posessions or educational opportunities when focusing on improving temperament; helping kids to learn how to handle stress, be comfortable with other people,and the chance to learn how to find their own interests and pursuits can be just as important.
We also live in a very consumer -driven culture that tries to convince you that you need certain posessions to be happy—that car, watch or house I mentioned earlier—but research consistently shows that experiences bring us more happiness than things.
What are the experiences that bring you the greatest pleasure. It can be watching your child's sporting event, hiking, going to a play or a concert. While survival comes first, once we are safe, we need to focus on maximizing the opportunities to enjoy those experiences which make us the happiest.
The other keys to a happy life? Social support and relationships and work we find meaningful. Social support means more than one person. Your spouse may be the love of your life and your best friend but that's not enough and leaves you terribly vulnerable if something happens to that person or relationship. We need some form of a social safety net. That doesn't require an entire village (an arrangement most humans had for thousands of years) but it does require a network that you can turn to for a variety of things. This means buddies, social friends, community organizations or religious organizations, family and colleagues. Meaningful work does not have to be paid employment but it does need to be something that you care about, that brings you satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
This isn't a new formula. Long ago Sigmond Freud talked about the "three legged stool" comprised of love, work and play. We need all three to keep the stool from collapsing.
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