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Wellness column: Perspectives on happiness

We live in a culture that has created the idea that if we aren’t happy 24/7, we are not living an authentic, fulfilled life.

This is not true. Hopefully, this alleviates some pressure many of us feel for not measuring up on the happiness meter. Let’s discuss what happiness is, is not, and how you can cultivate it to feel more alive and have more happy moments.

Happiness is an emotion. Like all emotions, its occurrence should not be eternal but fleeting. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment; joy or a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

The use of the words “state” and “experience” both refer to the fact that happiness is a specific time period, not an endless encounter, and joy, well, that’s something else entirely (more on that later).

How did we get here, and why is the definition of happiness still under so much debate?

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” according to the writers of the Declaration of Independence, suggested happiness is an inherent right.

However, in the context of when the declaration was written, happiness was a broader term used to foster contribution to society and civic duty in contrast to today’s version, which is more aligned with the pursuit of personal pleasure.

The word “happy” dates to the late 14th century from the Middle English word hap, which means “chance,” “luck” or “fortune.”

So early predecessors thought to be happy was by chance, and given the uncertainty and scarcity they endured, happiness was indeed reserved for a small class of individuals.

According to The World Happiness Report, Sweden is the number one ranked country; they define happiness using the term Lagom (pronounced “lah-gom”), which means a combination of “just right, just enough, gentle, moderately.” This is their happiness!

I don’t know about you, but this concept sounds a lot more like choosing a more spartan balanced existence, which creates room for more fulfillment and kindness to self and others, leading to an outcome of more happiness.

The first step toward more happiness is defining what it means for you and your family. This is a freeing idea since no one can measure your happiness on their own; we all carry within us our narrative. So, stop counting and start creating.

Start asking what happiness feels like for you and explore the things that might be keeping you from feeling that way more often.

Start with the small every day in the here and now. What can I do today that would add more satisfaction to my life? What are some positive things I have already in my life? What things hinder more happy feelings or outcomes in my life now?

We all have things we can’t change and can’t go back and fix, yet we can choose how we move forward even within our trauma. By starting with defining and questioning, we can open the door to personal responsibility and uncover a new path to experiencing more happiness.

Strive to find a sense of contentment within your life, from the small daily accomplishments through the significant milestones. Create and carry an unwavering sense of optimism even within times of darkness, and understand that difficult times will occur.

Yet if we exercise the first two areas, the times that challenge us can be met with more compassion, understanding and action rather than limitation.

A multigenerational study, called called The Framingham Heart Study, found that associating with friends and other happy people increases your happiness by at least 15%. By surrounding yourself with others motivated in the same direction of joy, you will help each other experience more happiness. Amazing!

As the saying goes: “Birds of a feather flock together.” Go out and find your birds.

Gratitude essentially is the link that ties all the above concepts together. In the last two decades, neuroscience has uncovered that carrying an “attitude of gratitude” directly stimulates pathways and neurotransmitters that make us happier.

With the continued practice of gratitude, these pathways will develop a new way of connecting over time, leading to an overall sense and continued experiences of positive emotions and better resilience. Gratitude also fosters a positive reciprocal loop in our relationships. That’s a win-win.

Gratitude, in a more meaningful sense, sets the stage for joy. Joy, in my understanding, is limitless, a knowing that is closer to faith. We can experience joy within our sadness and other emotions that come and go as a part of being human and having a human existence.

To know joy is to know you are safe, supported and loved. It contains all the elements you need to step into what is coming next with confidence. Joy and gratitude look inward, and more happiness is the outcome when the two come together. Gratitude plus Joy equals Happiness.

So, the next time you hear or believe you are not happy, stop measuring, know you can do something about it, learn to be kind to yourself, surround yourself with people who lift you up, and remember you are allowed moments to experience the emotions and richness of life.

Use it as an opportunity to ask the hard questions and search for a smidgen of gratitude in knowing you are alive, human, deserving — and that happiness happens.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Mahatma Gandhi

“Happiness depends on ourselves.” — Aristotle