Happiness is difficult to define because it means so many things at once. It can describe the moment, after a long day, when you kick off your shoes and curl up on the couch with a bowl of ice cream, but it’s just as good a word for the overarching satisfaction that comes from living a life that is at once challenging and rewarding.
Because it applies to a range of moments, experiences and feelings, from the tiny to the momentous, pursuing it successfully is a complicated exercise. Yet it’s a vital one. “We all share the same wish and desire to live a life full of wellbeing,” says Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain (Hodder, 2013).
But where to start? Is chasing hedonic wellbeing -- that instant surge of positive emotion we feel when we sit back on the coach with a big bowl of ice cream -- a good strategy? Is the solution simply to increase our couch/ice-cream time?
Of course not. Most people accept that true happiness is more than a string of moment-to-moment pleasures—instead, it's probably better described as a more constant state of "fulfillment" or "contentedness."
This brings us to "eudaimonic wellbeing," the fancy Greek term for happiness derived from the pursuit of a larger life purpose. Activities like volunteering, building a career or parenting often contribute to this type of wellbeing – while they rarely provide instant gratification (and can be stressful and challenging on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis) they help us feel connected, productive and purposeful on a long-term scale.
It turns out, like most things in life, happiness is a balancing act. “Sometimes we're successful at pursuing long term goals, and other times, we give into moment to moment appeal,” says Michael Steger, a psychology professor at Colorado State and co-author of Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Fortunately, according to Davidson, it's also a skill that can be mastered. "We can practice certain mental habits that lead to enduring happiness, [such as] changing our relationship to emotionally significant events, so that we don't run away from the negative challenges and crave the positive incentives," he says. "That's something all of our research indicates can be learned."
To bring yourself closer to happiness, try some of these strategies:
Seek out activities that activate both senses of wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing – pursuing what feels good now and avoiding any form of pain or discomfort –operates on a fairly primitive dial: an activity either makes you feel good on a moment-to-moment basis or it doesn't.
Eudaimonic wellbeing, on the other hand, often requires that we endure what's uncomfortable (the pain we feel as we train for a marathon, say) or sacrifice instant gratification (passing on dessert) in pursuit of a greater good or goal.
Luckily, certain activities can activate both senses of wellbeing at once. “A lot of what we do is pretty blended between the two,” Steger says, and gives the example of working in an emergency room. Clearly, it's easy to see how that could fulfill a sense of greater good and purpose, but for some people, it also feels good in the moment.
These are the types of activities we should actively seek out and if possible, shape into a profession. In other words, don't pursue a career just because the end goal is fulfilling and rewarding. To some extent, you need to enjoy the process: "That will help you when you run into challenges and stay motivated," says Steger. “If you are pursuing a career that allows you to contribute to your family and community but you hate every minute of it, that's going to be hard to sustain."
Get curious. “One of our strongest motivators as humans is the desire to avoid situations that we think are going to be unpleasant; it’s powerfully reinforcing behavior -- you feel good because you reduce your anxiety, and in the short term that makes things easier,” Steger says. Unfortunately, that impacts our eudaimonic wellbeing; shutting out everything that makes us nervous, uncomfortable or anxious limits the scope of our world to a suffocating degree.
“In the short term [avoiding discomfort] feels fine. It significantly reduces anxiety. But in the long term, we fail to discover potentially awesome new sources of excitement, enthusiasm and inspiration; we don't meet new people. If all we do is avoid what is too hard, we end up leading restricted, uninspiring lives," Steger says.
So how can we break the cycle? According to Steger, the best antidote is curiosity, anxiety's productive cousin. The desire to learn more can be a strong enough motivator to push us past any initial feelings of discomfort that accompany the unfamiliar.
So cultivate your inner inquisitiveness, recommends Steger. When you have a question about something or someone, pursue it even if it makes you momentarily uncomfortable.
Change your mindset. This relates to Steger's previous point. Often, when placed outside our comfort zone, the tendency is to interpret obstacles as failures, which results in a swift retreat back to what's safe and familiar. (Again: not great for long term wellbeing).
To disrupt this pattern, Steger recommends redefining obstacles as opportunities. "Remember that a lot of wisdom comes from struggle," he says; instead of equating uncertainty with failure, recognize that not having all the answers can be a learning opportunity; often, it's a marker of personal growth.
At the very least, it's a sign that your life became less boring.
"My background is to try and understand what kinds of experiences make peoples' lives feel meaningful," says Steger. "And safety rarely comes up."
Practice mindfulness. Davidson is a strong proponent of neuroplasticity, the belief that the brain is shaped by experience and training. We're capable, he says, of creating happier brains by practicing meditation and mindfulness every day, even if it's only for a few minutes. "It's extraordinary how little of one's daily life is spent actually monitoring what's going on in one's own mind and body," Davidson says. In his view, mindfulness is the best method for stopping the anxiety spiral that can result from a feverish focus on the future or the past. It's not about dismissing negative thoughts, he says, but changing your relationship with them so they don't hijack or ensnare you.
Bottom line: Because life happens one moment at a time, pursuing any long term eudaimonic goal really only works if you also derive some energy from the pursuit itself, says Steger. Otherwise, no matter how important or noble the end-result, the process is simply too abstract to call happiness.