When we look at the reasons why people do what they do on a day-to-day basis, they would almost always be tied to the desire to be happy.
The beggar on the street is hoping to satisfy his physical needs for food and water. The corporate executive is working hard to pay for a mortgage for his family’s home. The family who goes on vacation would like to spend quality time with each other. The international speaker feels she can make a difference in other people’s lives by spreading a positive message.
These feelings of satisfaction, a sense of safety, love, belonging, peace within oneself, and fulfilment all contribute to happiness.
But, what is happiness?
All throughout human history, there have been various attempts to define happiness.
Philosophers, psychologists, and researchers define happiness as having a good quality of life and relating it as well to well-being. Buddhists define happiness as the absence of suffering, while most religions preach that happiness is the eternal reward in the afterlife for good and virtuous actions in this life.
When I asked around how regular people define happiness, most do say that it is an emotion that consists of feelings of contentment, peace and freedom from worries. I would agree to this because happiness is something we experience and a feeling that we long for, no matter the terms we use to describe it.
Perhaps the reason why we all want happiness is because we know it’s absolutely possible for us since it is something that is already within us when we were born.
Aristotle saw happiness “as the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason.” Indeed, our soul yearns for it.
With this yearning has come various ways that humans have tried to identify how to achieve happiness. The Buddhist view teaches to become free from attachment because attachment only brings suffering, which is the opposite of happiness.
Researchers have identified that self-reported happiness levels depend on a number of factors relating to family life, marital status, age, income, and social and religious involvement. This ties in with Abraham Maslow’s theory on human motivation, in which he identified various levels of human needs. He postulated that each level from the bottom up must be satisfied first before one moves on to attain the next level of needs.
At the very bottom is our physiological needs for food, water, air and sex (due to the inherent need to propagate our species).
When these needs have been met, we then aim to satisfy our needs for safety, such as a roof over our heads, job security, and freedom from violent assaults to name a few.
The third level involves our social needs, or that of love, affection and belonging.
The fourth level includes our desires for self-esteem, or the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy and confidence in the face of the world, and the desire for respect from others, which includes aiming for prestige, reputation, attention and appreciation.
These four bottom levels were called the Deficiency Needs because we are motivated to satisfy them when they are unmet. Once they have been satisfied, the motivation decreases and we may start to move on to the next higher need.
Once the Deficiency Needs have been met, the next and last level is the need for self-actualisation, or fulfilling our human potential. There is this inherent desire to become everything we can be. This has been called a Growth Need because we’re motivated to fulfil it the more that it is met.
Having become aware of this hierarchy of human needs, it’s now very understandable why in most relatively affluent societies even if people’s basic physiological and safety needs are met, people are still sometimes unconsciously driven to get a bigger house, get a higher-paying job, get higher education, and find the perfect partner, all in the hope that these will make them happy.
Given that all these adjectives have an ‘-er’ and that it’s very probable that a high percentage of their physiological, safety, and love needs have been met, these pursuits can also be seen as relating to one’s self-esteem needs, particularly the need to have a good reputation and feel prestige amongst peers.
However, even in a study made of people who’ve won the lottery about their happiness levels, in accounts of famous and rich movie stars who’ve committed suicide, and that some people are content with their current situation in life without the desire to do something more than their current job, it seems that fulfilling both the Deficiency Needs and Growth Needs don’t absolutely guarantee happiness and that not everyone will aspire to self-actualise. On the other extreme, seeing marginally poor families still having a happy time can also show that happiness is not totally reliant on meeting all of the human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.
All these show that happiness seems to just be a fleeting feeling. For example, the beggar is happy as soon as he gets food in his belly for the day but will soon become unhappy when he realises he doesn’t have a warm blanket for the cold night ahead. Or the corporate executive who is happy when he finds the perfect home for his growing family, but soon can become unhappy when he realises he has to put in lots of hours at work to pay for his mortgage, thus losing quality time with his loved ones.
To support this theory, researchers have found that only 10-15% of one’s happiness depends on these socioeconomic variables, such as family life, marital status, age, income, and health. 50% depends on one’s genes, while the remaining 40% is the result of positive actions with the distinct purpose to become happy.
It therefore shows the importance of cultivating happiness, which is a combination of the choice to be happy and either making positive actions that makes one feel happy, or removing blocks to one’s happiness. This is possibly the only way to truly sustain happiness because it doesn’t rely on anything external, given that external circumstances always change and beyond our control.
So, how do we cultivate happiness?
First, we must have the basic belief that happiness is possible for us.
Due to the conditioning that we’ve received when were were growing up from both our family system and external factors of which we had no control or no ability to decipher what’s true for us (especially before the age of 5), some of us might have a negative image of our capability to achieve happiness. Erroneous sub-programming that’s been conditioned in us can be reversed once we become aware of them and have the desire to replace it to live a better life. This is where holistic counsellors, mental health specialists, and spiritual healers can assist. Guided Imagery Meditations can also help the subconscious mind to venture into more positive mindsets to help with self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-image.
Second, we must have the tools to manage situations that can cause us unhappiness.
On a physical level, this can include learning ways to manage stress in the body and having daily habits to become or sustain health. On an emotional level, this can include learning ways to understand emotions we recognise as negative, such as sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, hatred and fear, all of which are the opposite of happiness.
Third, we must actively choose to be happy.
This is possible by cultivating an optimistic outlook in life where one inherently sees the world as a positive place and their life in a positive way, and always chooses or works towards a positive outcome. This is someone who wakes up and sees enormous possibility in a new day and that no matter what challenges present themselves, one looks for ways to resolve it in a positive manner.
In summary, from the various theories presented by philosophers and psychologists, as well as findings from research, it seems that the feeling of happiness is a combination of having one’s needs met (as per Maslow’s hierarchy) consistently and the choice to be happy consistently.
I cannot, however, surmise that happiness is achievable by everyone or possibly the better term is if it’s available to everyone because there are socio-economic factors that are sometimes beyond one’s personal control no matter the amount of perseverance one undertakes, or that one simply doesn’t get the opportunity to become aware of subconscious programming that prevents them from sustaining happiness.
In more affluent societies though where one’s Deficiency Needs are mostly satisfied, I do believe that sustaining happiness is definitely possible for someone who is committed to their wellbeing and personal growth.
To start on the road to living a fulfilling life, I offer Holistic Healing sessions which combine Holistic Counselling and Reiki Healing. To find out if this is for you, book a FREE Life Empowerment Session today.
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