by Veronica Vaiti, LCSW-R
A conversation on the topic of “happiness” is a common one occurring within the walls of a psychotherapy office. Not so long ago, I had one such conversation with a client in which they offered me two varying perspectives on “happiness” that they felt were possible to hold simultaneously but struggled to do so. These two perspectives are as follows….
Aristotle: ” Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”
Comedian/Actor, Dennis Leary: “Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm…” (the actual skit goes on and of course, in true Dennis Leary fashion is a bit more emphatically punctuated with crude and vulgar expletives, but for our purposes here, this quote implies the gist of it)
I think “happiness” by and large is a tricky term. By common standards, its more or less what Mr. Leary is referring to, short bursts of enjoyment that are usually conditional and fleeting by nature. As such, many people live chasing the eternally dangling carrot with the perspective of, “Once I get “x” (x = whatever you think makes you happy) then I’ll be happy.” But the catch is, after “x” is achieved/acquired, people are left flat or disappointed, scurrying to find a new “x” because they are not as happy as they thought they’d be. Instead, to shift ones focus towards discovering what would bring joy or personal contentment and fulfillment requires a bit more digging and work but can be a helluva lot more gratifying and long-lasting.
To work toward living a satisfying and content life is not as simple as shifting from living as a pessimist to a living as an optimist. To be “happy” requires a certain degree and depth of personal understanding, a certain attitudinal disposition, a sense of purpose, engagement with others and a good dose of courage.
1) Personal Understanding – you need to have some working sense of what you’re made of if you are going to set out upon a quest of self-fulfillment; everything else flows from this self-knowledge. Some form of self-reflection and self-study is necessary in order to discover what makes you tick, be it meditation, therapy, yoga, or having a sound and un-biased support network who can help you talk things through and take an honest look at yourself, which frankly is not always the easiest task. Personal understanding is the state of being clear about what you believe in and what you value, how you have been influenced by your upbringing both positively and negatively, and how that impacts your current lifestyle and decision making process. Also, knowing that you and most human beings are works in progress and as such, degrees of personal understanding may change with the passage of time and the acclimation of new experiences.
2) Attitudinal Disposition – throughout the fields of psychology and sociology there has been and continues to be a vast amount of research which explores the impact that our attitudes, meaning our feelings towards a person (ourselves and others), place, thing or idea impacts our life. For the purpose of this blog entry, I’ll provide you a brief summation: whether you take a glass is half-empty or half-full stance or fall somewhere in between, how you view the world/situation before you ultimately colors the way in which you choose to live in it and hence how you experience life.
3) A Sense of Purpose – on a very practical level, I define a sense of purpose as knowing know why you do what you do, what you are working and living for, and deriving an overall satisfaction from that endeavor which helps to make peace with any undesirable aspects of it that may exist. Purpose is not always the same as passion since the truth is, not everyone knows what they are passionate about but may still retain a strong sense of purpose in their life even while working towards discovering their passion.
4) Engagement with Others – human beings are social beings. just as plants need sun and water for energy and nourishment in order to grow and thrive, we need human contact to grow and thrive. If plants lose water and sun, they shrivel up and die. Without human contact, the same can occur for us.
5) Courage – To be ALIVE, to actually LIVE as a joyful and content and WHOLE HUMAN BEING means knowing that you may not always feel happy. It entails opening oneself up to all that life may bring with it. Intrinsic in joy and personal contentment is that deep appreciation and acceptance for all that this being human may bring with it…happiness, sadness, excitement, hope, disappointment, anger and calm…which takes an awful lot of courage to do so…the true question is, are you up to the task?