What is Real, Authentic Happiness?

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There are common mindsets and actions that happy people around the world share, regardless of their culture or values. In order to avoid chasing things that don't make us happy, we need to first get an understanding of what happiness is not.

What is Happiness?

Happiness is often misunderstood.

What in life actually makes us happy and fulfilled?

To figure this out, it's useful to look at the illustrative but tragic story of Robin Williams. 

Williams was a guy who not only brought joy to so many people around the world, but he seemed to achieve anything an actor or comedian could achieve. He won an Academy Award and was nominated for several more. He won multiple Golden Globes. He won Emmys. He had his own critically acclaimed HBO specials. Through his hard work he earned all the money anyone could ever ask for.

From the outside looking in, Robin's life was a model of happiness. What more could he ask for? 

But on the inside, things were much different. Those external markers of success did not create inner peace nor compensate for a lack of it, and ultimately he took his own life. 

This is some dark stuff to start an article about happiness, but there's an important lesson that we can all learn from Williams:

There is more to life, and more to happiness, than outward appearances. We must take care of the person inside in order to unlock the thing that we are all chasing, the God-given right to the pursuit of happiness.

Real happiness comes from within, and you can have it.

You see, most of us have a vague idea of what will bring us happiness. If someone asked you what could help make you happier, what would you say? A  promotion? More money? A new girlfriend / boyfriend? A new apartment? For many of us, it feels like if we only we had this one thing, then we would be happy. And we chase these things endlessly hoping to feel the warmth of the pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow.

Lasting happiness comes from more than just improving your circumstances. It is strongly impacted by our genetics, our attitude and how we react to our circumstances.

If for just just a second, we slow down and stop chasing happiness, for many people, it becomes obvious that these "silver bullet" pursuits to improve our life circumstances and prove ourselves through outward achievements and status symbols aren't the answer.

Just look at Robin Williams. He achieved pretty much everything anyone in his position could set out to achieve. All of his needs were met; he had the means to pursue every pleasure a human could conceive of; and yet, that left him feeling empty.

It's time for us to wake up and follow a genuine path towards happiness - and not just one that is here and gone, but one that lasts. And to do that, we need to rethink what happiness is. 

What Happiness is Not

Happiness is not a lack of negative emotions.

In general, the public perception of happiness is equivalent to Everything Is Awesome from The Lego Movie. 

When your happy, the birds around you are chirping, the local milk man knows your name (because in happy world we still have neighborhood milkmen), the guy at the deli has your order ready when you walk in the door. Negative emotions in happy land are a thing of the past.  

That's what being happy is right?

With a sigh of relief, we can definitively answer "no".

Being a happy person is not about only having positive emotions and never having negative emotions

As humans, we’ve evolved to have a range of emotions, all of which serve their purpose when experienced at the appropriate times. Especially negative emotions.

They're a part of us and vital to our survival. Suppressing negative emotions is a sure-fire way to sabotage your own happiness.

Our emotions serve as a guidepost for our actions. If we are happy and content, our emotions are telling us to do more of the same and even explore some new avenues. If we are scare, angry, or sad our emotions are telling us that something needs to change.

 'Inside Out' had it right - we need all of our emotions

'Inside Out' had it right - we need all of our emotions

When we have a range of emotions, something called emotional diversity, we're much more effective at understanding and managing our emotions in a balanced and healthy way(1).

Which means, that your happiness does depend on how you view and manage your negative emotions. Take sadness, for example. If something sad happens to you - a complicated situation with a loved one, a disappointing outcome at work, or a disappointing social situation - ignoring your sadness and sweeping it under the rug is not going to get rid of it.

As with anything that's painful that we tend to ignore, it starts to seep out in different areas in our life. Like a leaky faucet we fix with a glue stick, it's only a matter of time before the emotions return. 

The sadness will start expressing itself in places you don't expect, at times you'll find are completely inopportune, and in ways that are going to make you shake your damn head. It's the process of losing control.

Or course, it doesn't have to be that way. 

Even when sad or frustrating things happen to us, by learning to manage our emotions we can learn to maintain stable internal states of happiness and wellbeing. When we recognize that our emotions play an important role in our lives, we can embrace them instead of shoving them away. This gives us a mental resilience and a happiness much deeper than what we typically experience in life.

Happiness is not about having everything you think you want.

We drove this point home earlier, so we want harp on it, but just for a second, ask yourself - What do you want that would make you happier?

More money? A bigger apartment? A smaller waist size?

Despite social and cultural pressures to achieve these external markers of success and happiness, pretty much anyone who has studied happiness or thought about it deeply knows that achieving material goals such as these rarely have a meaningful impact on your happiness levels.

The way our brains work is that have a natural steady-state of happiness. It's called a "set-point."

We have ups and downs in our day-to-day life, but we pretty much always we return to a static, normal level of happiness. When we experience a big life change like a raise, a move to a new city, or even a marriage, as we would expect, we experience a bump in happiness levels.

But what's been discovered is that without changing your internal mindset, these happiness boosts are consistently followed by a drop back to previous levels of happiness. 1)

It's like how sisyphus was eternally damned to roll a rock up a hill every day, only to have it roll down the other side. A process he repeated day after day.

If we want to escape from this trap, we need to develop the right habits that have been proven by science to improve our lives. 

And when we focus on these habits, our lives can turn around faster than we ever thought possible.

[bctt tweet="If we develop the right habits, our lives can turn around faster than we ever thought possible." username="@beyourbestme"]

But in a world filled with distractions and temptations, that isn’t always easy. 

Happiness is not pleasure.

Seeing a great movie, eating a delicious burger, having great sex. Combine them all and you've got a pretty fantastic day. 

Lots of pleasure.

But pleasure is a complicated animal when it comes to our happiness.

It does play a role in our happiness, but our modern culture has made a terrible mistake by appearing to define happiness AS pleasure. And that is not the case. 

Our experience of pleasure is relatively short lived. It comes to us as a burst of dopamine that makes us feel great – powerful, exuberant, joyful. In the short-term, it feels like our best friend. But the scientific research is clear that - although it serves its purpose in the short-term - dopamine bursts do little for our happiness in the long-term. It's a hit of a drug, that lasts for a bit and then goes away, leaving us to crave the next it. 

The continuous pursuit of pleasure can leave us in a dark and empty place: the pleasure trap, in which we reach for external things to fill the hole inside of us.

Read more about the pleasure trap

Rather than short-term bandaids that lead us into the pleasure trap, in our search for happiness, we are looking for something longer term, something real. And we're going to find it.

What Happiness Actually Is

Happiness has multiple layers.

We feel happy when we're in love. We feel happy when achieve a goal we set for ourselves. We feel happy when we are crushing it a work. We feel happy when we are supported by our family and friends. We feel happy when we are contributing to the great good. 

There's lots of different reasons we feel happiness, but according to Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, there are five major components to happiness. They can summarized in the acronym PERMA (3):

P - Positive emotions / feeling good This is about having a reasonably optimistic outlook, and about having positive experiences. It’s not as much about pleasure related to satisfying basic bodily needs (food, water, sleep), but rather about enjoyment from intellectual stimulation and creativity.

E - Engagement / flow Getting into a flow – a state deep sense of engagement with a moment where you lose track of time – is a blissful and deep experience. We are fully absorbed in the moment, unconcerned with the past or the future.

R - Relationships / authentic connection The support you feel from knowing you have deep connections with friends and/or family is one of the most important predictors of wellbeing and happiness. The quality of our relationships is the biggest driver of the quality of our lives.

M - Meaning / purposeful existence Having a sense that we are here to do something, that our life is meaningful, is crucial to giving our lives context. Without meaning, we cannot find happiness. See Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl for an exploration of what role meaning plays in our lives.

A - Achievement / a sense of accomplishment The process of setting realistic but challenging goals, achieving them, and then reflecting on them allows us to see and feel personal growth over time. Pride and fulfillment from achieving our goals creates a deep sense of happiness.

Our happiness has a lot in common.

We are all unique; there is no doubt about that. And the specific sources that will bring happiness to each of us are deeply personal. We may find a meaningful life through our work, or through family, or through volunteering. 

We may feel a sense of flow when we are surfing a wave, or running a marathon, or coding a computer program, or building a marketing campaign.

We may feel the most authentic connection with our family, coworkers or friends. 

Our nature, our upbringing, and our values ultimately define what makes us feel engaged and give our lives meaning. 

But there are universal techniques common across all people that can help you achieve happiness across these dimensions. And these tried and true practices and techniques have tremendous power to improve our lives.

We’re going to focus on those techniques.

But before we move on, it’s important to ask the question...

We have an amazing power to influence our happiness.

How much of our happiness is actually under our control?

According to leading psychologists, the total amount of happiness we feel is influenced by three factors: genetics, circumstance, and intentional activity.

Though this may seem crazy, psychology research contends that at least 50% of our happiness is driven by our genetics. That is, we have a kind of base level of happiness attributable to our DNA that's been decided since the day we were born(2). 

What that means is that some people are destined to be happier than others. But don't let that freak you out. There is still a great deal of our happiness and feeling of wellbeing that is under our control. 50%. That's a lot (seriously, if you believed 50% of your intelligence was under your control instead, you'd probably be pretty pumped). 

When you begin to think about the things that will make us happier, it's tempting to focus on the things you want in your life. You may look at other people who have things that you want and  think that if you just had those things, or if you could live a life like theirs, then you would finally be happy.

But of the happiness that is under your control, a shockingly low percentage is driven by what happens to you - about 10%.

This 10% includes things like where you live, your culture, and various life events(e.g., winning a prestigious award, childhood trauma, being involved in an automobile accident). It also includes other aspects of your life like your job, whether or not you’re married, your income and your health (4).

The remaining 40% of your happiness is based on your intentional actions and attitude. This is about how you perceive and interpret the events that occur to you. It's about how you relate to the world, what you see as your place in the world. It's about finding amazement in the world you have today, and meaning in the things you do.

[bctt tweet="40% of our happiness is determined by decisions we make (or don't make) every single day" username="beyourbestme"]

By taking conscious action across these areas, you can dramatically improve your level of happiness. These conscious actions can impact all five areas of PERMA. And so...

We are going to focus on that 40%.

We are going to help you develop that habits that can improve as much as 40% of your happiness.

What are some of those habits that impact our happiness?

Managing Negative Thoughts (coming soon)

You’ve heard of them a million times already, but you might not know the actual science behind them. You may not even know that there is science behind them. Let’s get into it.


(1) http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/quoidbach%20et%20al%202014_9105d828-db78-49eb-b434-23f53cdba042.pdf

(2) http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Lyubomirsky-PursingHappiness.pdf

(3) https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/perma-model/

(4) http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Diener-Subjective_Well-Being.pdf