Aristotle has called happiness the meaning and purpose to life, the “whole aim and end of human existence.” The “happiness course” at Yale taught by psychology professor Laurie Santos became Yale's most popular class in over 300 years, according to the university. Achieving happiness is one of the greatest pursuits in life. But what truly is happiness and how do we get it?
One way to help understand happiness better is to look at what it isn’t. One common misconception about happiness is its confusion with its close relative, pleasure. When you say or think “this ice cream cone makes me happy” what you are really experiencing is pleasure. Happiness is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours. Happiness encompasses our ability to deal with painful experiences, to find meaning and purpose in life, to pursue intellectual growth, and to cultivate healthy relationships.
Another misconception is that a happy life is a life devoid of painful emotions. Included in happiness are life’s ups and downs. It helps us recover from our inevitable hardships. Like Dolly Parton said, “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.” Recovering from hardships helps strengthen our psychological immunity and our ability to grow from painful experiences. Post-traumatic growth, which involves deeply meaningful and life-changing psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world and the self as a result of struggling with highly challenging circumstances, is a concept that has flourished from our greater understanding and deeper dive into studying happiness. Medical research shows that happy people are more likely to live longer due to having a stronger immune system, fewer aches and pains, and decreased stress, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Anyone who has seen the movie “Inside Out,” where the characters are the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, knows the premise is that pain is part of our existence. Pain allows us to experience life more meaningfully and helps us to better understand and appreciate genuine happiness. In psychology, we frequently discuss this as two sides of the same coin - one where you are feeling hurt, pain, loneliness, or sadness, and the flip side which encompasses how much you care, value and feel love for others in your life. One side can’t exist without the other.
To honor the complexity and beauty of happiness, a day was created by the Secret Society of Happy People (yes this is a real group!) every year in August to get people talking about and spreading happiness. National Happiness Happens Day is a day that aims to spread the joy of being happy, of making others happy, and stimulate people’s right to expressing happiness.
Happiness is something we are clearly all after. In a 2016 survey, when Americans were asked which they would prefer: to have a happy life or a life of achievement, 81% of people answered they would rather be happy.
Want to celebrate Happiness Happens Day? Pay close attention to what is going on around you and see if you can find glimmers of happiness in any given moment. The beauty of happiness is that we may find it where we least expect!
By: Ilise Reznick
Mental Health Counseling Intern