Little Bits of Happiness Go a Long Way

The question is simple enough, and heaven knows we dwell on it endlessly: “What would make me happy?” We think of all sorts of answers—and usually discover we’ve got it wrong. How and why we run up blind alleys on the odyssey toward personal happiness is the theme of the new book Stumbling On Happiness, by Harvard psychology professor Brian Gilbert.

We’re habitually misled by our ideas of what it takes to content us, says Gilbert. One pitfall is the belief that what makes us happy is the intensity of our positive experiences, when what really counts is their frequency. Experiencing small, pleasant occurrences many times throughout the day—as opposed to winning a multimillion-dollar lottery once in your life—is the stuff of true happiness.

I’ve long suspected as much. On my desk where I see it every day is this quote: “Seek happy moments rather than a happy life.”

To live a happy life is an unmanageably ambitious project, but enjoying numerous moments of contentment is perfectly doable. And they add up to the same result: one day you look back, and you realize that you’ve been living a happy life all along.

Also according to Gilbert, a sure predictor of your happiness in life lies in the number and richness of your relationships. Humans are social, and we need each other. The better we satisfy this innate requirement, the happier we are.

That may explain why so much research on the subject indicates that most of us are happier at work than during the weekends. Unless you have a satisfying social network away from work, those needs are satisfied on the job.

Serving others is another way to achieve personal happiness. Recently a radio interviewer asked Gilbert if performing altruistic acts can give us satisfaction. Calling it “one of the very best ways to make yourself happy,” Gilbert added that sometimes people have to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into serving others. “But the minute they do, they wouldn’t sell the experience. It makes us feel better than we anticipated.”

This is echoed by University of Pennsylvania investigator (and ex-president of the American Psychological Association) Martin Seligman. In his book Learned Optimism he minces no words about what’s in store for people who are almost exclusively focused on their own successes and failures: they risk “increased depression, poor health, and lives without meaning.” That’s not personal happiness by anyone’s definition!

Seligman recommends getting involved with others in a charitable way as a means to keep emotionally fit and happy. He calls this “moral jogging.” Self-centered, we’d just as soon skip altruism as we would our workouts, but both pay dividends in many ways. And who isn’t happier when reaping dividends?

When I look back at my own life, I can see that, during the dark years when I suffered from clinical depression, I was self-absorbed in the extreme. During the subsequent years of progressive recovery, I see that I’ve been happiest when my life included serving others. I often joke that it kept me busy and protected me from being alone with my mind—a bad neighborhood to hang out in!

Incredible as it may seem, work offers you all the ingredients for living a happy life:

· Achievements to celebrate, giving you frequent positive moments;

· A network of colleagues you can interact with; and

· People you can help through thoughtful acts.

So believe both the latest scientific research and what your grandmother probably told you: chase happiness, and it will elude you; turn your attention elsewhere and it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

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