The Meaning Of Happiness In 2018

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
Today is International Day of Happiness, which may sound like a made-up Instagram celebration day — but it’s a real thing. In 2012, the United Nations adopted the holiday as a way to "promote happiness as a goal for all human beings." Now that it’s 2018, most of us have become numb to daily bad news, so a day emphasising "happiness" kind of sounds like a bit of a joke.
Whether or not you're feeling cynical, the holiday does pose a tough question: What does it mean to be happy?
The answer depends entirely on who you ask, because happiness is subjective. According to most researchers, though, happiness is about feeling satisfied with your life and having more daily positive emotions than negative ones. Positive emotions can be anything that makes you feel good, like joy, serenity, awe, transcendence, love, and so on. So, if happiness is seemingly within arm’s reach, then why does it tend to feel so unobtainable?
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Part of the problem is that our minds tend to skew what we think really makes us happy, says Laurie Santos, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale University, who teaches a course called Psychology and the Good Life. “I think most of us make choices that try to maximise our happiness, but we get it wrong,” she says. For example, if you’re unhappy with your current life, you may think you should just get a new job, try to make more money, or buy more stuff. Usually, these types of strategies don’t work. Changing your thinking is much more effective than trying to change all the aspects of your life that seem to make you unhappy, she says.

Wanting to be happy yourself doesn’t make you selfish, it makes you more effective in helping other people.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin
For many people, it’s overwhelming to think about how to shift your thinking and be happy, because "happy" feels like an impossible destination. Instead, it’s easier to simply think about ways to be happier, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to be happier, Rubin says certain things are universally helpful, like getting sleep, exercising, having "outer order" (aka a clean environment), and fostering relationships.
Some of these habits, particularly prioritising real connections with people, can feel harder nowadays, Dr. Santos says. "In 2018, we're busier than ever and there's a lot to distract us from really making social connections, which is one of the reasons I think people are less happy than they could be," she says. That said, you don’t have to hold yourself to unrealistic standards or beat yourself up if you feel you don't spend enough IRL time with your friends. In fact, you’ll probably be happier if you just chill out.
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There’s an acronym that psychologists use to help people understand how to maximise their well-being, called PERMA. It stands for: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement or accomplishment. If you think about each of those factors as buckets, then you just need to focus on having one "drop" in each one, says Dan Lerner, MAPP, clinical instructor at New York University, who teaches The Science of Happiness. "We need something in that bucket; it doesn’t need to be overflowing, but you need something," he says.
Everyone is different, so some buckets may be more important to people than others. The key is making an effort to touch all those areas. "Take any of those off the list, and it’s tough to thrive," he says.

The goal should be that we’re able to live lives in which we experience the kind of hedonic physical pleasures that are fundamentally human. And that were also able to pursue meaning in our lives, whatever that means.

Jill Filipovic, reporter and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness
According to Dr. Lerner, the most important bucket to think about is engagement, which basically means you have something in your life that you find rewarding. "If you’re super happy, it’s the idea of doing something that’s greater than yourself," he says. Right now, for example, many of us feel like we have to choose between enjoying things that make us happy, and following the news or being an active participant in society — but that’s not the case.
This misconception persists because there’s a stereotype that happy people are sort of selfish and stupid, explains Rubin. Or, people think that if they want to be happier, they must be a self-absorbed brat — because look at what’s happening in the world! "But happier people are better team members, better leaders; they suffer less burnout, and they’re healthier,” she says. "Wanting to be happy yourself doesn’t make you selfish, it makes you more effective in helping other people."
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Assuming that happy people are blindly optimistic also isn’t fair, says Jill Filipovic, reporter and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. Optimism and happiness don't have to go hand-in-hand all the time, and it is possible to feel pessimistic about the state of the world and happy at the same time. "The goal should be that we’re able to live lives in which we experience the kind of hedonic physical pleasures that are fundamentally human," she says. "And that were also able to pursue meaning in our lives, whatever that means."
Ultimately, as you scroll through the parade of #InternationalDayOfHappiness posts on social media today, remind yourself that it's not overly earnest or unrealistic to try to be happy. If you know what matters to you, then that's a step in the right direction — even if what matters to you is binge-watching Queer Eye.

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