Happiness 101: Unpacking & Redefining What It Means to Be Happy
First things first: stop treating happiness as a goal.
Goals are valuable tools in our lives, however, we tend to place heavy conditions on goals. Happiness is not a conditional state: by saying “I’ll only be happy if ____” or “I’ll finally be happy when _____”, we are removing the possibility of us being happy right now. Because you never know, something else just might make your day.
Once upon a time I had a colleague who hated their job. I mean, h-a-t-e-d with a capital H. They would come in miserable, relentlessly complain, and expected the worst out of everyone and every situation. This colleague would always say, “I’d just be happy if my boss would listen to me!” Truth is, this colleague placed such heavy conditions on the simple fact of listening, that they didn’t realize that their boss was doing everything in their power to respond to the employee’s needs. In fact, the boss was a very pleasant person - constantly motivating the team and creating a friendly and warm climate in the workplace. This colleague was rejecting the boss’ efforts in response to their expectations - their conditional happiness - because the colleague was completely closed off due to the narrow window of happiness that they had strictly defined in their mind’s eye. My colleague was literally convincing themselves that they were not happy, in spite of being surrounded by efforts in creating happiness.
Trust me - this situation happens everywhere, you may even relate it to your life. It may not be your work life, but consider the simple phrase: I will only be happy if/when.
And the truth is, we do not have to rely on other people or things to make us happy. We really just have to learn what happiness is, and tune into sensations that feel good in our bodies. Happiness is categorized as an emotion, and an emotion are simply a label placed on a pool of sensations or feelings. Broken down into basic bodily sensations, happiness is felt in the body in different ways. Some people experience an uplifting rush of energy, tingly sensations in the fingers, a fluttery feeling in the chest or belly, or the most obvious: a tight contraction of the muscles in the cheeks and jaw (smiling, of course!) That said, we feel the sensations of joy, pleasure, contentment, before our minds make sense of it all. We feel happiness before we state that we are happy - but usually the opposite happens. We tend to expect happiness before feeling it, and then are disappointed when external factors do not meet these expectations.
These subtle sensations in our bodies trigger the production of neurotransmitters in our brain. These are essentially our brain’s communication system: a grouping of chemicals that travel through our system from one nerve to another. Basically, it’s a communication system that our body uses unconsciously. Endorphins are our natural happiness drug. These neurotransmitters are released from the brain and are typically associated with pleasurable feelings such as those created by eating chocolate or a runner’s high. The release of endorphins also triggers the release of dopamine, associated with the pleasure-seeking reward system that triggers positive emotions; exuberance, desire, joy.
Simply put, these happiness chemicals are stimulated by sensorial experience - we feel happiness in our bodies before our brains make sense of it all.
That said, most of us have truly lost touch with the first (and most important) step of the process: noticing sensations of happiness in the body. We need to train ourselves to notice the sensations of joy and pleasure in order to actually feel happy. These chemicals can be blocked very easily, even by having a negative attitude towards something - or being blind, ignorant, or lacking the sensory vocabulary to truly understand happiness in our very bodies.
Jargon aside, how can I answer the burning question, how then, can I be happy?
It’s simple: learn it. Learn what joy and contentment and pleasure feels like in your body. Tune out the headspace and your mind’s interpretation of everything - there is no why or how in happiness - it just is. When something pleasurable happens, notice what it feels like. When you laugh, pay attention to your body. When you drink that warm, cozy cup of coffee in the morning, come back to the present over and over and over again. Listen to the subtle language of your body. It really boils down to a choice: a choice of feeling happiness, a choice of being happy.
Finally, don’t negate the negative - ignore the wish of wanting things to be different. Let go of expectations and stories that detract you from your present-moment experience. Develop resilience in the presence of unpleasant events - stay present. Stay open. Stay patient. The beauty of life is that everything that we experience will eventually pass - it’s all impermanent. Even happiness - you may not feel happy right now, but you have the capacity to be open to happiness when it arises. And when it does, it just feels that much better.