If there’s one thing that we all seek – it’s happiness. I’ve never met a person who has told me they didn’t want to be happy, have you? It’s a fundamental human desire regardless of whether people believe they can attain it.
As a therapist, I have the opportunity to sit down with people as they present their concerns to me. They usually seek therapy because they’re experiencing some level of emotional distress – and something isn’t working which is leading to unhappiness. Doing the kind of work I do, I’ve been in a unique position to make observations in many of the people I’ve seen – and have some thoughts
What makes people happy? What’s their secret?
- Absence of Toxic Shame: In the book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw describes the difference between “healthy vs toxic shame” in that, “Healthy shame is an emotion which signals us about our limits…and keeps us grounded,” where, “Toxic shame is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being.” Truly happy people have a strong sense of themselves and their value, in other words, an absence of toxic shame. This usually comes from a nurturing, loving and supportive experience in their families of origin. There are many reasons why people struggle with toxic shame but usually lies in their past experiences.
- Absence of Resentment: Happy people seem to be more successful at forgiveness. In addition, they often haven’t personalized the experience to the degree that others do. When you are good at letting things go – you don’t drag the burden of resentment around with you. Those who hold onto anger or grudges towards others for long periods of time can experience internal emotional distress that leads to bitterness, frustration and often health problems. They can also struggle with depression and excessive anger.
- Living their Passion: People who are doing work that is satisfying to them, whether they simply enjoy showing up every day – or is more rewarding on a deeper level – tend to be happier. The same applies to those who have found a hobby or cause that brings them joy, whether it’s associated with work or not. Those who dislike their jobs and despise getting up every day to go to work tend to have an underlying baseline of life dissatisfaction that can lead to unhappiness. This is particularly true if they’re not engaging in something outside of work that inspires them – which could at-least partially offset the impact of their unrewarding job.
- Dreams for the Future: Those who have hopes, plans and enthusiasm for the future are typically happier. They believe they can carry out their dreams – and can actually visualize them coming true. People who struggle with imagining what their futures might hold often don’t really believe that good things could actually happen for them and may carry the beliefs, “I can’t,” or “I don’t deserve.”
- Ability to Stay in the Moment: Those who have mastered the skill to stay present – or in the moment – tend to be happier. They are less vulnerable to falling into the future worry trap – and the pit of the past.
- Connections to People: Happy people usually are connected to other people by supportive and loving relationships, no matter whether a few or many. There could be an argument that there are exceptions to this, but by and large, people need other people. From the time we are born, we seek to form attachments to our primary caregivers. Depending on the quality of these attachments, we will usually seek to form friendships and then – intimate partnerships. I’ve found that many unhappy people feel disconnected in some way to others – which can be very painful. Sometimes they are afraid to connect and other times their behavior is disconnecting. Regardless, for those who believe they need other people – and feel alone – a deep sense of unhappiness is common.
Like I mentioned previously, no matter who or where we are in this world, one of the ties that binds us together is the desire for happiness, though it’s a mistake to believe that happiness should be a constant state of mind. The human condition allows for an array of emotions. But most people know at least one person who seems to be a generally happy person.
It can require a bit of work to tackle the things that might be blocking us from that very achievable goal – shame, resentment, lack of dreams, future worry, isolation and/or lack of a life passion. The great news is my work as a therapist has allowed me glimpses into what’s possible. Can it sometimes require hard work to get there? Sure it can.
What are your thoughts about happiness and my list above? Any points you would add or take away?