Self Improvement — 25 November 2007
What brings happiness?

Many people believe that happiness will declare itself after a specific event will occur. “I’ll be happy after I will leave home, finish college, get married, or get a promotion.” It is the attainment of a certain goal that is expected to produce instant happiness. Regrettably, achieving the goal is rewarding, but does not bring happiness.

Some couples follow the same formula about their lives together: “We’ll be happy after we earn more money, when we buy a house, have children, finish raising the kids, or complete some unfinished projects.” None of this ever ends and the mates keep feeling enslaved and victimized by their lives. These emotions certainly do not foster happiness.

There is difference between feeling satisfaction, relief, pride and esteem pursuant to achieving goals and feeling happy. Happiness is a feeling of wellbeing, contentment and joy. It is biochemically initiated in the limbic area of the brain, that when stimulated creates a complex interaction with the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex to generate what we experience as “happiness”.

Some people do not search for happiness –they are intrinsically happy individuals. Michael W. Fordyce, Ph.D. in his book Human Happiness Its Nature and Its Attainment, summarized research findings about these fortunate beings as follows: “Happy people are not bothered by strong fears, they have few troubles, they are less burdened by guilt feelings, they have fewer resentments and regrets about their past, they lack strong feelings of inferiority, and they are not shy, timid, or unduly self-conscious. Particularly, happy people have less stress, anxiety, fewer nervous habits, as well as lower levels of psychosomatic symptoms and psychological distress than most people. They are also freer of neurotic tendencies, they suffer less from alienated, lonely and anomic feelings, they tend to be less angry, anti-social, aggressive, hostile, and criminal, and finally, as we’ve already seen, they worry far less than most of us do.”

But if the state of happiness is biochemically induced, how much control do we actually have over changing our biology and creating the above state? Further findings listed by Dr. Fordyce describe happy people as more involved, more active, and social. These behaviors are certainly willful actions.

In addition to social interactions, the effect of family relationships on happiness appears critical. Dr. Fordyce continues: “People who are satisfied with their marriage and family life are generally happy while people who are dissatisfied with these aspects of their lives are generally unhappy. More than success, more than fortune, fame, or wealth, more than a life of ease and play — nothing affects happiness more than our home-life.” Achieving this seems certainly within our control.

In the happiness makeover, author M. J. Ryan provides 22 Happiness Boosters, all of which involve altering our thoughts, attitudes and actions toward greater happiness. If behavioral steps can help create happiness, then it is not unlikely that our thought processes and decisions can impact the biochemical interactions in our brain to serve us better.

• Waiting to become happy after a certain phase of life has been accomplished – is self-defeating. We lose many hours and years of joy in deferring contentment.
• If being happy is one of your hopes, stop wishing for it and begin creating it. Ask yourself what you can do this minute to heighten your happiness and proceed to do it.
• Happy people are those who put happiness at a high priority. Learn to live in the moment by cherishing your personal and relationship gifts, rather than lament on what’s missing for you.
• When things go wrong, do not accept them as inevitable or expected. Make simple changes in thoughts and/or actions to feel happier about the situation. Do what you can and avoid ruminating about the rest.
• Try to learn something new or figure out a problem daily, the joy of discovery bolsters esteem and happiness.
• Use all your senses to truly appreciate even the smallest experiences. Remember the scent, taste, touch, sight or sound of pleasing moments- they will be ingrained and rehearsed in your mind as savored pleasures to be cherished again and again.
• Make your partner the source of great pleasure. Recall, share and discuss with each other your early days of courtship, old and recent shared passion, traits you admire in each other and how much you did and still do love your partner.
• Be grateful and feel blessed for what you do have- it epitomizes happiness.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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