How can we be happy during times of loss, transition or uncertainty? With so much going on in the world, how can we achieve happiness — and why does it matter?
I used to think that happiness is the endless state of bliss that we feel when we achieve certain goals, such as finding our lifelong partner, making a certain amount of money or even traveling to a dream destination. But I noticed that as soon as I achieved one goal, another when was added, and happiness again existed on the other side, just out of reach. This constant grasping to be happy continued until the pandemic.
Like many others around the world, the pandemic forced me to press pause on the hamster wheel. Through a series of events and insights, I lost my dog, left my career and was in the midst of grief and uncertainty navigating several transitions. While going through a challenging time, I decided to take a hands-on approach and make yet another list of goals. As I stared at the long list, I leaned into my inner James Clear (author of “Atomic Habits”) to focus on making one of these a habit: exercising five times a week, even if only for five minutes. I figured this habit would positively impact my mental and physical health.
Simultaneously, I incorporated a few happiness practices I used to do in 2017, courtesy of Shawn Achor’s “The Happy Secret to Better Work” Ted Talk, including writing a daily gratitude list. A month into these new practices, a friend coincidentally invited me to do a workshop for a Girl Scouts group on the science of happiness. Although I was a little intimidated, I saw the invitation as a sign and plunged deep into research, including taking an online “Science of Happiness” course through UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. What I learned and shared with the Girl Scouts changed my relationship to happiness.
One of the most important insights I learned was about the subjective nature of happiness. Happiness is unique to each of us and unique in different cultures. For instance, some cultures may view happiness in terms of achievements and pleasure, whereas others view it in terms of acts of service and making others happy. This subjectivity of happiness was evident when I asked the scouts to name what makes them happy and heard a variety of answers — from spending time with close friends or pets, eating a special meal with family to doing a favorite activity.
A common thread in their answers was about experiencing happiness in moments which aligned with what I learned: happiness is not about an endless state of bliss without feeling any negative emotions. We can experience happiness in moments. This concept is eloquently described by author and podcaster Brené Brown in her description of joy, “Twinkle lights are the perfect metaphor for joy. Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments – often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments.”
Dismantling the notion that my entire life needs to be figured out in order to be happy helped me let go of society’s pressure to be happy. Instead, I’ve learned to experience happiness by becoming aware of joyful moments while in the moment — however fleeting. A practice that helps me do this is Greater Good in Action’s Three Good Things, where I reflect on the last 24 hours and write three positive things that happened. Over the last several months, this daily practice has trained my brain to look for positive moments throughout the day.
This brings me to other practices that can boost our happiness. There are many, including acts of giving, compassion, mindfulness and a cultivating a grateful mindset. One of the practices that jumped off the page for me was social connection, especially as we come out of more than two years of social isolation. As one of the longest studies of adult life in the world, the Harvard Study of Adult Development indicates that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” The study shares that “people who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.” Therefore, connecting with others is important for our happiness and health.
Similarly, children and youth need social connection. A 32-Year Longitudinal Study of Child and Adolescent Pathways to Well-Being in Adulthood that tracked kids’ happiness as they went into adulthood indicates “a happy life is much more about making friends than it is about making the grade.” This doesn’t mean academics aren’t important; it’s just means that they don’t “predict happiness as strongly as social connections and relationships.”
Learning about the science of happiness changed my perspective and relationship to happiness. Instead of reaching for the endless state of happiness, I’ve become aware of what makes me happy through a variety of practices. Even so, there is no one-size-fits all recipe. The idea of “fit” in the “The How of Happiness” is about figuring out which practices work best for each of us.
I hope you find practices that light up a sea of string lights across your lifetime.
Iranian-born Ayda Safaei is a public affairs strategist and mindfulness meditation instructor living in Los Angeles.