There are many things that determine our lives for better or worse. Parents play a huge role of course, our environment, influences, relationships and peers also play a part. Out of this melting pot comes a mixture that either leaves us happy, depressed, seeking constant perfectionism or leading an unfulfilled life doing things that we would rather not. Nothing is perfect and we all have to accept things in a sense of give and take and if we are generally happy most of the time, that is usually enough for most people. A difficult question for many people is how do you know when you have reached a point of contentment where life is as good as it can be?
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In our constant search for “something new and better”, do we run the risk of overlooking what we already have and creating thought patterns and beliefs that stop us having the ability to be happy? During these unstable and difficult times, the happiness industry is booming. The bookshops are full of self-help advice. Hedonistic happiness, the Buddhist route to happiness, being happy in your body, achieving spiritual peace, finding happiness through austerity and frugal living, contagious happiness through positive thinking. We all now have the opportunity to be truly happy, whatever book we choose to buy and study.
One view is that the way we interpret what happens to us has a greater impact on our quality of life than the events themselves. A Swiss psychologist, author and teacher, Yves-Alexandre Thalmann, cites the metaphor of the glass that’s either half full or half empty.
“Our brains are programmed to make sense of everything around us and that happens to us. We spend our lives interpreting facts,’ he explains. ‘These interpretations, positive or negative, generate corresponding emotions. These emotions determine our behaviour, the way we see life, and our relationships with others.’ For example, if it’s raining, you could say to yourself, ‘That’s today ruined,’ and be in a bad mood all day. Or you could say, ‘Great, it’s a chance to spend a cozy day at home,’ and this lighter mood will be much easier for those around you to live with”
I work on the basis that our thoughts play a huge role in the way we see life and consequently how happy we are. While we should be very careful about dismissing negative thoughts completely, a programme of looking at things rationally can really help us to accept and find happiness in what we have…increase self-esteem and be more assertive. All cognitive behavioural approaches are based on the same idea: that our phobias, relationship difficulties and even our addictions are often linked to ‘cognitive distortions’ (or false beliefs that we have turned into facts) that we need to do something about. This is a practical way of looking at increasing happiness in what can be a routine and rather stressful everyday life. It has nothing to do with the Hedonistic pursuit of ultimate happiness which tends to be very individual (and material). When you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value. Being grateful for the good things that are already evident in your life will bring you a deeper sense of happiness. And that’s without having to go out and buy or acquire anything new. It makes sense. You will have a hard time ever being happy if you aren’t thankful for what you already have and are able to recognise it.
“What’s new in our study is we are looking at choices you have, and what we demonstrate is choices makes the difference,”
When it comes to “thinking ourselves happy”, I wonder how many people place that responsibility on other people’s shoulders. I have always been of the opinion that nobody can change the way we feel or our lives except ourselves. We are truly responsible for everything we feel and consequently do. This is what led Thalmann to develop his theory based on an apparently simple premise: why not select the positive interpretations, which boost our wellbeing, and focus exclusively on them? ‘It’s a question of using free will to put our own spin on hard facts,’ he says. ‘Facts can’t be altered, as much as we might wish they could, but their significance is not contained within them – that is the story we tell about them. So you might as well link facts with plausible favourable explanations. I call it telling yourself nice stories.’
According to the results of a long-term study in Germany, happiness has more to do with our personal choices than it does with our genetic make-up. An international group of researchers analysed data gathered by the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP) from its widespread study of 60,000 Germans over 25 years. They found that altruistic goals were more important than money, and that focusing on family, social activities, exercise, religion, and working the right amount were good choices to ensure happiness. The results show that it’s easier for people to become unhappier due to terrible life events, and much harder for people to improve their satisfaction with life by making the right choices – but that’s the area the researchers are most excited about.