If someone asked me, “Vidhya, are you happy?” I imagine I would hesitate to answer.
I’d probably overthink it and end up answering, “Well, I guess so. I have a great husband. I get to write a lot nowadays which I love. But…I guess things would be better if I were bringing home a paycheck.”
Ah, yes. That’s what we call sitting on the fence. I’m neither here nor there.
Afraid to say outright that I’m happy in fear of being seen as complacent and unwilling to say I’m unhappy in case people judge me as ungrateful.
Many of us strive to be happy. We do so many things to better ourselves and our odds of succeeding in order to attain happiness. But exactly when do we stop and finally say, “I’m happy now!”
Is life all about the pursuit of happiness? If so, when and how do we achieve this alluring goal?
Fortunately, we don’t have to struggle with this question alone. Years and years of research into the science of happiness has shed some light on this matter.
So, let's dive right into the science of it!
One Harvard study spanning 80 years that tracked the lives of Harvard students in the 1930s right up to their 90s revealed that close relationships kept people happy, more so than money or fame. According to The Harvard Gazette (2017):
“Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes."
Intuitively, this makes sense. We find comfort and solace in the company of loved ones. We look forward to spending the holidays with our family, hanging out with our friends, and chatting with our colleagues. We’re social creatures and regardless of our personality type (extro-, ambi-, or introvert), we all need our people to get through the highs and lows of life.
Another interesting finding is that experiences bring more happiness than material things. According to John M. Grohol, PsyD (2018):
“That’s likely because our memories keep an emotional photograph of the experience, whereas the material things don’t make as big an emotional imprint in our brains."
I guess this is why we derive a lot of joy from travelling or novel experiences such as bungee jumping. Perhaps it’s also why reminiscing about past trips with friends brings more feel-good vibes compared to buying or having material things.
Beyond a certain level, money doesn’t increase our happiness as well. Once our basic needs are met, our bills are paid, and we lead a relatively comfortable life, more money doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. Instead, I reckon it could be argued the other way around. More money may require you to work more hours and that may keep you away from your family and friends.
However, spending money on others or giving money away to those in need can promote happiness. Try to recall what you did with your very first paycheck. Some of you may have brought your family or friends out for dinner to celebrate. How did that make you feel? The sense of accomplishment for unlocking this next level of adulting coupled with the joy of treating your loved ones with your hard-earned money is indeed priceless.
Other than that, the work that we do plays a role in our happiness as well.
An article in the Harvard Business Review discusses the relationship between work and happiness. Pay is certainly one factor, but there are many other non-monetary factors that affect job satisfaction and by extension, overall happiness and well-being. Work-life balance, job variety, work environment, and nature of colleagues are all predictors of happiness at the workplace.
In other words, a hefty paycheck may not be incentive enough for someone to do work they don’t enjoy in an environment they don’t like.
Another important contributing factor to overall happiness is how much gratitude we show. SoulPancake conducted an experiment where they got a group of people to fill up a questionnaire measuring their happiness levels. Then, they were each asked to call a person who they love and admire and express their thanks to that person. After the phone call, they were asked to fill in the questionnaire again. Interestingly, those who managed to contact and speak to their loved ones experienced an increase in their happiness levels between 4 and 19 percent.
Those who showed the greatest increase were the ones who were least happy at the very beginning. This tells us that gratitude isn’t something to practise only on the good days, but also on the bad days when we probably need it most.
Overall, some of the factors that contribute to happiness are:
investing in experiences rather than material things
spending money on others
giving money to charity
work that you enjoy and gives you a sense of purpose
However, these are broad guidelines. A closer examination may raise further questions such as:
how many close relationships should we have?
how many different experiences should I invest in?
how much money should I give away or spend on others?
There are no set answers to these questions. The right answer varies from person to person. All of us have in common a yearning for happiness, but we all get there differently.
There have been many a time when I envied extroverts for having lots of friends. I love my family and friends, but somehow in comparison, I would always feel like I fall short. I guess what I’m trying to say is that most of us have close relationships, unique experiences, sufficient money, and things to be grateful for, but despite all of this, comparison tends to rob us of our happiness.
A few friends make me happy, until I notice others having more friends. My experiences make me happy, until I notice others having ‘cooler’ experiences. My writing makes me happy, until I notice I’m not bringing home a paycheck like others do.
If we can tame the beast that is comparison, then our odds at lasting happiness increases tremendously. I can’t say I’ve mastered this art, but what I do know is this: as much as we admire others, there’s always someone who admires you for your wonderful qualities. Recognise that you are someone’s #lifegoals. These qualities that they see in you are often the ones you dismiss because you feel they aren’t such a big deal. But they are a big deal. Value those qualities and you’ll soon have your happily ever after.