Traditionally those in the mental health field have focused on solving problems. Patients come to them when they are depressed, anxious, at a crossroads in their life or experiencing some type of stress. In the past, visiting a therapist’s office typically meant you were in a crisis.
The tides are starting to change a bit in this field and more and more often I am seeing clients in my office who are simply on a journey to be happier in their life. Proponents of “positive psychology” believe that the search for happiness is a worthy goal and people should work toward achieving it.
The question then becomes, “what actually makes people happy?” I recently read an article in the Los Angeles Times by Valerie Ulene M.D. that discussed this very topic. Dr. Ulene cites a study done at the University of Edinburgh which confirms that to a large degree the positive personality traits that lead to happiness are genetic.
Looking at twins they were able to determine that certain traits such as extroversion, openness and agreeableness were more closely shared by identical twins that fraternal twins or siblings in general. But this is only part of the story.
Life circumstances play a major role in a person’s positive outlook. If they are experiencing severe stressors, such as financial hardship, health problems or grief, happiness will elude them despite their genetic makeup. Everyone, no matter how predisposed they are to being happy, experiences ups and downs.
According to Dr. Ulene, people are their own worst enemy when it comes to seeking out happiness. They have a hard time determining what will actually make them happy. Most people include money as the thing they believe will increase their happiness. Not surprisingly though, over and over we find that once people’s basic needs are met, additional money doesn’t add substantially to their sense of well-being.
Dr. Ulene differentiates pleasures, which are those things that make us happy in the moment such as a good meal or having sex, from gratifications, which are activities that we enjoy and that we can immerse ourselves in. Sometimes those activities are challenging, such as the study of something of interest or a satisfying job, and at other times the activity may be a hobby that you enjoy doing over months, years or a lifetime.
Gratifications, unlike pleasures are lasting and this, the doctor tells us, is what we should aim for.
It is not that pleasures should be avoided, but they should be spread out so they can be savored. Like drinking a glass of wine, eating a delicious dessert or having sex, the experience shouldn’t be rushed or attended to halfheartedly. But it is the deeper more significant activities that are repeated day in and day out that give our lives true meaning and that we need to make a conscious effort to design with the goal of happiness in mind.