by Marinus Begieneman, MSW, RSW
This article is about how you can increase your happiness in your life. I've had the privilege of working in a number of career paths, where I intimately interacted in a professional capacity with my fellow Canadians and people from other nations and cultures. I started as a nurse (general and psychiatric), then moved to parole and probation work. I then I had the privilege of working among our First Nations population, and for the past number of years I have specialized as a clinician practitioner in the field of addictions, mood disorders (anxiety, depression, panic) and family/marriage counselling initiatives.
In each of these employment settings I’ve interacted with a lot of unhappy people who were able to become happy people.
Let me illustrate. One of our family members, a young healthy, talented, friendly, 16-year-old son, had a life changing athletic accident when he fell from a high bar while doing gymnastics and broke his neck at the first cervical level. He instantly became a complete quadriplegic. The medical world did not expect him to live. Through the tender care of doctors, nurses, my wife (the main care giver), family and friends, he lived an additional, productive 18 years. Then his kidneys failed and he passed away.
He could only move his face muscles. He could not breathe at all on his own and required a respirator 24/7. In other words his body was a shell, but his brain was alive and for most of those 18 years he displayed an infectious smile, and lived a happy, productive life.
In this world, there are many people who are lonely, frustrated, angry, unhappy and are not able to get close to anyone who is happy. Often these people are pessimists.
Happiness is based on developing authentic relationships with others and enjoying who you are. I like who I am.
"Happiness or mental health is enjoying the life you're choosing to live, getting along well with the people near and dear to you, doing something with your life you believe is worthwhile, and not doing anything to deprive anyone else of having the same chance for happiness you have." (Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous To Your Mental Health, p 7, William Glasser)
In other words, when we make a conscious choice to be happy, we learn to develop good relationships, we use our time in a meaningful way, and we make way for others around us to do the same.
In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin E.P. Seligman says,
“Happy people were more likely to demonstrate more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we are happy, we are less self-focused. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being” (pg. 43).
We’re happiest when we’re not constantly focused on our own needs. When we take opportunities to help others, we’ll find greater joy in our own lives.
Seligman also states:
“A negative mood activates a battle-stations mode of thinking. A positive mood, in contrast, buoys people into a way of thinking that is creative, tolerant, constructive, generous, undefensive” (p. 39).
The way we choose to think has direct consequences on how we feel about our lives. If we perceive life’s challenges as a threat, we will likely retreat into a world of shadow and fears. If we choose to see the opportunities in any challenge, we can move into a place of light and productivity.
One more thought from Seligman:
“I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths” (p. 13).
Every human being has weaknesses and strengths. We’re often painfully aware of our weaknesses, but don’t give our strengths as much attention. As we work to identify and develop our strengths, our lives become more satisfying and meaningful, and we are moving in a positive, healthy direction.
Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished social psychologist who conducts research in emotions and positive psychology, in her book Positivity, states:
“Unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s ideas about possible actions, positive emotions do the opposite: They broaden people’s ideas about possible actions, opening our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and actions than is typical” (p. 21)
One of the benefits of focusing on positive emotions is that we become more resilient to problems; we see possibilities, not perils, in the world around us.
May I suggest a couple of additional ideas – some of them are repetitive – that can increase your happiness:
My wife and I, along with a number of other people in our community, provide weekly 6-7 hours of service to a dedicated service project. We call ourselves the "Happiness Shift". It is a highlight of our week.
The above represent a few ideas for increasing our happiness. All of them are probably obvious, but so often we dedicate our time to frivolous and time wasting events or activities and miss out on enjoying a greater level of happiness in our lives.
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