People have been concerned about happiness for a millennium. Two thousand years ago Seneca observed that his forefathers lived as well as they were living during his time. This was in spite of the fact that his forefathers found shelter in the ground, used their own hands to obtain and dress their meat and did not know the pride of owning and wearing gold and fine gems. He commented that it was what was in the mind that made a person rich: no one could be considered poor who had enough, or rich if they wanted more than they have.
Seneca’s observation is consistent with the Chinese saying from long ago that a person who is content is always happy. People can become so interested in acquiring things that they recklessly pursue fame and fortune. Living life in this manner limits people to the demands of fame and the restrictions of wealth. Their life energy is spent in pursuit of fame largely for the purpose of obtaining wealth. Ironically if you actually obtain great wealth it also opens the door to the possibility of great loss, including robbery, burglary, or even murder as others attempt to take what you have. On the other hand, the person who is content with what he has can spend his life energy in more truly satisfying endeavors. People who are content are said to be rich in the quality of their life, which is likely to include tranquility, peace and spiritual nourishment.
Today happiness researchers continue to find validation for these ancient concepts. Modern happiness researchers define happiness as a state of well-being which depends less on our circumstances and more on how we respond to them. While national affluence and a sense of well-being correlate, there is a stronger link between a secure democracy and well-being. In fact, the capacity for personal choice is a greater predictor of happiness than a country’s relative wealth. While indigent people concerned about losing the most essential necessities of life endure a sense of hopelessness, wealth alone does not guarantee a sense of purpose and life satisfaction.
People need enough money to provide the basic necessities of life on a continuing basis. However, having more than enough does not really boost our sense of well-being. This is because when we have the basics other needs come to the forefront—things such as a need for a sense of belonging, or a feeling that we are making a difference by our existence. The first serving of food tastes better than the second helping. In the same way once humans have basic rights, shelter, adequate food, meaningful activity in their lives and enriching friendships our level of happiness is surprisingly unaffected by more money. There is only a slight tendency for those who make lots of money to be more satisfied with what they have. True satisfaction is not really about getting what you want but wanting what you have. Larger incomes also don’t influence how satisfied we are with our spouse, children, friendships or even ourselves, but all of these relationships are important in determining our sense of well-being, i.e., our happiness.
Traits of happy people
Researchers have found that there are four inner traits that predispose positive attitudes and happiness. These traits are:
- Self-esteem – happy people respect their value as a human being. When things get tough people with a firm sense of self-worth keep going.
- Personal Control – happy people feel like they have control over what happens to them. They feel like they can control their destiny.
- Optimism – happy people are filled with hope and expect to succeed when they try something new. They see the proverbial glass of life as half full, not half empty.
- Extraversion – happy people tend to be outgoing and sociable.
Even in old age extraverted individuals tend to be cheerful and full of the joie de vivre, the joy for living. People who like themselves are confident that other people will like them too. They have many friends and they engage in rewarding social activities. More fulfilling social interactions result in their experiencing more affection and greater social support. This is very important because social support is the foundation behind their sense of well-being and positive outlook on life.
Becoming a happier person
Just because you are not born an extrovert with high self-esteem and an optimistic outlook does not mean that you cannot make changes in that direction. Pretend you are self-confident, pretend to be optimistic, try to be more outgoing with others. Research has shown that while telling people to act or talk positively sounds like you are asking them to be phony, in reality when people follow through and practice these traits amazing things happen. The phoniness gradually diminishes and the new behaviors and accompanying attitudes begin to fit, like a favorite comfortable pair of old jeans.
If you doubt this strategy force yourself to put on a big smile. Now frown, tighten your jaw and try to look angry. Try both again and this time pay close attention to how you feel. Can you tell a difference? Research shows that if you smile on the outside you will feel better on the inside.
The same goes for your interactions with other people. Smile. Act like you like someone and you may just find out that you do! And, as a bonus, you may also find out that you are beginning to like yourself better, that you feel more confident and that you are becoming more comfortable with other people. And these are the changes that can help you feel greater happiness in your life and more optimism for the future.