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What makes you happy?


‘Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for’ – Joseph Addison

‘True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose’ – Helen Keller

‘Happiness is a direction, not a place’ – Sydney J. Harris

Sometimes it seems we are chasing happiness as if it were a butterfly to catch and then, when we catch it, it disintegrates in our fingers. If you felt happy when you won a race at eight years old, you might find you are living for that winning feeling, over and over. Maybe if a parent told you happiness was to be found in that one unique love, we might find ourselves always searching.

We might have noticed that happiness came to those around us through sought-after purchases or from holidays, and then, we too, live our own lives in this material way. Or you might have felt so happy by the attention you got for that pretty face, and so happiness lies in the upkeep of personal beauty. Often, we are subconsciously pursuing those butterflies without asking if this is what will actually make us happy. While many psychologists throughout the ages have asked what causes illness, Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, asked instead: “what makes us happy?” In his 1943 paper, he proposed that humans need to satisfy five needs to achieve happiness; physiological, safety, love, esteem and, finally, self-actualization. And that each stage of need has to be met before you can move to the next stage, as shown in his hierarchy of needs pyramid:

According to Maslow, once we reach the stage of self-actualization, we are ready to grow and evolve. When we are growing and evolving (don’t forget, according to Charles Darwin, this is our primary reason for living!), then we are in a state of happiness.

Maslow also said that only 2% of people reached the stage of self-actualization! Since Maslow’s theory, many other theories of happiness have been posited and most interesting is that the needs are still regarded as key to happiness, just not necessarily in the pyramidal order that Maslow insisted upon.

His ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ presumes you can figure out how people will behave at any moment by identifying their unmet need. So, a starving person would attend to finding food first, putting aside every other consideration and could not be intimate. But we know that this is not the case, not for the millions who starve and still are more than capable of the higher levels on his pyramid, including self-actualization. However, think about starving artists like Rembrandt or Van Gogh.

Van Gogh achieved self-actualization but was definitely unhappy when he cut his own ear off!

But there is something in the needs, there is something in achieving meaning and we all know too well that “Happiness is an inside job” (William Arthur Ward). We have needs as humans and they appear to be specific to us as a species – and we are primed to get them met. But, sometimes because of experiences, more often early in life, we lose connection with this instinct, and we fail to get our needs met. And it is at this point things can go wrong for us.

Today, one of the first steps a psychological practitioner takes with their clients to identify an absence of happiness or cause of depressive feelings or anxiety is to look for unmet needs. More recent psychological research (Human Givens) accepts that all people, everywhere, to varying degrees, and in no particular order, have a need:

to give and receive attention to feel safe and secure to heed the mind-body connection to have a sense of purpose and meaning to feel a sense of connection to community and of making a difference to be stretched, to be creative, and to face manageable challenges to experience intimacy to feel a sense of control to feel a sense of status; to feel valued, appreciated, and respected

Similar to Maslow, the belief is that when we meet these needs, we fundamentally become happy and healthy. And conversely, where we have unmet needs, we will seek to fill the need some other way or we will struggle with difficult feelings. So, if you are in a relationship without intimacy, you may feel depressed, or anxious, or you might have an affair or become an alcoholic. If you have a feeling of lack of control, you may start experiencing panic attacks or anger outbursts. If you don’t feel appreciated, your self-esteem might be very low. So, how can we get these needs met in order to have a true sense of happiness?

Here are some ways:

1. Develop a balanced social life. Improve your social and interpersonal skills. Too often, we think we are better at socialising than we actually are. We might be too busy trying to make ourselves feel good by trying to impress or being right, or competitive. Learn how to truly listen to others, rather than just waiting for them to finish talking and occasionally, truly put your feet into their shoes!

2. Look after your body. Read more about nutrition, exercise, quit the junk food and drinks, change your sleep patterns – poor physical health leads to poor psychological health. Don’t forget your brain is in your body!

3. Create goals and a vision in life. When we work towards something, we feel hopeful and life has meaning – without this, we can start having anxious thoughts instead.

4. Do something for your community. A sense of contributing adds to our sense of purpose and meaning. Research shows that when we focus on others, our immune system improves.

5. Push yourself to learn or do something new and also think about creativity – pick up an old hobby or start a new one. Go to an exhibition and appreciate beauty in art.

6. We all need intimate contact – make sure to have a date with your partner or see a close friend at least once a week.

7. Focus on one thing that is in your external or internal control once a week – like sport, exercise, or meditation.

8. We need to feel important – do something for others.

9. Consider if you feel unsafe and insecure and if this feeling is arising from the past or whether you need to change something in the present. Practice calm and you will feel less afraid. If there was insecurity in the past, analyse this.

Remember that when these needs are not met, we will subconsciously try to get them met in a not-so-healthy way. But when we seek to actively meet the needs in a healthy way, we are moving into a sustainable state of happiness that will help us weather the storms that are the inevitable part of life. If you look carefully, happiness is in your hands. One step at a time!

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