Is it Selfish to Want to Be Happier?

By 4 Therapy

Every now and then, in the midst of the headlong thrust into the next thing on our schedule, we all take a deep breath and pause for a moment of reflection. Ahh…What comes up? If we are honest with ourselves it’s probably a familiar yearning. “I want to be happier. I want more out of life than this.” Aristotle called happiness “the desire behind all other desires.”

If you are reading this article on-line, chances are you are materially better off than the vast majority of human beings on this planet, so isn’t it more than a bit self-indulgent to want more happiness for yourself? Before you move on to the next item of your “to do” list, consider this: Happiness is anything but selfish.

From the beginning of time, people have sought happiness.  Our nation was founded on guarantees of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” George Washington asserted that “Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”  The latest research, as you will see, supports George, and the conclusion that we all have the capacity to be happy. Bottom Line? Scientific evidence and all the major spiritual traditions point to the same fact: there are lots of un-selfish reasons to learn the skills of greater happiness.

What Does it Mean to be Happy?

Since the 1990’s, a new field of research called Positive Psychology, led by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, has studied happy people and found that there are four primary aspects of happiness:

•    Positive emotions: Feelings of pleasure, joy, delight, gratitude, peacefulness, contentment, etc.  (This is the “happy-face” aspect of happiness.)

•    Presence: Truly happy people have learned how to quiet their thinking minds and bring their attention to the present. They savor good things while they have them, and respond more creatively and positively to life challenges.

•    Passion: Engaging yourself fully in activities you love is fun and rewarding.

•    Purpose: Devoting your unique talents and gifts to serve a purpose beyond your personal benefit is both energizing and fulfilling.

Researchers found that the happiest people experience all four of these aspects of happiness.  Most of us enjoy them too and, you can learn to do so more frequently and intensely.

If Only I Had… If Only I Could…Then I’d Be Happy

Notice this conversation rolling around in you head. “If only I was richer, smarter, 10 pounds thinner, younger, then I’d be happier.” The most common  myth about happiness is that it stems from external  factors. In fact, the research clearly indicates that wealth, intelligence, education, appearance, and age have little or no effect on happiness. For example, in wealthier countries where most people’s basic needs are satisfied, income and happiness have a low correlation. In the US, for example, the average person’s income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, yet the percentage of people who rated themselves as “very happy” during that same period remained static.

Scientists estimate that as much as 50% of a person’s characteristic mood is inherited.   But, if you are not blessed with “good mood genes,” don’t worry. Greater happiness is within your reach if you decide to pursue it. Wishing you were more physically fit doesn’t make you stronger.  Healthy food and exercise choices do.   Similarly, you build up your joy muscles by adopting happy habits in your daily life.

You Can Learn to Be Happier

Thousands of self-help books are published each year, but what actually works?   To find out, Positive Psychologists apply rigorous scientific methods, using controlled studies. For example researchers discovered that happy people feel and express gratitude frequently.  So, they designed an experiment to show whether people can become happier by increasing their expressions of gratitude.   Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, at Davis, divided 1,000 adults into three groups.  For one week, all of them kept a daily journal rating their moods. The first group had no additional assignment. The second group listed things that annoyed them each day. The third group kept a list of all the things they were thankful for each day.

The people in group three didn’t start out more grateful than their counterparts in the control groups. They adopted a new habit. They noticed all that was good and right in their lives, all the support and love they received. Nothing else changed in their lives. Those who kept gratitude journals merely shifted where they put their attention. After just one week, those who kept gratitude journals felt better about their lives as a whole, and reported themselves as being more alert and enthusiastic about everything.

In the last 10 years, research has yielded hundreds of similar examples wherein people experienced measurable improvements in their happiness and satisfaction by changing their habits.  Through Pathways to Happiness telephone seminars, we teach these evidence-based practices to people all over the country.  Becoming happier and more fulfilled is not just wishful thinking or luck-dependent.  It is achieved by learning specific skills.

Wouldn’t Making Myself Happier Be Too Selfish?

Oscar Wilde had it right when noted “Some people cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go!”  Happiness (and unhappiness) affects those around us.  If you doubt this, consider the happiest people you have known.  Doesn’t it feel wonderful just being around a happy person?  Whether they exude positive feelings, are passionately engaged in what they do, keep focused in the present moment, or are dedicated to serving a great purpose, don’t they inspire people around them?   Happiness is not selfish because happiness is contagious.

Several studies indicate that happier people are more likely to help someone in need. Happier people are more empathetic, more willing to get involved in personal and community concerns. Doesn’t this make sense intuitively? When you feel on top of the world, aren’t you more likely to reach out, to be generous, to care for someone else?

Further, studies show that people who feel good about themselves are less likely to be prejudiced against others. This is true for children as well. Children who feel happily loved by their parents are more sympathetic to their peers.  In short, feeling good makes us better people.

Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion

For years scientists have known that each negative emotion is related to a tendency toward a specific physical action:  Fear tells us to escape; Anger says fight; Disgust makes us reject; Guilt tells us not to do certain things or to make amends. These negative emotions serve our survival as a species.

Now researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, the premier researcher on positive emotions, has shown that, unlike negative emotions, positive emotions don’t lead to specific actions.  Instead, they “broaden and build” who we are.   When we are feeling good we will respond to the world differently.

•    We will become more creative, perceiving more numerous and imaginative solutions to real life problems.

•    We will learn more quickly.

•    Our perspective is more likely to be “what’s right with this person or situation?” rather than “what’s wrong with this…?”  We see others’ strengths, the good that can come from challenge, and how to make improvements.

•    We will become more resilient, quicker to bounce back after a defeat.  We will be more likely to see problems as “speed bumps” than as “road blocks.”

•    We will be more relaxed and centered in challenging situations.

•    We will relate to the world from a “we are all in this together” perspective rather than “us vs. them” one.

What the World Needs Now is… for You to Be Really Happy

Here in the USA, we live in one of the most influential areas on the planet. Just consider the repercussions if we all learned to be “happiness-generators.” What if each one of us was not only feeling happy, but living our lives in alignment with a meaningful purpose? It’s not Pollyanna’s dream, and it’s not luck, it’s all about the choices we make each day.

This story will illustrate our point in another way. A mother and daughter have planned to spend some “quality time” together one afternoon. However, the mother had some paperwork she needed to complete before she took her daughter to the park. The mother smiled to herself as she improvised a way to keep her active daughter busy while she finished her work. The mother tore a picture of the globe out of a magazine, and then tore the page into many pieces.  She promised her daughter that as soon as she had finished putting all the pieces of the world back together again, they could go on to the park. She set about her paperwork, thinking her little brainstorm would provide her plenty of uninterrupted time for her tasks. She was surprised when her daughter returned shortly thereafter with the completed puzzle. The mother asked her daughter, “How were you able to finish the puzzle so quickly?” Her daughter answered saying, “There’s a picture of a person on the other side, and when I put the person together, the pieces of the world just fell into place.”

The implications of this new science are profound. The world needs optimistic people who will set about creatively solving the many problems that vex our planet.

Here Are 5 Ways You Can Be Unselfishly Happier*

1.    Take some time to enjoy nature every day;

2.    Spend 5 minutes just feeling your own breathing;

3.    Once a week, at least, schedule at least an hour doing something you love to do, just for its own sake–it doesn’t have to be productive;

4.    Make sure you spend quality time frequently with the people in your most important relationships;

5.    Reflect regularly on your deepest values and make sure you are expressing them in your actions.

(*Based on the latest research regarding key habits of the happiest people in the world.)

By Nancy Montagna, Ph.D., & Robin Carnes, MBA

Nancy Montagna, Ph.D, and Robin Carnes, MBA, are co-founders of Pathways to Happiness ~ Learning, not Luck, a phone & email seminar to promote research-based, happiness-producing habits in your daily life.

Click Here to learn more about Nancy Montagna, Ph.D.