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Resilience: Happiness

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 4th 2016

Happiness is elusive for many people. The vast majority of us are raised to think that obtaining material things will make us happy. Food, clothing and shelter are not enough to satisfy. For example, once you purchase the house you’ve been saving for, you start thinking about furniture you want to buy or how the landscaping needs to change. Each desire, once satisfied, gives birth to new desires in an endless progression. The more we buy into the idea that we'll be happy when we have enough of the right sort of possessions, the more trapped we become. We become jealous of people who have more than we do, and we risk bankruptcy to pay for things with credit we can't afford. The more 'stuff' we desire, the less happy we are.

happy older womanThe facts are: possessions don't make people happy, except when there isn't enough of it to purchase the essentials of food, clothing and shelter. Studies examining the relationship between family income and happiness show that money is only related to happiness when there really isn't enough of it and real deprivation occurs. No relationship has been measured between money and happiness for any family living above poverty wages, suggesting that once basic needs are taken care of, further happiness cannot be bought at any price. As a result of these types of findings, researchers now consider happiness to depend less on people's actual circumstances and more on how people choose to respond to their circumstances.

Your happiness is not dependent on whether you drive the right car, live in the right neighborhood, or wear the latest clothes. Instead, how happy you are depends on how you approach your life and the people around you. True satisfaction is not about getting what you want but rather is about wanting what you have. Learning to be content with what you have is the true path to happiness.

Traits of Happy People

In order to learn how to be content with our own lives, we need to understand what makes some people generally happier than others. Researchers have found four inner traits that predispose people to have positive attitudes and to be content or happy more often then not. These traits are:

  • Self-esteem. Happy people respect their value as human beings and have confidence in themselves. When times get tough, people with a solid sense of self-worth and a firm belief in their own competence are the very people who persist until the tough times have passed.
  • Personal Control. Happy people believe that they have control over what happens to them. They tend to believe that they are actively in charge of their own destiny rather than being a passive victim of fate.
  • Optimism. Happy people are hopeful people. They expect they have a decent chance to succeed when they try something new. They see the proverbial glass of life as half full rather than half empty.
  • Extroversion. Happy people tend to be outgoing and sociable. They often find it a pleasure to be around others, rather than a chore.

Even in old age, happy individuals tend to be cheerful and full of the joie de vivre - the 'joy of life'. People who like themselves are confident that other people will like them too. They have friends and they engage in rewarding social activities through which they experience affection and social support. Social support, in turn, reinforces happy people's sense of self esteem, in a circle of health. Social support is an important part of the foundation supporting a happy person’s sense of well-being and positive outlook on life.

Becoming a Happier Person

Not everyone is born extroverted with high self-esteem and an optimistic outlook. Some people are more pessimistic by nature, prone to depression, to not think well of themselves and to find social activities to be more work than play. Can such pessimistic people become happy despite their nature? The answer is yes.

The way to cultivate greater happiness is deceptively simple. Pretend that you are self-confident and optimistic. You might think that pretending to be happier couldn't possibly work, but in fact, if you give it half a chance, it can indeed help you to become a happier person. There is a very real sense in which being happy is a habit. You can strengthen your own habit of being happy by practicing it again and again. As you become more and more comfortable acting happy, the phoniness will diminish and the happy behaviors and attitudes you have been practicing will begin to feel more natural.

The same goes for your interactions with other people. Pretend to be more outgoing then you are. Smile. Act like you like the people you meet, and you will likely find that you actually do like some of them! 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. These changes can help you feel greater happiness in your life and more optimism for the future.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

a 'Happy Gene'? - Goldkin - Jul 8th 2009

I am enjoying your article(s) so far, and appreciate the guidance found herein...just got 'triggered' a little bit by what may be insinuated in the following:

re:"Some people are more pessimistic by nature, prone to depression, to not think well of themselves"...

This description seems to attribute 'pessimism' to a person's 'nature', which seems to minimize/exclude the influence of 'nurture' or environmental/experiential factors on a person's outlook/attitude. Granted, some people who have had the worst traumas and odds against them (e.g. Stephen Hawking, others) have appeared to maintain an attitude of overarching 'happiness' or optimism (perhaps because they had so much opportunity to practice). And I agree that happiness is a great thing to be 'at home' with.

My question is, how does this admittedly "phony" happiness affect one's sense of authenticity? Could it lead to a dangerous level of denial regarding one's actual circumstance (e.g. justifying remaining in an abusive relationship)? If we practice being 'happy' and 'confident' when we really are not happy or confident, how does this influence our own sense of trust in our intuition and authentic self-knowledge?

Another concern regarding the 'fake it til you make it' happiness is that I have, on a rare occasion, met with people who seemed to have this perfected--so much so that, in one instance, when confronted by the wife of an adulterating man (certainly not a 'happy' situation), the affairing woman was able to maintain a radiant smile on her face and simply retort, "remember, for every finger you point, there are 5 pointing back at you"...? --Can self-hypnosis/positive affirmation suggestions go so far as to deny the reality and moral responsibility of the actual situation?

thanks for any further insight on this

Thank you - R.Rohini - Feb 27th 2009

Thank you for the logical way of explaining the state of happiness.It is helping me already.

being - george - Mar 26th 2008

What i get is that it's all about who you are being... and one thing alongside this is the ability or willingness to be with... especially during the (emotionally) painful times. I have found that a deep being with becomes a form of psychological flooding which eventually, though sometimes excruciating at the time reduces the trigger, normalises the 'what is' and gives rise to the possibility of 'loving what is' rather than avoidance through alcohol, drugs, busyness, tv, work, etc etc... do you concurr???

Happiness - monica - Apr 7th 2007
I agree with the article completely. Happiness is a state of mind. Materialistic things cannot make you totally happy if you are not happy to begin with. Thankfully I have been blessed with alot of confidence because when it comes to money I come up a little short. Even though I had some bad experiences with my childhood and made some bad mistakes I have the responsibility and owe it to myself to shape and mold my life into something worth living. I can honestly say that I am very content.

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