I was recently interviewed by a few journalists writing articles about either my book or my career change from corporate executive to positive psychology coach. They asked some great questions that encouraged me to distill the lessons of the research into the briefest, clearest responses I could come up with.
Here are a few of their best questions, along with my responses.
Q: What is happiness?
My favorite definition comes from Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who describes happiness as the overall experience of pleasure and meaning. I like this definition because it makes clear the “both/and” nature of happiness. It’s about the overall experience (both in the moment and over the course of a life) of pleasure and meaning (that is, a life that is both enjoyable and purposeful).
Q: What makes us happy?
One of the best ways to answer this question is to study what very happy people have in common. It turns out that there are four things that very happy people do that make the difference, and we can all benefit by finding ways to do them in our own lives.
Appreciate: Focus on the positive by consciously choosing to appreciate and seek out the good things in life and not get too caught up with complaints and worries.
Cope: Accept that painful emotions and experiences are part of life, and use effective strategies to manage anxiety and to prevent self-doubt from limiting our potential.
Love: Develop and nurture strong, trusting relationships, and put those relationships at the center of our lives.
Work: Pursue meaningful goals that are in synch with our most important priorities and values and that contribute to our sense of purpose and meaning.
Q: Where can we start to achieve happiness?
Certain actions and habits are almost guaranteed to make us happier. Here are some of the most powerful:
- Actively nurturing our relationships
- Taking time to feel and express our gratitude for the good things in our lives
- Making it a priority to spend time doing things we enjoy with people we love
- Engaging in meaningful work (whether as an employee, a parent, or a volunteer)
- Getting regular exercise
- Making progress toward deeply felt goals and ambitions
Any or all of these steps can add up to have an enormous impact on our happiness and well-being.
Q: What are some myths about happiness?
Myth #1: “Happiness Is About Getting the Big Things Right”
It’s natural to think that if we were suddenly rich, beautiful, and living on the beach somewhere, then we’d be happy. But as it turns out, that type of good fortune has a surprisingly small impact on happiness.
Unless we’re in truly intolerable situations, we can have a much bigger impact on our happiness by cultivating positive emotional outlooks and habits than we can by changing the “big things,” such as where we live, how we look, and how even much we earn.
Myth #2: “I’ll be Happy When I Achieve My Goals”
I think we’ve all had the experience of working hard to achieve a goal, sure that its accomplishment would make us happy forever – or at least for a very long time – then wondering why the happiness didn’t last. And most of us can think of a time when we failed to achieve a long-sought ambition and felt as if we’d never recover from the disappointment, only to discover before too long that the failure didn’t ruin our happiness after all, and may have even had unexpected benefits.
Committed goal pursuit is one of the keys to a happy life. But it turns out that the ultimate achievement or disappointment isn’t the most important thing. Most of the impact that our goals have on our well-being comes while we’re making progress toward them, not after we achieve them. So it’s important that we choose goals that we’ll enjoy pursuing, and that contribute to our sense of purpose and meaning.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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