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How do we achieve happiness?

Added 3 Sept 2019

Many people inherit the belief that greater material wealth will bring about greater happiness. Factors such as maintaining a healthy life, attaining wealth, and accumulating material goods have become our measurements of life quality. Despite the fact that we are now living in unprecedented riches (Western nations particularly), in conditions that are far superior to previous generations, with better health care and living in a time of relative peace, people are no happier or more satisfied with their quality of life than before. Since the mid 1900’s, there has been a doubling, and tripling, of psychological distress, family breakdowns, and violent crimes. Even looking at countries like Sweden with socialist values, there is an increasingly widespread suicide problem. Despite the association we, as a society, draw between prosperity and wellbeing, studies repeatedly show material wealth is not directly associated with happiness. In fact, higher socioeconomic class has an inverse relationship with teenagers’ reported happiness, with children from lower socioeconomic families indicating they are happier with their lives. 

‘Relative deprivation’ refers to the tendency to evaluate our circumstances (be it wealth, possessions, health, beauty etc.) by comparing it with those who have more of it. The growing disparity between rich and poor in our society makes even those who are objectively privileged feel deprived. Another explanation for why increased wealth is not bringing greater happiness is that objective values are often not considered. People habituate to their circumstances very quickly. Instead of maintaining an acknowledgment and appreciation for our prosperity when it increases, we quickly get used to it and create more desires. Our wants and needs continue to expand as lower level goals are met, leaving us endlessly wanting and needing more. There will always be people who have more than you, so trying to achieve happiness using this logic of attaining, being and doing more, is impractical and potentially very damaging. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi highlights that happiness is an intrinsic goal that people seek for its own purpose. Combining Buddhist philosophies with cognitive techniques, attitudes, perceptions and attributions can help restructure goals, and therefore improve quality of life. Based on his studies, which include over 10,000 interviews from around the world, Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of ‘flow’. Flow is achieved through engaging in ‘autotelic experiences’ which are activities that provide joy and value in their own right. Creativity, music, sports and even religious rituals are examples of autotelic experiences. Such experiences allow a person to separate from routine life, focus attention on a particular task and engage in effortless performance whilst feeling challenged by the task and thus, becoming completely immersed in the activity and experiencing flow. Autotelic people who experience flow regularly report a positive state more consistently and overall, feel greater purpose and meaning in their lives.  

It’s important to remember that one person may experience flow when they are operating on an assembly line in a factory, whilst another person may not experience flow when lounging by the pool at a five-star resort. It is not what people do, but the way in which they do it, that leads to happiness. Everyone is capable of feeling the sense of serenity, timelessness, and focus that comes from flow. It helps to have a specific goal or plan of action for an activity you enjoy or feel passionate about, and you’re willing to expand on your current skill level. For example, a basketball player may start out by first trying to master shooting the ball through the hoop. Once that has been achieved, he or she might try getting the shot with ‘flare’ or ‘style’, from further away, without looking etc. 

Flow releases dopamine and has been associated with feeling cheerful, strong, active, concentrated, creative and satisfied. Flow increases self-esteem, helps with emotional regulation and enhances learning. Flow leads to happiness and consequently an increased quality of life. In order to bring about greater happiness we must first end the misconception that greater wealth means a better life, when in reality the pursuit of material wealth often creates struggle, dissatisfaction and disappointment. To improve and enrich our mental wellbeing, we should focus on finding our flow. 

Written by Astrid – ADAVIC Volunteer

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