We all want it, we eagerly work for it, and yet it seems to be out of reach for so many of us. When it comes to obtaining happiness, we often look at all the wrong places.
If you ask Millennials today what they pursue in life, it is very likely that the answer is wealth and fame. This is not a phenomenon of that generation in particular but has been the primary goal of many generations before. Money is seen as the gate to personal freedom, security, fun and lasting happiness, and this perception is significantly fueled by media and a whole bunch of so-called "motivational coaches" that are posting an abundance of photos of successful people in Ferraris and yachts on their Instagram profiles. But is that perception sustainable? If we asked the same youngsters 30 years later, would their definition of happiness still be the same?
Science conducted many studies on happiness, and unlike the younger generation, people in their 40's, 50's and 60's define different contributors to feeling happy. Whereas money does have a positive impact, especially on poor people reaching a certain level of wealth, the effect stagnates once a satisfying amount of funds has been accumulated. In another study, the 10% of the super-rich in the United States were asked if money made them happier and the majority of them declined.
So if money and fame alone don't bring life-long happiness what does?
Throughout my career, I have met many people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. I travelled frequently, mainly within South East Asia, and made an interesting observation. People, living simple lives, don't only smile the most but generally seem to be happy. I saw people having barely more than the clothes they wore, happily sharing their food with me. While our wealthy Western societies often come across as greedy and even hostile, those people seem to have overall contentment that withstands the struggles of their lives.
So how do people, having so much less than we, reach such levels of happiness? The answer lies in the very different approach to life. If you study the far eastern cultures, you will notice a much higher focus on family, community and care for each other, whereas Western societies often equate happiness with career, possessions and ego. While Far Eastern holistic teachers preach contentment, gratitude and balance, our western leaders talk about money, success and status. And this is where our modern lifestyle wreaks havoc.
In our pursuit of happiness, eager to build a career, be successful and rich, we often don't even realise how years pass by, how we neglect our family and friends and become more and more solitary along the way. We make ourselves slaves to companies that would replace us in no time. We sacrifice our leisure time to answer phone calls and emails 24/7. We have hundreds of friends online, but hardly any real ones. Our lives are exposed on Social Media, but no one is there for us when we struggle with real problems. We live in a society that favours the strong and independent, but hardly anyone cares how it really looks inside of us. 1 out of 5 Americans reports today that they feel lonely.
So with all the efforts, we spend in reaching happiness, we actually achieve the exact opposite. We are stressed out and lonely, often not able to find the way out of that daily rat race.
After all, it doesn't come as a surprise that research confirms that neither money nor fame or possessions cause long-term happiness. In fact, the main contributor to lasting contentment is the quality of our relationships. And it goes even further. In the 'Harvard Study of Adult Development', a study that tracked the lives of 724 men over a span of 75 years, the scientists found out that our social connections have a direct impact on our physical and mental health and even our lifespan. People that are satisfied with their relationships face overall fewer health issues across all levels of status and income. To watch the video about the study click here.
This may come as a surprise, but having healthy relationships are a basic human need. From the early stages of our existence, humans were social beings. Living in groups and forming tribes has not only enabled our survival but also nourished our need for belonging. The desire to bond is deeply anchored in our "Emotional Brain". Yes, there is such a thing as an Emotional Brain or scientifically called the Limbic System. This part of our brain is roughly 50 million years old and the storehouse of our emotions.
So even though our tribes evolved into societies, we no longer hunt our food and don't have to worry to be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, our basic human needs are still the same. Naturally, this will evoke clashes with today's modern lifestyle and the values we get instilled by mainstream media.
We don't have to travel back in time and live in caves to reach an overall better state of mind, but there are some actions you can take to improve your overall happiness and well-being. Here are some of my personal favourites:
1. Give and care
Doing good has a positive impact on health and happiness, no matter if the support goes toward humans, animals or other causes like environmental projects. Giving is providing a person with a sense of satisfaction and meaning which is crucial to obtaining happiness. If you need some inspiration on causes to engage in, check out my article "What's your Cause?".
2. Empower yourself and others
Empowerment is an essential tool to enable personal growth, satisfaction, improved skills, and self-esteem. Companies empowering their employees, witness higher motivation, increased levels of identification with the job, and less turnover in staff compared to employers that restrict responsibility, deny trust, and micromanage their workforce.
Parents empowering their children are raising future leaders. A child who sees their own value is not only more likely to surmount obstacles but to assist others in difficult situations.
3. Leave that dreadful job
Our school system requires us to decide on our future career at a very early age. However, graduates are often far away from knowing what they really want in life. In fact, the majority of students choose a career because their parents advise them to do so or because it sounds promising, not because they are passionate about it. So few years down the road, many people realise that they are going in the wrong direction and feel that nagging desire to break out of their daily routine. As per a study, anonymously conducted by Gallup in 2017, only 15% of people worldwide are engaged in their job. A whopping 62 are disconnected and basically sleep-walk through the day, and a sad 23% literally hate their job and even undermine their co-worker's accomplishments. Due to their financial situations or lack of inspiration, many of them stay in their positions, living a life full of frustration and even depression. So if you are one of them, know, that you're not alone and it's never too late to take a different direction. Change doesn't happen overnight, but it will happen once you start working diligently towards it.
Breaking a sweat is not only a means to shed those annoying pounds around your waistline but it's also proven to release endorphins in your brain and boost your immune system. So do that jog in the park or get a gym buddy. Your physical and mental fitness will benefit likewise.
5. Change your thoughts
From personal experience, I can tell you that changing the way you think will have a tremendous impact on your life. As kids, we are usually carefree and full of joy, but not many can carry this positive mindset on into their adult lives. We are busy focusing on "what is" rather than "what we want". We see our struggles, complain about them, contemplate why we have to deal with them and feel sorry for ourselves rather than keeping our minds focused on what we want to happen, who we want to become and where we want to go. This negative thought pattern gets another boost as soon as we watch the news on TV or when we gossip about our colleagues. If you see yourself in this scenario, you have to break that cycle. Rather than complaining about what is, dream about what could be, rather than indulging in self-pity, imagine how you will feel once you overcome the struggle. Realize that there are situations in life you cannot control, so go with the flow and let the storm pass. Whatever you think, will become a reality in your life so make sure you're aware of where your thoughts wander.
6. Set boundaries
Kindness brings joy into your life, but sometimes our sympathy and willingness to help, reach a level which is only beneficial to those who receive them. If you are one of those gentle souls, that love to be there for others, your kindness might often get exploited. Particularly women are prone to exhaust themselves in their efforts to please everyone around them. Saying no sometimes doesn't mean you're not kind. It just means that you respect your own needs as much as you respect others. Whoever doesn't appreciate that, should probably not be part of your life in the first place.
7. Overcome Ego
Ego causes many unnecessary conflicts in life, not only for others but also for oneself, but usually, people are not even aware that they are acting out of ego. If you often feel in competition with others, are always in need to be right, are trying to take control or rule jealously over your partner, you need to be aware that ego has taken over your life. Ego is a sense of self, and while people around you might sense your ego as arrogance, it can also be a sign of low self-esteem. Once you realise that ego is running the show, it is time to do some self-reflection and identify its drivers. One thing is clear; ego will always stand in your way and be a significant obstacle that's keeping you from living a happy life. But realising and acknowledging the problem is the first important step toward change, and the only one who can make change happen is you.
8. De-clutter your life
Have you ever enjoyed that freeing feeling of ridding yourself of things you no longer need? Isn't it like a breath of fresh air? Unfortunately, we don't do that often enough, yet de-cluttering brings space to breathe and unfold. And this counts for everything, from your closet to your friends and acquaintances, from stuff in your house to appointments scheduled in your calendar. So go through your closet and get everything out you haven't worn in a year or longer. There are plenty of people in need that will be happy to receive some new items. Check your address book and delete every person that neither offers you real friendship nor joy or value. Get out that awful and tasteless gift you got for your last birthday and just kept out of politeness. Rid yourself of everything that doesn't bring value in any way and see your life improve immediately.
9. Collect experiences, not stuff
Humans are hoarders by nature and hunters for bargains. As soon as a sale is on, we tend to buy things we don't need. The longer we live in the same place, the fuller the space gets. Break the cycle and replace stuff with experiences. Be it an activity in your city you have never done before, learning a new skill, pursuing a new hobby or travelling to places and collecting memories. Next time you want to buy something, ask yourself the question "do I really need that"? If not, skip it and spend the money on an experience that makes your heart jump!
10. Go offline regularly
The world wide web, as well as social media, offer an endless stream of information. It's an excellent source of knowledge but can be draining at times. When the first thing you do in the morning is to check your newsfeed, or you catch yourself using your smartphone while having dinner with your spouse, it's time to give it a break. Real life conversations and interactions are crucial for human being's need to bond, so don't deny yourself the pleasure of a good chat with your friends and loved ones.
11. Practise self-care
I have experienced it myself and witnessed it so often on others. We get caught up in obligations from job, family, and friends, and there is never time left for ourselves. When you find yourself running 24/7, when you can't remember the last time you read a book, watched a movie, got a nice haircut or did anything else just for yourself, it's time to hit the brakes. The more we give to others, the more they will expect from us, but it is not your sole purpose in life to be there for everyone around you. Plan some regular timeout in your calendar and defend this time by all means. You only have one body, one health and one mind so make sure to take good care of it.
12. Count your blessings
Sometimes we have to pause for a moment and remember that many people would walk through desert and snow to get what we have. Life is always as good as you make it so instead of focusing on what you lack or what is not going so well at the moment, count the things that make you happy. If you live in safety, have a roof over your head, a job, food on the table and a family, you have a lot more than millions of people on this planet. Focusing on your blessings will shift your entire experience and invite more good things into your life.
13. Connect to nature
We probably knew it already, but science proved that spending time outdoors has a healing effect on our bodies and minds. Nature contributes to our physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality. For an even deeper experience take off your shoes and walk barefoot on the ground.
14. Choose your tribe
With the quality of relationships being the primary factor for happiness, choosing your inner circle wisely is extremely important.
Your friends should want to see you happy, healthy and thriving. If you sense any greediness or jealousy when things are going well in your life, reconsider if those are the right people to trust. If you see your friends vanishing once you struggle, get another tribe. Go with the motto of the three Musketeers, "One for all, and all for One" and don't lower your standards at any time.
What are your bullet-proof methods that keep you happy in your life? I look forward to hearing from you!