HAPPINESS, CONTENTMENT, AND OPTIMISM

Have you ever said, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably miss it. Happiness is not a state of being; it is a lifestyle, something subjective that evolves from how you live. Happiness should not be seen as an end in itself, a goal, but more a feeling of contentment that emerges from that lifestyle.

“If I win the lottery I’ll be rich and happy.” Probably not, at least over the long haul. We know that happiness produced by an outcome will likely be transitory. A man was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit. He said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” A couple was injured in a car accident, and eventually received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden reversal of their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? If you ask that question you forget that you are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from your present perspective, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to you and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For those who actually live in such circumstances, however, they make their current estimates of happiness in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.

The lottery winners learn that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics learn that the anticipated impossible challenges imposed by the injury were not overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their “happiness” a year later; rather, it was the lifestyle they chose following the outcome. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits. Good fortune can lead to frustration; misfortune can lead to contentment over meeting a challenge

You are likely to be “happy” only when you are realistically and optimistically focused on developing a lifestyle consistent with your values, and which brings you a sense of contentment or satisfaction. The search for happiness may be futile, but an optimistic approach to life can enhance your satisfaction and coping. Optimists tend to develop a realistic “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles, and decide that stress is not all it’s cracked up to be! They are more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome, are more likely to be liked by others, and are more likely to look for realistic explanations for negative events. Pessimists habitually blame themselves for “bad luck,” and self-blame translates into stress that compromises coping.

            Good coping also requires focusing on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions are fantasy. Negative thoughts can also lead to depression. Do you tell yourself, “I’m too much of a pessimist; I need to be more of an optimist”? Before you decide your level of pessimism about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your casual spoken comments. Talk is cheap; actions reveal your essence. Words reveal character when they are accompanied by actions consistent with your values.

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