The Real Secrets To Happiness
And they lived happily ever after …
Every fairy tale we hear as children tells us that finding a partner will make us happy. As we grow, we are lured to believe that good marks, educational qualifications, career success and money are the secrets to happiness. Later, the idea that having children makes us happy takes hold. We, as a society, have subtly created benchmarks for happiness that condition our mind to believe there is a formula to achieve it. But the truth is, there’s no infallible step-by-step process that ends in happiness. Happiness is an attitude that comes from within, and two important components of it are hope and optimism.
In my professional life, I meet people who have been through some of the most difficult, heartbreakingly traumatic experiences and yet who continue to maintain their zest for life. Their experiences are different, but their clearest common trait is hope borne out of meaning. There’s a reason for this, most clearly demonstrated in an experiment conducted by social psychologist James Pennebaker. In it, Pennebaker asked people to write about their personal traumatic memories for 15 minutes each day, four days in a row. He found that the people who benefitted most were those who, in their writing, tried to find meaning amid their most difficult times; they had fewer visits to the doctor or hospital in the year that followed the experiment. Pennebaker’s study had a clear learning: If people can use their own narratives to heal and find a purpose, it helps them remain happier.
Finding a purpose out of dark experiences is tied up in hope and optimism. While colloquially, these words are used interchangeably, in positive psychology — that is, the movement to understand the personal traits and values that constitute happiness – they have their own unique definitions. According to Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, hope is “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.” Our ideas about the world and our personal narrative, combined with the belief in our ability to contribute and make the world and our narrative better, is what empowers us. Happiness, then, is a byproduct of hope, which allows us to be more productive, manage stress, respond to challenges with resilience, and in general, preserve our mental wellbeing.
Optimism, on the other hand, is less a belief and more the cause of one. It is a style of thinking or an attitude that governs an individual’s personality, leading him or her to believe that more good or positive outcomes will occur than negative ones. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, explains in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life that optimism, far from being the intrinsic trait that most people assume it to be, can be taught to children and adults to prevent depression and deal with feelings of helplessness. Seligman links optimism to happiness as the attitude that drives people to develop hope and find meaning. Optimism has lifelong benefits: Research shows that when parents teach children to develop optimism, children turn out to be more resilient.
Read more on children and resilience on The Swaddle.
The good news is this: Optimism can be learned, and hope can be found in the smallest of things: in the wonder of nature, from nourishing relationships, in poetry and the written word, in meditation practice, or for some, in therapy. Happiness is not out of reach for anyone.
When we surround ourselves with people, their stories of resilience, as well as our own, help us stay connected with hope and optimism. I wrote in an earlier post about a Parisian father who chose to highlight to his son hope in the face of terrorism. Moments like these are opportunities to fill our own and our children’s lives with enthusiasm for life. After all, on dark nights, when there is nothing to hold onto, if you find hope beside you, you are not alone.
I love these lines by Emily Dickinson, which speak to the need to look inward to find hope and optimism and, in that way, create pathways to our own happiness: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.”