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Until you can work out where happiness comes from (at least for you), you’ll always be chasing it.

It’s probably fair to say that we all want to be happy. So where does happiness come from? If you aren’t sure where to look, you’re not that likely to find it. But maybe what works for you isn’t to be found in all the glib prescriptions for happiness? These reflections on happiness at work and in life could help.

Can we make ourselves happy by determined effort? Is it a matter of choosing the right mental attitude? Can we follow some prescription or guru? Or is it all down to luck?

Making ourselves happy by specific actions has a very poor track record of success. People fix on some future outcome as a source of happiness, but after achieving it through effort and determination, discover that it doesn’t make them happy after all. They work to obtain some desired goal (a job, a relationship. a purchase, a position in society) and find that the reality isn’t what they had hoped for.

Why is happiness hard to find?

  • People are extremely poor at predicting the future, usually assuming it will closely resemble the past. That rarely happens. Even if it is similar, there will be enough differences to make some people happier that they expected to be, and others a good deal more miserable.
  • People allow present needs and concerns to color future ones. Because we’re eager for what’s in fashion today, we assume it will still appeal to us in 12 months’ time. That’s not likely either, in many cases.
  • Nor do the synthetic prescriptions of gurus have a better track record. Gurus are more likely to offer what will be acceptable today than what may fit us in some months’ or years’ time. Many gurus offer only platitudes and versions of society’s current myths. These have no greater chance of providing happiness than whatever we can think up ourselves.
  • People are easily distracted by minor benefits that quickly become irrelevant or irritating.
  • People easily allow current emotions to out-weigh reason. Desire trumps commonsense. By the time we have whatever we so desire today, that emotion may well have disappeared.

Maybe it’s all a matter of attitude?

Is happiness to be found by cultivating the right mental attitude? Can we choose to be happy and stay that way almost regardless of events?

There is some evidence to support the idea. Research has shown that even those suffering terminal conditions, major handicaps, or lifelong suffering can just as easily experience happiness as anyone else. The notion that inner happiness depends on external circumstances (wealth, possessions, fame, health) does not seem to be true. Most people prefer to have good circumstances if they can, but none guarantee happiness. Our minds are also adept at reframing problems or set-backs to make them less hurtful. If you don’t get what you want, you’ll probably convince yourself it wasn’t so important anyhow.

What people say makes them happy may be no more than convention. Most people, if asked, say they love their families. The evidence of marital discord, physical and mental abuse, domestic violence, and divorces and break-ups suggests that much of this claim is based on saying the right thing.

Maybe happiness is only self-delusion?

This is a tough question to answer. If you feel happy, whatever the cause, who is to say that your feeling isn’t real? Even if, viewed from the outside, what you are doing is fooling yourself. Indeed, can anyone else ever set themselves up as an arbiter of your happiness? Surely only you can know how you feel. Happiness may be an emotion people crave, but they still subject it to various judgments of authenticity. To accept that you are happy may be more about conforming to particular ideals of happiness than anything else. Sometimes feeling happy may even be dismissed on that basis. It could be chance whether happiness occurs in the only version we will admit is worth the name.

For example, you can try to induce feelings (including happiness), but people rarely accept those as the real thing. Drug users try to induce feelings of bliss, but their actual lifestyle is almost always sordid and unhappy, save for brief periods of drug-induced ecstasy.

Perhaps it’s all chance?

So is happiness simply a matter of luck and genetic makeup? Are some people born to be happy; and do the rest of us merely happen upon moments of happiness, more or less regardless of what we do to seek it out?

It seems certain that chance plays the major part in external events: so, if externals make us happy, that is mostly a matter of chance. Since all emotions are linked to the current bodily state, it could well be chance whether the right state, the right event, the right feeling, and the right definition of happiness all arrive at the same time.

It’s odd that something so many people define as the purpose of life is so hard to pin down. What if happiness is only a label we apply after the event; a way of describing pleasing types of sensations after they have arrived?Would it still be so sought after? Would it still be rated so highly?

Happiness is what makes you happy

Perhaps, after all, the best approach to happiness is to stop worrying about defining exactly what it in advance, or where it comes from, and get on with life.

Happiness is what makes you happy, not what society or anyone else approves, what some guru prescribes, or what is laid down by the current fashion as “authentic.” Often it isn’t even what people expect. They find themselves happy almost in spite of what they imagined might produce that feeling.

Happiness at work isn’t any different. To find it, all you really need to do is observe yourself closely. When something makes you happy, find ways to do more of it. When something else upsets your happiness, find ways to avoid it whenever you can.

Slowing down often increases people’s chances of happiness, because it gives them more time to observe and reflect on how they feel after each event. Instead of rushing through life, blindly following some happiness prescription, they are able to work out what is right for them. They don’t subscribe to platitudes like: “money cannot make you happy” or “happiness is other people.” Money can produce both happiness and misery and other people can be a joy or a royal pain in the posterior.

Happiness is what makes you happy. Stick with that and you won’t go far wrong.

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