What makes you happy? Some may say going on a nice vacation; others may cite a wanted job promotion; still, others may note buying a possession, like a new car. My point is that identifying things that people believe makes them happy is quite variable. I would also assert that the above things probably don’t make most people happy, at least not in the long term. However, suppose you distill the essence of the positive feelings from the above. In that case, you will discover that what you are dealing with is more generalized and global and represents new experiences, a sense of self-worth, and a feeling of pride.
The above essential feeling can be distilled further as things that make some individuals happy; happiness is one of the most basic emotions that most people seek. But what is happiness, or more definitively, what makes most people happy?
This is a nuanced question that can be answered in many different ways depending on one’s philosophy, religious convictions, or psychological knowledge. No one set of answers is complete; however, having some construct can point us in a helpful direction. I will adopt the Hindu concept of what makes people happy for today’s post. My efforts are to get the reader to think in more abstract terms rather than focusing on specific definitions. Additionally, remember that both advertisers and society use the promise of happiness as a way to get you to buy and do things. That is the psychology of manipulation, not the road to sustainable happiness.
Let’s look at what the Hindus say using a three-point explanation.
- Positive emotion. This defines a feeling of happiness or ecstasy, and it is often what others use to manipulate us to do things. The examples that I listed above are quick ways to feel positive emotions. When I turned 50, I wanted to do something special to commemorate all the hard work I had done to reach a level of success. What did I do? I bought a Mercedes Benz, which I felt was a successful doctor’s car. I recall driving out of the dealership full of pride. I imagined everyone looking at me as I sped down the highway. I was happy, but that initial euphoria lasted only about a week, and then the Mercedes was just a box on wheels. After owning it for several years, it became a burden mechanically; it wasn’t sound. Any repair was double to triple the cost of the same work done on a less status-oriented automobile. We are conditioned to believe that stuff will make us happy, but stuff often does the opposite. The adage that possessions possess is true. Possessions demand our attention, stress us financially, and require our maintenance. The minimalist movement has become the counterforce to social manipulation, but it may not be for all. I like possessions, but I know they are not a means to an end. My Mercedes did nothing to promote long-term happiness, but having a reliable vehicle does impact my happiness quotient. Things can add to my overall sense of happiness, but it is essential for me to determine my true need and avoid artificial happiness solutions of others.
There are several ways to promote a sense of positive emotion. A straightforward method is to write down a daily gratitude list. Take a few moments daily to recall five things you are grateful for. Don’t just state them but contemplate them and imagine yourself being happy because of them. Another positive emotion technique is to avoid negative energy. Stop watching cable news stations that constantly promote disharmony and encourage stress. Hang with positive people and avoid the Eeyores, drama queens, and put-down artists. Remember, if you are around poo, you will start to smell like poo. Surround yourself with people who promote you, not those who demote you. Be with people who inspire you instead of those who conspire to reduce you to their level. Avoid the gossipers and embrace the non-judgemental.
2. Engagement. This is about being in the flow. How many people go through the motions of living and resent the things they need to do? There is happiness in many, if not most, things if you look for it. When Julie returned to the paid workforce she no longer had the time or energy to prepare daily dinners, and the jobs of shopping and meal preparation fell on me. I know that she will be reading this, and I would like to emphasize that she continues to do grocery shopping and meal preparation, but statistically, I now do more of these tasks. Faced with these new responsibilities, I was given a choice. I could be resentful, or I could find another way. I choose the latter by employing a few simple modifications. I could cook foods I enjoyed since I was now in charge of the menu. I could also involve my kids, which served a multitude of benefits. Initially, involving them would mean more work for me, but I would get to spend time with them. I could teach them how to cook, and teaching others gives me pleasure. Both successes and failures would be grist for the mill. To accomplish these goals, I needed to be present in my endeavors. By staying engaged meal prep has become a cherished activity in our family, and my kids will often say it is one of their favorite parts of the day. Naturally, I feel similarly.
3. Meaning. Meaning is abstract, but it is probably the most essential happiness characteristic. Meaning has less to do with what others think about you and more about what you think about others and the world around you. As a medical doctor, I led a privileged life. I was Dr. Kuna, and that title gave me status and recognition. I am not knocking this perk, but it didn’t lead to me being happy. However, making a positive change in the lives of others did. When a patient would tell me that a suggestion I made changed their life, I was catapulted into happiness high. When someone came to me after having a disappointing experience with another doctor, and I was able to develop a medication treatment that improved their symptoms, I was filled with happiness. However, you don’t have to be a doctor to have meaning. Meaning comes in many forms, and none is more important than another. If I am present for my family and friends, my life has meaning. If I have a spiritual connection to something greater than myself, my life has meaning. If I use any knowledge to help another person, my life has meaning, and if I demonstrate consideration and respect to others, my life has meaning. Relationships give my life meaning. Every life has meaning, and all we need to do is actively do those things that emphasize the positive aspects of who we are, what we do, and how we act.
The Blackwell example
If you have read my previous blogs, you know that there are some specific things that give me joy. When I retired, and with the help of a friend, I built out a cargo van to become Violet the campervan. I love my little house on wheels as it represents so many things that give me happiness. I am happiest in nature, and Violet can transport me there. I love the minimalist simplicity of living out of a camper. I enjoy problem-solving and adapting with limited tools and options. I like to experiment with new gear. Camping with those whom I love brings me closer to them. Being in nature brings me closer to my Higher Power. Building out Violet stretched my thinking and creative side as I needed to learn how to do new things like building out a solar-powered electrical system. Those efforts continue as I improve on Violet’s design, now that we are four years into our “relationship.”
I love traveling out West and embracing nature. However, I have had to face the reality of the pandemic and then the trauma of inflation and escalating gas prices. Driving several thousand miles in a vehicle that gets 13-16 MPG has become impractical. This reality would make it easy to sulk and feel sorry for me. However, I like to be happy, and I believe that the elements of happiness are more important than concrete manifestations. I may not be able to drive to the Southwest, but I can incorporate my interests in other ways. This summer, I have gone on many camping adventures, but they have been more local and centered on gas-friendly Midwest destinations. In addition, I have combined these trips with other activities to increase my “bang for the buck.” For instance, I have used them to spend more time with those close to me, often on a one-to-one basis.
I am fortunate to have many beautiful parks and forest preserves within short drives from my house. Blackwell Forest Preserve is around 11 minutes away and features beautiful landscapes, a tranquil lake, and a campground. This summer, I booked a number of weekend adventures at Blackwell; the first one was completed a week ago. I went out on a Friday and spent time with my sister and brother-in-law, who camped next to my site. On Saturday, Julie arrived, and we relaxed and hiked some of the many paths that the forest preserve offers. We had a community dinner on Saturday, and I contributed a cornbread that I made in the camper directly on my camp stove, a fun learning experiment. I also problem-solved and tweaked some things, including figuring out how to attach an awning on Violet. In addition, I found time to pray, meditate, and be still. Yes, I was less than 5 miles from my home, but my mental attitude placed me in a different universe, a place that promoted a sense of satisfaction, gratitude, and happiness.
Dear reader, it is not my place to tell anyone how to live, and it is my hope that you take any of my suggestions with the intent that they are given. During difficult times it is very easy to focus on what we have lost, but I’m challenging you to reframe those thoughts to what you have. It is not as difficult as you think to modify expectations and to do some creative problem solving so you can turn perceived negatives into real positives. Change does require work, but in this case, the rewards far exceed any effort.