Happiness – a universal concept sought by everybody. And there are a lot of things that promise to make us happy – the right purchases, the right life attitudes. All we have to do is buy or embrace some new trend. And while many of us do – buy that is — very few people are truly happy. Because true happiness cannot be bought, and cannot be faked. Using a simple measurement of whether or not a person was displaying a “genuine” smile – known as a Duchenne smile – Ron Gutman, author of Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act demonstrated that a genuine smile can be tremendously predicative of many things – from college graduation to ultimate career success. Happiness too, can be assessed based on physiological reactions.
Interestingly, many of the people Gutman studied would have claimed to be happy. And yet, there is something much larger that clearly separates those who are genuinely happy, and those who “claim to be happy.”
Are you seeking true happiness in your life or are you just a victim of somebody else’s version of happiness? Are you seeking true or fake happiness?
Because happiness is sold to us in a multitude of ways.
We all have friends who are posting “inspirational quotes,” or “photos of sweet pets or nature” on social media, and in the most cases the underlying message is I am a happy, positive person. Others are posting religious advice, sometimes quoting scripture, other times, referencing a combination of oriental philosophies and new age concepts. They too claim to be happy. Then, we are bombarded with commercials where happiness in sold in a new bottle, new drug, new car, new fashion line, or simply just through food. And the tagline always promises that one elusive thing: happiness.
Are you truly happy? When was the last time you felt a sense of accomplishment, pride, and strength? Like when you graduated, or finished your book? When was the last time you felt elated? Like when you married the love of your life and knew that you made the right decision? When was the last time you made it through something you didn’t think you could, only to come out stronger?
In all the examples above, the feeling was not only emotional, was also physiological — an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, a feeling of tightening in our chest, a watering of our eyes (in some cases we cried uncontrollably), a genuine smile, a certain tingling sensation going up and down our whole bodies – which is how we knew we were truly happy. Our reactions were the physiological evidence of happiness.
Now contrast that with the experience of having your hair done and posting all over social media a photo of yourself with the caption: “so happy with my hairstylist, she did an awesome job, couldn’t be more happier…” Any rational person can attest that the “hair” experience does not create the same physiological responses I just described. So we have only two options to interpret the situation: we either fake happiness intentionally to fool others, or we fake happiness unintentionally to fool ourselves.
Fake happiness isn’t something we feel – it’s something we pretend to feel. And real happiness is something that doesn’t ask us to pretend.
So the question is where do we really find happiness if it’s not in our comfort zone — not in our daily lives? After all, we can’t get married every day, complete degree after degree, or have an unlimited number of children (all of the things that equate to genuine happiness).
Yet what do all of these things have in common? They are experiences. They involve risk, challenge, they take our time and effort, and they all involve overcoming adversity and pain.
And there is something about overcoming that leads to happiness.
Over the last few years I began ultrarunning, a sport where I met some of the toughest people alive, a sport where there are no differences based on age, gender, socio-economic group, educational background, religion, etc. And in this sport, I had the chance to meet athletes who experience true happiness and seem to have found a path to it.
And it seems that this path to happiness follows the same route. That is the Spartathlon in Greece, a race of 153 miles in length with a time cut off of 36 hours. Athletes run from Athens to Sparta, crossing the Greek mountains, 153 miles in less than 36 hours. Every year 150 or so athletes reach the finish line. Watching them cross the finish line – many with tears in their eyes, smiles on their faces and gratitude for their lives – and talking with them, it’s clear. This is happiness.
And while they all come from different backgrounds – several countries are represented every year – what they all share is the journey. The months of strenuous training, the sacrifices, the dedication, the pain – all coalesce in one epic moment. These athletes are happy! Furthermore, many of them return year after year to relive the Spartathlon and they experience the same feelings yet again.
Is the Spartathlon a fountain of happiness? Talking to the people who run it either for the first time or for the 13th time like Gilles Pallaruelo of France, they all say the same thing. We wish to return again next year, confirming that despite the adversity they face, what they feel is real – and worth it.
And this is the metaphor that we all know – that in putting ourselves to the test, pushing our limits and accomplishing something truly great, we come alive. And yes, we find happiness. Perhaps, if instead of focusing on the new car, clothes, hair cut, or edited photo on social media, we should commit ourselves to something greater. Maybe even something greater than ourselves. And maybe, just maybe along the way we will find happiness.
Gutman, R., (2011) Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, TED Books