Much has been said — and misconstrued — about what constitutes happiness. According to Sonia Lyubomirsky, researcher and author of The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness, happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, and positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”. While it’s been estimated that 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics and 10% by circumstances (income, where you live, social status, age, etc.), 40% is up to us. It’s in that 40% that our personal influence lies.

Let’s look at some factors that hinder us in our pursuit of happiness, and how to turn such obstacles into that which benefits us (and those around us).

Happiness is not found by:

  1. Wallowing in regret about things we wish we had done differently. Wishing for what can never be saps our energy and diverts our attention from taking constructive steps toward what can still be. What’s more useful is to mindfully (nonjudgmentally) note your regrets, consider what you’ve learned from your experience, and use this knowledge to direct your actions differently today and in the future. This way, you draw your focus back to what Steven Covey called your “sphere of influence”, which is where you can actually make a difference.
  2. Beating ourselves up. On some planet, ferociously lambasting ourselves for perceived flaws will magically make the issues in question vanish, will summon needed help, or transform us into our ideal self. However, ours is not that planet. It’s more effective to mindfully (yes, that word again) acknowledge where you may have fallen short and develop a plan to work on the issue. Since we’re generally more inclined to want to help people we like, befriending yourself will probably motivate you more than tearing yourself apart. The same goes for calling yourself all sorts of nasty names in an attempt to elicit help from other people. While it’s possible that some kind-hearted soul will take pity on you and help you out in the short run, this isn’t a good long-term plan. Eventually other people will tire of subjecting themselves to your self-derogatory statements and remove themselves from your presence (and life).
  3. Deluding ourselves that reality is different than it is. Positive affirmations can be powerful agents of change, but at the same time we do need to accept the current reality. For instance, if you are presently in New York and want to drive to Los Angeles, you wouldn’t try to convince yourself that you’re in Los Angeles at this moment. You would accept your current geographical location, determine where you want to head (L.A.), check a map, and make appropriate plans to get there. You would also acknowledge that it may take awhile to get to L.A., so you won’t get discouraged if you don’t arrive instantaneously. Or, let’s say that you tend to complain and assume the worst, and you’d like to develop the habit of counting your blessings and expecting the best. You consciously try to take note of the great things in your life, but you fall back into catastrophizing from time to time. This is to be expected and is par for the course. The important thing is that you’re on the right road – you just haven’t reached your destination yet. An aside – if you’ve actually reached the point where you never, ever have any negative thoughts or blow problems out of proportion, you are a rare find, indeed. We all have such moments – it’s mainly a matter of which way the scales tip, of our general balance. A head in the clouds, feet on the ground mentality may be the best approach, although admittedly this is quite the balancing act.
  4. Believing that we can only have “positive” emotions. People who rate themselves high in well-being have a great respect for all of their feelings and consider their emotions as messengers of valuable information. The useful way to view feelings is as feedback and as communication, both to ourselves and to others, and to be able to convey our feelings in a constructive manner, at an appropriate time and place. For instance, if you’re feeling disappointed that your husband has been spending more time with the TV after work than with you lately, you might not want to approach him about the subject while he’s watching the NBA playoffs. Your emotions aren’t the problem. How you handle them is the challenge – and the opportunity, in this case, for effective communication of your feelings and your desire, while also tuning into your husband’s point of view and needs. Picking up on your own feelings and those of the people around you, even if the emotions aren’t always “happy”, will give you clues regarding appropriate ways to handle the situation. If you have a rock in your shoe, the pain is alerting you to the rock’s presence. For goodness sake, stop what you’re doing and take the rock out – and be thankful that you have a built-in alarm system. Have a cry, if you need to – you’re human.
  5. Trying to be all things to all people. It’s impossible to please everybody, given that people have conflicting wishes. Your best friend may want you to have lunch with her on Saturday, because she just went through a traumatic breakup and wants some comfort and a listening ear. However, your daughter may want you to attend her soccer game. You can’t be two places at once, so something will have to give, and someone may be disappointed. You could reschedule with your friend, for instance, or talk with her on the phone before the soccer game, or go to part of your daughter’s soccer game. The actual choice isn’t really the point here. The issue is that as long as you do your best, which includes being reasonable with your time and energy, you can be content with your efforts, rather than being unduly influenced by other people’s reactions and opinions.
  6. Getting that house, that car, that person, that body weight, that job. Such an approach is like living while holding our breath. Always comparing the real and the ideal, with the former usually falling woefully short of expectations. With such a cup-half-empty approach, we can downplay or outright ignore the wonderful aspects of our life right now. If you’re old enough to remember the movie Apollo 13 (or the actual story), you’ll recall that the astronauts faced an unforeseen disaster in outer space and had to make due with whatever objects they had on hand in order to survive. The miracles and brilliance occurred when they dealt with life as it actually was, although they certainly could have complained about their dire situation.

What is bothering you about your life that, viewed as a challenging opportunity, could actually become a source of joy? Is your dissatisfaction with those extra few pounds you put on last holiday season going to nag at you? Or might you start a daily morning or evening walking routine, where you might meet some neighbors and perhaps make a few friends?

If you’re bored with your job, could you look into a night class to develop new skills, which might lead you to more fulfilling employment down the line?

How could you appreciate the journey, even if it involves some bumps, rather than looking down the proverbial road toward a destination that may always be just a mirage and out of reach?

Returning to Lyubomirsky’s definition of happiness, note the words “good, meaningful, and worthwhile”. These words speak to values and not just to “having fun”. Pursuing goals that align with such values isn’t always a walk in the park – and learning valuable coping skills doesn’t come without difficulty – but doing so can lead us to real happiness, the type that external circumstances or other people can’t take away from us.