The pursuit of happiness can be described as both a deep concern and obsession of human beings throughout time. This quest to discover how to live our best, most fulfilling lives is a phenomenon that cuts across cultures. The fever has intensified in the last decade thanks in part to a growing body of research that links happiness to benefits ranging from greater health, happier relationships, boosts to creativity, and even higher earnings.
Physiologically, happiness is an emotional state, a mix of feelings produced by some combination of feel-good hormones. It’s much more than an occasional emotional burst of dopamine, however.
It’s a process, it’s work and it’s a balancing act.
Recent research reveals that happiness has a paradoxical nature. A recent publication, What Happy People Do Differently by Drs. Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener summarized some surprising findings emerging from studies of happiness. It appears the habits of those who are happiest include regular doses of activities that produce feelings of discomfort, doubt, uncertainty.
Here are a few of these “uncomfortable” habits:
1. They are curious about life around them and love to learn.
Studies show that persons who frequently feel curious experience the greatest satisfaction in life. Yet this state of eagerness and not-knowing is basically an emotional state rooted in fear and anxiety. Curiosity is about seeking to explore, to discover, to learn, and curious people seem to understand that this less traveled path is the most efficient way to growing courage and strength, confidence and wisdom in life.
2. They overlook details that would cause them to otherwise take things personally.
A study led by psychologist Dr. Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales found that happy people tend to be less skeptical or analytical, and this makes them more open toward strangers and differences. Another psychologist, Dr. Kate Harkness at Queen’s University showed that depressed persons tend to notice minute chances in others’ dispositions or facial muscles and immediately react to any signs of negative emotion.
3. They celebrate others’ good fortune and successes, and seek this quality in friends in return.
Why would this make us happier? For one, it provides more opportunity to connect and feel connected to others when we desire others to succeed, and feel happy in their wins. We are hardwired to meaningfully connect, and feeling others are “for” our success builds healthy bonds. Psychologist Dr. Shelly Gable at the University of California found that partners in couple relationships that mutually celebrate their successes are more likely to stay together and enjoy greater happiness.
4. They don’t hide from painful emotions and are open to feeling vulnerable.
Happy people seem to understand that emotions, especially painful ones, are vital feedback from their body, letting them know at any given moment, for example, where they are in relation to where they want to be (i.e., with regard to their deepest yearnings, dreams, passions, values etc.). The ability to feel our emotions, to understand and to respond mindfully allows us to shift to optimal emotional states that promote our growth and wellbeing, and thus consciously participate in processes of our development as ever better versions of ourselves. This includes participating in processes, such as altering the way we think about self, others and life, so that it enhances our peace of mind, relationships and inner happiness. Feeling painful emotions without wallowing in them is a vital skill because, even in the best of times, life is a top-notch school with ample challenges, obstacles and triggers.
5. They are skilled at letting go of short-term pleasure if it means making progress toward what brings greater meaning and purpose to their lives.
Happy people seem to have an ability to both appreciate what they have at present and, at the same time, to keep reaching to create an ever more meaningful life in the future. Happiness is a balancing act. Realizing passions, goals and dreams can be hard work that can cause us to neglect the joys and gifts around us in the present on the one extreme. On the other, the pursuit of happiness can also mislead many, and has, to equate pleasurable activities that produce feel-good hormones with happiness. Thinking of happiness as pleasure and comfort leads to addiction instead — a state in which a person becomes a slave to the physiological demands of their body for pleasure regardless of the cost their health, relationships, deepest yearnings, dreams and values.
In summary, happiness is an inside job, a balancing act in which the locus of control lies within. Happy persons develop habits that contribute to their own and others’ wellbeing, and view challenges as “opportunities” to stretch and grow their capacity to love, to protect their happiness with optimal responses. They seem to understand intuitively that you cannot sustain happiness just doing the things you like and make you feel comfortable — and this inner belief frees them to turn lemons into opportunities to make lemonade.
This allows them to engage in uncomfortable habits that, in turn, strengthen their ability to feel happy, grateful and meaningfully connected — all the while learning more and more to get “comfortable” in situations that bring up uncomfortable emotions.
In the words of authors Kashdan and Biswas-Diener: “One of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad.”