I study, speak about and write about happiness. I do this all the time. It's my life's work. I coach people to help them to live a happier life and I teach groups of people how to do the same.
But this is not, objectively, a happy time. We are weaker as a country and the world is a more dangerous place than it was four years ago. Our political and economic situation is perilous, people are anxious about making ends meet, feeling greater worry about finances puts greater stress on relationships and overall joy.
That being the case, what in the world am I doing talking, writing, coaching and teaching about happiness?
It's simple: The same life skills that lead to a happier life also lead to a stronger, more resilient life. The skills of happiness are the skills of living well – under any circumstances.
Today I want to show you how several of the pillars of a happy life are built on the skills of a strong, effective and resilient life.
Let's start with gratitude.
When you search for and dwell on the painful events of your past, you are doing something that will actively weaken you. You will feel greater helplessness and despair because there is literally nothing that you can do to change anything that you have experienced in the past.
It can be useful to acknowledge and understand what you've been through so that you can have compassion toward yourself and patience with yourself when those past experiences interfere with your functioning in the present. But there is absolutely no value in spending time swimming around in your past feelings of regret, remorse or pain.
This only serves to bring those feelings from the past into the foreground of your present; but what you want is for those feelings, as much as possible, to take their proper place in history. In the case of severe trauma, sometimes the feelings and memories of those experiences can revisit you on their own but the same principle applies – you should actively dwell on those feelings as little as possible.
Searching for your painful past experiences is sometimes called "going on an archeological expedition." I encourage you instead to go on a treasure hunt: Search your past for the people, events and opportunities about which you can feel grateful.
Gratitude not only feels better; it also connects you to a particular kind of strength – the strength that you have been given.
When you feel grateful for something that your parents did for you – or a teacher, or a coach, or a boss or co-worker, etc. – you are actively connecting to their gift of love, or support, or their gift of pushing you (or maybe shoving you) to do better because they could see something in you that you did not see yourself.
When you feel grateful for opportunities that have come to you, you get to feel those blessings; you get to feel that there is the possibility for more blessings, and the resilience that comes of knowing there are good things that can come to you.
Let's look at another pillar of a happy life: optimism. Optimism includes the expectation that there is good that can come to you but it also includes the belief that you can make good things happen, that you often make good things happen and that you make good things happen in a variety of ways.
Optimism is not some naïve, phony cheeriness; it is an active, solution focused approach to life, which provides you with strength that you have earned.
When you are confronted by a problem and you know that you are a person who can solve problems, that is a strong position to be in. You are more likely to find solutions if you expect to find solutions. The resulting benevolent cycle builds your personal sense of efficacy with every success and allows you to carry on, grow and become stronger through failure.
If you are more optimistic (and you can become more optimistic by practicing certain skills), you are also likely to be healthier, to live longer, to be less depressed and to achieve greater success.
Integrity is another pillar of a happy life, and it is the self generated core of a strong and resilient person.
Integrity doesn't just happen; it is the ongoing discipline of integrating your experience, without contradiction. Seeking to walk your talk, to actively and purposefully live according to your values has two main effects:
1) You get to see whether those values are functional: For example, valuing self-sacrifice above all else would lead you to sacrifice everything that you value above all else – including the value of self-sacrifice. That doesn't actually work very well logically or in practice. But kindness, empathy and compassion for others captures the emotional sentiment that the idea of self-sacrifice claims, and it is good for everybody concerned – it is actually functional.
If you do not live with integrity, you can carry on the illusion that you should support dysfunctional values like self-sacrifice because it is all theoretical; you are not actually living them to see whether they generate the good results you believe they will.
2) You also actively build and strengthen your own personal character. You are likely to build a good reputation with others and you establish and strengthen your own reputation with yourself.
Living with integrity generates the strength that you build within yourself.
Another pillar of a happy life is your relationships. A good relationship and a happy relationship are the same thing. Successful relationships are not perfect but they do have at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative experience.
Good, strong, happy relationships are built through the daily respectful acts that build trust and goodwill – empathy, kindness, responding to bids for attention, celebrating good news, keeping your word and your commitments – and through the purposeful decision not to indulge in hurtful or destructive behaviors.
By actively practicing behaviors that generate positive, respectful and trusting relationships you build strength between yourself and others.
Another pillar of a happy life is earned success. When you strive for success in your work you earn for yourself the sense of purpose and meaning that comes from creative, productive work. You also earn money and the greater control over your circumstances that comes with it.
The sense of satisfaction and efficacy that you create for yourself through doing good work well certainly can feel good but it also creates objective, tangible strength for your life.
All of these qualities are within your power to cultivate, practice and grow in your life, no matter what your circumstances are. We can get so caught up in what is happening to us in life – whether politically, economically or personally – that we forget that what makes the greatest psychological difference is how we deal with those circumstances.
Focusing on the circumstances over which you have little or no control puts you in a devastatingly passive and helpless relationship to the world. Even if things are genuinely horrendous, there is no good that comes from surrendering to them.
By looking for the strength that you have been given (gratitude), the strength that you have earned (optimism and earned success), the strength that you build within yourself (integrity) and the strength between yourself and others (relationships), you put yourself in a position of active engagement with the world.
This is what makes for a happy life, a strong life, a successful life. Mastering the skills of happiness is mastering life itself.