The American naturalist, poet, and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau once said: “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will evade you. But if you notice the other things around you, it will come and softly sit on your shoulder.”
It only takes a quick scan of your social media feed to see people posting pictures of their latest vacation, newest car, or a flattering selfie that shows off their new clothes or hairstyle. Everywhere we look we see images of people smiling and appearing happy. Against this backdrop, it may be surprising to discover that one of the top regrets people express on their deathbed is: “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” This is according to palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware in her best-selling memoir, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Before we focus on the things that detract from our happiness, let’s spend a minute reviewing the benefits of inviting happiness into our lives. In her TEDx talk, “Why doctors should care about happiness,” Dr. Sarah Pressman suggests that positive emotions are associated with physiological benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, better immune system function, lower levels of stress hormones, and healthier behaviours – such as sleeping better and exercising more regularly. In short, if you’re in a good mood, you’ll feel healthier, have less pain, and be less likely to become injured or fall.
With all of its benefits, why do we struggle to achieve happiness?
People have different definitions of “happiness”
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happiness means to you? By taking the time to identify what makes you happy, it will become easier to make decisions that align with your goals, values, and preferences. Without knowing what makes you happy, you’re more likely to choose a path that takes you in the wrong direction – leaving you with regrets later in life.
Investing in instant gratification
Some people believe that buying a new car, wearing the latest fashions, or being successful, famous, and rich will make them happy. Generally speaking, these things bring short-term happiness. Your car will age; the latest fashions will become dated; and there will always be someone who is richer or more famous than you. By contrast, sustainable happiness can be achieved through connecting with others, being passionate about a hobby, or contributing to a cause greater than yourself.
Chasing happiness rather than prioritizing happiness
When we chase happiness by comparing how we feel with how we’d like to feel, we end up being less happy. Rather than pursuing happiness, try prioritizing happiness. In other words, when you’re confronted with a decision, I recommend that you consider your options and choose the one that will bring you the most happiness.
Refusing to take responsibility for your happiness
Instead of blaming your circumstances or other people, accept that you alone are responsible for your happiness. Leading a healthy lifestyle – e.g., eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and sleeping better – has a net positive effect on both your mental and physical health. So even if you are in the middle of a personal crisis, choosing certain activities can have a positive impact on your level of happiness.
Even though we each desire happiness, life is unpredictable. Sometimes what we think is good for us turns out to be bad, and vice versa. The next time something “bad” happens to you, try to take a stoic approach and avoid judging the situation. After all, it may turn out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to you.
Many of Bronnie Ware’s patients did not realize that happiness is a choice until the end of their lives. Instead, they wasted their time – their lives – by remaining stuck in old patterns and habits because they feared change. Your happiness is up to you, and your mental health, well-being, and quality of life depends on the choices you make.