It turns out that the secret to happiness is no secret at all.
We can spend a lifetime chasing happiness, wondering why it eludes us when, really, it’s within our grasp all along. Happiness is pretty simple, you see: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. (Thanks for that, Rita Mae Brown.)
“Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking. “I’m single. Are you telling me I’m out of luck for finding happiness?” No, no, not at all. “Someone to love” isn’t limited to just romantic love, that Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming, heroine-is-swept-off-her-feet-at-the-end-of-the-movie love known as eros. Luckily, “someone to love” can be defined much more broadly. There are as many different types of love as there are types of people to love.
For example, filia refers to the love between friends, an easy camaraderie that comes with years of knowing and hanging out with someone who accepts you as you are. Storge is another type of love, usually describing the love between parents and children, or between siblings. Think more Anna & Elsa from Frozen than Snow White & Prince Charming. (Wait. Snow White and Cinderella both married Prince Charming? That’s confusing. But I digress.) And, finally, agape refers to the love a person can have for many people, including extended family or even strangers.
Surely you have someone to love in your life. It may not be Prince Charming (that two-timer! But I digress.) but it may be a parent, a child, a friend or a brother.
The second tenet of a happy life is to have something to do. Maybe you dream of running away from your “real” life and spending idle time on a deserted island, but that would wear thin very quickly. People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and work not only provides income but also gives us a reason to get out of our flannel jammies and move during the day. Having work to do, including staying at home to raise children, guards against the withering of our brains and our bodies.
Recent surveys have been quoted that up to 70% of Americans hate their jobs or are disengaged from their work. But people who are working, who are earning and who are contributing to their communities are happier and have lower rates of depression than those who are not working. Perhaps we have just become accustomed to wearing our complaints about work as some badge of honour. Maybe the 70% who hate their jobs can reframe their reality by acknowledging that it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, or that it makes them happier overall. The Danes have got it right: they have a word, arbejdsglæd , which means “happiness at work.” I say, let’s be more Danish!
In areas where the economy is depressed or jobs are scarce, it is still possible to fulfill this requirement for happiness. Volunteering regularly is as effective in fulfilling a purpose as paid work. When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and happiness in American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were. So go help in a soup kitchen. Offer your labour to a community garden. Paint an elderly neighbour’s house. The best part of volunteering? It not only gives you a reason to roll out of bed, but it also adds to your work experience, adding to your resume and potentially leading to a paying job.
Too much and too frequent idle time leads to boredom, and boredom breeds unhappiness. As a kid, whenever I said, “I’m bored,” my mom would tell me to go help someone. (And when my mom said “help someone”, she really meant “go clean the bathroom.” I tried not to be bored too often.) Being useful to others made me feel purposeful and suddenly, my boredom would vanish. No paid work? No worries. Go help someone. Volunteer. Contribute your time, your energy, your labour to someone or some cause that needs it.
The third requirement for a happy life is something to look forward to. Anticipation leads to happiness. It could be as simple as getting together with friends during the week or planning a vacation 6 months out. A Dutch study showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation, even more so than actually taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.
As for me, I look forward to my weekly splurge on coffee. I generally limit myself to one Starbucks latte every Friday. No matter how bad my week is, knowing that on Friday morning I can treat myself to a double tall non fat no foam equivalent of joy in a cup, I have a small skip in my step. Actually, it’s a large skip in my step. I look forward to that coffee with such glee that my coworkers have named the moments leading up to it as my “Friday Morning Latte Dance.”
Feeling like you need more happiness in your life? It may already be within your grasp. Do a quick audit of your life to determine the abundance that is yours already:
1) Do you have someone to love? A spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend? Love comes in many forms. Don’t limit yourself to thinking it needs to be romantic, fairy tale, only-in-movies love to count.
2) Do you have something to do? Work gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Hate your job? Think about the purpose of your work and connect your work tasks with this greater purpose. Don’t have a job? Volunteer and help someone who needs your ideas and energy. Write a book. Design jewellery. Build a deck. Do something.
3) Do you have something to look forward to? If your calendar is blank, make a date with a friend for a Tuesday. Plan a vacation. Research upcoming local festivals that you can attend. It doesn’t have to be grand. You could just join me on Friday at Starbucks for a latte.
You don’t have to search far and wide to find happiness. Have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, and happiness will find you.