In our not-too-distant past, humans were mostly focused on survival. Worrying about things like whether you'd have something to eat when you were hungry or a safe to sleep when you were tired were more important than pondering the idea of happiness. And although there are still people around the world who struggle with meeting their basic needs, most of us have the luxury of a little free time. We often spend at least a portion of it wondering whether we're happy, and if not, what we need to make us happy.
Some people think that they'd be truly happy with themselves if they had a perfect body, a high-powered job, a lot of money or fame. However, there are plenty of well-known, well-off, attractive people who aren't happy. The opposite is also true. Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, who works in the field of positive psychology, surveyed a group of Maasai warriors in Kenya about their happiness. The Maasai don't generally have the things that people in the developed world consider to be happiness generators, such as material wealth. But they still overwhelmingly think of themselves as happy. This doesn't mean that wealthy people can't be happy -- it just means that being wealthy doesn't automatically confer happiness. The same goes for any other attribute.
So if happiness doesn't come from what you do or what you have, where does it come from? According to Dr. Robert Holden, founder of The Happiness Project, "those looking for happiness often don't realize they already have it" [source: CNN]. Being happy with yourself isn't so much about pursuing it, but finding things that you can do to help you recognize your happiness. In this article, we'll examine a few of these ways, starting with accepting yourself.
The concept of self-acceptance is pretty basic on the surface. It means recognizing that you're a highly complex individual who is OK just as you are. It requires you to embrace everything about yourself -- including those things that you perceive as weaknesses or flaws. This is different from self-esteem, which is a measurement of how worthy we see ourselves. In fact, psychotherapist Albert Ellis argued that people with extremely high self-esteem typically base their self-acceptance on conditions, such as how well they measure up in comparison to others [source: Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy].
Many psychologists believe that our level of self-acceptance directly correlates with how we were accepted by our parents and other authority figures. Children look to their parents to provide acceptance before they reach the age in which they start forming opinions about themselves. If the message is positive, then they're more likely to grow up accepting themselves than children who grow up being told that they're not "good enough."
According to Dr. Leon Seltzer, "if deep within us we're ever to feel -- as our normal state of being -- happy and fulfilled, we must first rise to the challenge of complete, unqualified self-acceptance" [source: Seltzer]. Seltzer calls it a challenge for a reason; you may be combating years of feeling guilty, judging and criticizing yourself. We often treat others better than we treat ourselves. Think about directing that compassion and caring toward yourself. Failing at something doesn't make you a failure as a person. Accept that you're doing the best that you can right now.
Some people think that self-acceptance means ceasing to strive for personal growth, but the two concepts aren't incompatible at all. There's nothing wrong with wanting to learn and become a better person, but self-acceptance is about living in the present, not the past or the future. Speaking of personal growth, next we'll look at another important key in being happy with yourself: setting attainable goals.
Make Attainable Goals
Working toward goals can give you a sense of purpose, and reaching them boosts your self-confidence. However, there is one major mistake that many people make: setting unrealistic goals that you can't possible attain. Instead of feeling gratified and accomplished, you can end up feeling worse about yourself than before.
Suppose you've had a physical recently and your doctor stated that you would be healthier if you exercised and lost some weight, so you decide to lose 25 pounds (11.3 kilograms) in four weeks. You reason that you can do this by exercising 90 minutes a day and sticking to a strict diet of 1,000 calories. But when you get too tired to exercise, eat over your calorie limit or don't lose the weight, you feel like a failure.
If you've never exercised before, it's not realistic to expect that you'll suddenly be able to exercise for an hour a day. Eating 1,000 calories isn't enough for most people, so it's completely understandable that you'd blow your diet. Finally, most doctors recommend that you lose no more than 4 to 6 pounds (1.8 to 2.7 kilograms) per month. You're not a failure -- you failed at meeting your goal because it was unrealistic.
How do you know that you've set a goal that you're more likely to achieve? One way is to use a technique called SMART:
- Specific -- Be as precise as possible. Instead of "exercise," your goal should be something like "exercise 30 minutes per day."
- Measurable -- Come up with a way to measure your success. "Play guitar better" isn't measurable; "learn how to play one new song per week" is.
- Attainable -- If there's no way you can reach your goal, you're setting yourself up for failure. "Save $100 a month" isn't attainable if you only have $50 left in your checking account after paying your bills.
- Realistic -- Your goal should stretch you, but not necessarily be easy. "Never drink coffee again" may be less realistic than "only drink coffee once a week."
- Timely -- Set a clear time frame in which you want to reach your goal. If you don't have a deadline, you may not feel motivated to push yourself.
Our relationships with others typically play a huge part in our happiness. If one of your goals is to improve and strengthen your personal relationships, consider the importance of forgiveness. We'll talk about it next.
Learn to Forgive
You've probably been taught that forgiving someone who causes you pain is a good thing, while holding a grudge against the person is a bad thing. But like so many other worthy aspirations, it's easier said than done. Consider this, however: Holding a grudge doesn't only stand in the way of your overall happiness, it can also threaten your good health.
When we hold a grudge against other people, we harbor feelings of resentment, hostility and anger. These emotions are troubling because a study conducted by the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Cardiovascular Institute in 2008 lists them as risk factors for heart attacks [source: Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine].
Focusing on negative feelings also takes up time and energy that could be spent on something else. Instead of plotting revenge against someone, you could be doing something more worthwhile -- or just having fun.
Doctor, writer and philosopher Deepak Chopra suggests that learning to forgive is a process. It begins with realizing that you are in charge of your own emotions. You have no control over what anybody else does, but you can choose how to react. Then, you focus on your emotions and exactly how you felt when that person wronged you. You may have a mix of emotions -- go ahead and name them. Try to examine the situation from the other person's point of view, or as an impartial observer. Next, discuss your feelings with someone else. It could be the person you're trying to forgive, or just a trusted friend. Consider writing about how the incident made you feel. Some people choose to symbolically "get rid" of their feelings by writing them down and then burning the paper. Chopra suggests that you end by celebrating your new-found freedom in some way, such as hanging out with friends.
Although "forgive" is often followed by "forget," there's a difference between dwelling on the incident and forgetting it. Remembering is an act of self-preservation, and perhaps it can help you avoid being in the situation in the future. You can forgive without forgetting. It's not necessary to confront or otherwise let the person know that you have forgiven them, unless you really want to. Ultimately, learning to forgive is about forgiving yourself for holding on to the negative emotions.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
We mentioned in the last section that negative emotions can have a negative impact on your physical health -- it turns out that the opposite is also true. A 2008 study conducted at the University of Nebraska examined data from surveys about health, happiness and life satisfaction. Its conclusion was that healthy people are generally happier and that happy people are generally healthier. One of the study's authors, Dr. Mohammad Siahpush, stated that "there are indications that as you become happier and more satisfied with your life, you tend to become healthier as well" [source: American Journal of Health Promotion].
We know that habits like smoking, taking drugs and excessive drinking aren't healthy, and that getting somewhere between six and eight hours of sleep contributes to our physical health. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle doesn't mean being incredibly strict with yourself when it comes to things like diet and exercise, though. If you don't get in four servings of fruit or five servings of vegetables, it's not the end of the world -- the important thing is that you try.
When you think of exercise, do you picture running on a treadmill at 5 a.m.? It doesn't have to be that way. Most guidelines state that you should get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Aerobic exercise can be had by running or walking, but you could also get it through dancing, swimming or playing sports. If you choose something that you enjoy doing, you'll be more likely to keep it up. You'll also be happier while exercising, because it doesn't feel like as much of a chore.
Physical health is just half of the equation. You also have to consider your mental health, and that means keeping down the stress in your life. That can be difficult to do when you have so many things going on, but it's definitely necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you're feeling stressed, take a deep breath, stretch or get some exercise. Some people find meditation helpful -- you can start by simply sitting still with your eyes closed for five minutes, gently banishing any thoughts that cross your mind. With time, you can extend your meditation practice.
So far, we've delved into some pretty serious concepts in order to discover how to be happy with yourself. Next, we'll look at a topic that's just as important, but is far from serious: making time for fun.
Make Time for Fun
Remember the old proverb "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? Not only do we become boring (and bored) when we don't take a break from work, we also become unhappy. A common belief is that the only way to be successful or to "get ahead" is to push ourselves to the breaking point, neglecting other facets of our lives in favor of our careers. While working hard is admirable, few people at the end of their lives wish that they'd put in longer hours at the office. Instead, they wish that they spent more time with their friends and family, engaging in activities that made them happy. Even the most rewarding job can cause burnout, so making time for fun is essential to happiness. Time away can even give you a fresh perspective at work.
Making time for fun might mean refusing to take on something new or asking for help with an overwhelming project. If you're still having trouble fitting in your fun time, schedule it -- if it's on your calendar, you're more likely to treat it with just as much importance as you do meetings and appointments. A 10-minute walk, a comedy special on TV or a few minutes at a funny Web site all count, not to mention devoting time to a favorite sport, hobby or interest. Of course, we're also talking about taking personal days (and actually relaxing instead of using them to run errands) and planning vacations.
Think about what you wanted to do more than anything else when you were a child: play. Children throw themselves into their play without thinking much about whether they're doing it "right" or what others may think, because it makes them feel happy. It doesn't matter if you feel silly doing activities like Hula-hooping, jumping on a trampoline or coloring with crayons. The important thing is that it's fun and it relieves stress. It's hard to be anything but happy when you're having fun.
Want more on happiness? Try the links to HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bauman, Alisa. "The Secrets to Happiness." Prevention. February 13, 2006.http://www.prevention.com/cda/article/the-secrets-to-happiness/6e7966263d803110VgnVCM20000012281eac____/health/emotional.health/finding.happiness/0/0/1
- Biswas-Diener, et al. "Most People are Pretty Happy, But There is Cultural Variation." Journal of Happiness Studies. Vol 6. 2005.http://www.intentionalhappiness.com/articles/BDCulture.pdf
- Chopra, Deepak. "Personal Transformation Tools: Forgiveness." DeepakChopra.com. December 31, 2008.http://deepakchopra.com/?p=1363
- Conniff, Richard. "Are You Happy?" Men's Health. 2009.http://www.menshealth.com/cda/article.do?site=MensHealth&channel=health&category=stress.management&conitem=f83a74647ac98010VgnVCM200000cee793cd____
- Davidson, Karina W. "Emotional predictors and behavioral triggers of acute coronary syndrome." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. Vol 75. Supplement 2. March 2008.http://www.ccjm.org/content/75/Suppl_2/S15.long
- Diener, Ed. "Satisfaction with Life Scale." University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener/hottopic/hottopic.html
- Diener, Ed and Robert Biswas-Diener. "Happiness." Blackwell Publishing. 2008.
- Dominican University of California. "Study Backs up Strategies for Achieving Goals." Dominican University of California News. December 20, 2007.http://www.dominican.edu/dominicannews/study-backs-up-strategies-for-achieving-goals.html
- Elias, Marilyn. "Psychologists now know what makes people happy." USA Today. December 8, 2002.http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2002-12-08-happy-main_x.htm
- Flett, Gordon, et al. "Dimensions of Perfectionism, Unconditional Self-Acceptance and Depression."
- Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. Vol. 21. No. 2.Summer 2003.http://hewittlab.psych.ubc.ca/pdfs/2003fbdh.pdf
- Manier, Jeremy and Bonnie Miller Rubin. "Experts try to unlock mysteries of happiness." Chicago Tribune. October 5, 2008.http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2008/oct/05/local/chi-happinessoct05
- Oprah.com. "Are you happy - really?" CNN. February 6, 2008.http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/personal/02/06/o.happiness.test/index.html
- Pavot, William, et al. "Review of the Satisfaction with Life Scale." Psychological Assessment [PsycARTICLES]. Vol. 5. No. 2. June 1993.http://www.logisens.com/resourceFiles/Satisfaction_with_Life_Scale_review11.pdf
- Seltzer, Leon F. "The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance." Psychology Today. September 2008.http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/200809/the-path-unconditional-self-acceptance
- Tabak, Lawrence. "If Your Goal Is Success, Don't Consult These Gurus." Fast Company Magazine. Dec 18, 2007.http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/cdu.html
- Siahpush, M, et al. "Happiness and life satisfaction prospectively predict self-rated health, physical health, and the presence of limiting, long-term health conditions." American Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 23. Issue 1. 2008.http://healthpromotionjournal.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?
- Stevenson et al. "Happiness Inequality in the United States." The Journal of Legal Studies. Vol. 37. Supplement 2. 2008.http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/jls/2008/37/s2