Can I be happier? What does happiness look like? Internationally renowned researchers such as Ed Diener at the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania have begun to find answers to universal questions about our subjective sense of well-being. Increasing wealth or material possessions generally does little to increase happiness. Rather, happiness has a lot to do with attitude, personality, emotional and social intelligence, and quality of relationships. Unfortunately for the many people who are not very happy, these qualities tend to be more difficult to acquire than income and possessions.
While people often seek psychotherapy to reduce symptoms of unhappiness, we find that psychotherapy can be most effective and beneficial when people also work to increase levels of happiness. To assess your degree of happiness, and to get a better sense of what happiness looks like, ask yourself the following four questions.
1. How protected and supported am I?
The more you feel protected and safe from emotional, physical and sexual harm, the more you can relax and focus your energies on positive interests and pursuits. Beyond providing an invaluable “secure base” that enables you to explore the world with confidence, the people you live and work with can be powerful sources of strength. You will flourish and grow when those around you ask about and support your needs and interests; when they are curious, empathic and insightful rather than judging or blaming when you make mistakes or fail; and when they are sources of calmness and compassion when you are distressed.
2. How lovable am I?
You are lovable to the extent that you know and care about your own needs, thoughts and feelings and are confident in asking others to consider them too. You are lovable when you are open and genuine about yourself, while expecting others to have their own, equally important, needs, thoughts and feelings. You are lovable to the extent you are comfortable “tuning in” and “putting yourself out there,” without feeling the need to use force or guilt to get what you want. As a small but illustrative example, if you don’t pay attention to a strong desire for some spicy Thai food, no one, including you, will care about what you want. If you don’t bother to mention it, your spouse won’t care. If you “guilt” your spouse into taking you out for Thai food, you may go but you won’t feel happy. If your spouse takes you out for Thai food without considering that it will make them sick or that they can’t afford it, you won’t be happy. If you and your spouse understand how much you’d love Thai food tonight, and make a decision to go out or not go out that doesn’t exaggerate or discount the importance of your desire, you will feel loved.
3. How responsible am I?
You are responsible to the extent that your intentions, actions, and words take into account not just one part of your mind and body, but all of you. When you remain aware of your whole self, you are not mindlessly driven by the need or impulse of the present moment, whether it be an urge to eat the bowl of potato chips placed in front of you or to respond to a friend’s request. For example, if your friend asks to borrow some money for rent, a part of you may be afraid to disappoint them, while another part of you may feel it is in your and your friend’s best interest to refuse. Ignoring the wise part of your mind in order to avoid disappointing your friend is being irresponsible. When you consider your whole self, you make wise rather than impulsive decisions. As you become more conscious of the large number of perspectives you have to any issue and are able to take more and more of these into consideration, you create increasingly less unintentional harm, and do increasingly more intentional good.
4. How powerful am I?
You need to feel empowered to have a positive impact on your own life, those of your loved ones, and your community at large. Accurately understanding and accepting what you are and are not capable of doing is key to being powerful, and to avoiding suffering over that which you cannot do. You are powerful when you feel you have choices in any given situation, and when you are confident that your choice is most beneficial. You are powerful when you know yourself well, and freely speak your mind clearly and with compassion. You are powerful when you rely on mutual desire and cooperation rather than guilt or threats to achieve your goals. You are powerful when you achieve your goals with the least force required. You are powerful when you take care of your body, mind and soul to feel physically and mentally strong and energetic. You become increasingly powerful as you become increasingly connected with people, knowledge, spirituality and other resources around you.