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Happiness is not what you think

"We should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of the pursuit" (from the movie "Hector and the pursuit of happiness")

When I shared with some friends that I would probably dedicate the next chapter of my life to study the science of happiness I could sense a certain discomfort. Some of my "achiever" friends asked if that was not too "fluffy". Others asked if I was sure I wasn't getting into some sort of pyramid scheme. The most optimistic ones were picturing me trying to transform the human race into a bunch of smily-annoying-tree hugging people.

The discomfort lies behind a misunderstanding of what happiness is.

Let's start with what happiness is not. Happiness is not a permanent state of joy and/or being happy all the time. It is not a momentous feeling. It is not short term pleasure (which by the way can be detrimental to happiness - more on that later) and not even absence of negative feelings or pain (yes, negative feelings ate important for happiness and marathoners/UFC fighters can be happy people!).

Our personal definition of happiness is heavily influenced by fairy tales, children's stories and the american movie industry. We are always in the pursuit of being part of the final scene of "gone with the wind" and "live happily ever after". Unfortunately, that is not life.

Happiness has many different definitions but in general academics and researchers gravitate to a definition of happiness as "subjective well-being" and "overall life satisfaction". It is not the absence of negative feelings but the balance between positive and negative emotions overtime. It is the art of knowing to embrace what life trows at us and on the balance, be content with life . It is not how you are feeling in a specific moment but what your overall sentiment towards life is.

Leading positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Curiously enough, people that have greater "emodiversity" (experience a balance of both positive and negative feelings) have more overall happiness than people with lower "emodiversity". In my personal experience, I know many people that experience a lot of adversity in their lives and have better life satisfaction that people that did not face such adversity. Adversity gives us perspective, a sense of gratitude for what we have and builds resilience (capability of dealing with adversity). How many people do we know that had very little adversity in their lives and are unhappier than other people that faced a lot of adversity? Some, no? Happiness is highly correlated with the ability to manage negative emotions. Grit, resilience and the ability to deal with negative emotions are as important and sometimes more important than the presence of constant positive emotions in happiness.

The study and application of science of happiness shouldn't be therefore interpreted as a quest to feel "happy" all the time of seeking constant pleasure. The objective should be to have "overall satisfaction in life" and "subjective well-being" over the course of our lifetimes.

Maximizing overall life satisfaction involves making trade-offs between feeling happy in the moment versus feeling good about life overtime. It involves not avoiding negatives emotions (they will happen over our lifetimes!) but how to deal with them when they arise.

In the next chapters we will discuss what science found out about maximizing happiness over our lifetimes. And don't worry. You won't become a smily-annoying-tree hugging person if you continue reading.

Happy Life,


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Poem on the importance of hosting negative emotions:


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