Friday, February 1, 2008

The Road to Happiness has a Fork in it!

The Road to Happiness has a Fork in it!

Posted: 01 Feb 2008 10:40 AM CST

Yes, the road to happiness has a fork in it. And no, I'm not talking about the type of fork you eat with, although I suppose one of those might be involved for some people.

What I'm talking about are two distinct roads, each leading toward a unique type of happiness. Some people spend their lives travelling one road at the expense of the other, and in the process, miss half of what life has to offer.

I've talked about these two types of happiness before, more than once. But today I want to lay down some practical advice so you can know when to pursue which.

First, let's review:

1) The first type of happiness is the mood. This type of happiness is all about your emotional state, and it might best be described with the phrase, "I feel happy right now."

2) The second type of happiness involves a holistic evaluation of how your life is going. A person experiencing this type of happiness might say, "I am happy with my life."

Both types of happiness are important. But the ways in which they are achieved are very different. And if you read this article, I hope you'll come away with a better understanding of each so you can apply their pursuit more effectively in your own life.

The First Type of Happiness: The Emotion

One of the challenges I've overcome in my life involves the quick onset of anxiety during times of stress. There was a time, not long ago, when routine aggravations sent me into spirals of worry. Of course, no one feels happy all the time, but my point is that I know what it's like to struggle to achieve even base levels of happiness.

I would worry about everything: my job, my finances, my car. And if I didn't have something to worry about, I'd invent something. It's pretty hard to feel happy when you're subconsciously drilling for angst in the darkest corners of your mind.

It occurs to me now that I spent far too many years blind to the many wonderful blessings in my life.

These days, it's clear to me how blessed I truly am: great job, wonderful marriage, beautiful house, great family, friends. I want for nothing. But these blessings were only made clear to me once I learned how to assert some level of control over my moods.

Controlling Your Emotional State

The key to optimizing this first type of happiness, the emotion, is state control: learning to feel happier, even in an unpleasant situation.

As I mentioned before, no one can assert complete control over his or her emotional state. Well, there might be some enlightened being living somewhere in the upper reaches of the Himalayas who lives above his emotions (doubtful, assuming he's human), but 100% state control is neither realistic nor desirable for most people.

So no, the goal is not to force yourself to be happy all the time. To the contrary, the goal is to recognize whether you have a glaring problem with your moods and to marshal your resources to address that specific problem.

For example, if you know you have a problem with anger, work on controlling it, preferably while doing aggravating tasks. Also, be aware of the types of situations that tend to send your emotions into overload, so you can manage how and when to engage them.

Personally, I know I'm easily frustrated when I'm working on any skill-oriented task that requires manual labor (like assembling furniture, hanging large pictures, or doing basic carpentry). It's the combination of hard work and required precision that gets me going. So whenever I need to pick up a hammer and do some precision work, I take a deep breath, focus on the task, and will myself calm. Most of the time, this works. And best of all, I tend to complete the task much faster because I don't waste countless minutes throwing a fit every time I make a mistake.

But what if you're depressed, anxious, or angry all the time? What if you're almost never happy? Is state control really the answer?

Well, it might be. If you have specific triggers that set you off, learning to control your emotional state in the wake of these triggers might prove helpful, using a few time-tested techniques:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Reset yourself.
  • Stop being your own worst enemy.
  • Concentrate on being calm.

Deeper problems, such as anxiety and depression, may be medical in nature. And there is another possibility: if your moods are always in a funk, maybe it's because the second type of happiness (overall life satisfaction) is bleeding over onto the first. And if that's the case, you've got more work to do.

The Second Type of Happiness: Overall Life Satisfaction

If your only goal in life was to maximize your present-tense emotion of happiness, you'd spend your life searching for any device, pill, or substance capable of shutting down your negative emotions and making you feel blissful.

But have you ever wondered why alcoholics and drug abusers are seldom happy, despite spending so much time escaping reality? Well, to be fair, the obvious answer is that the emotional side effects of drug and alcohol abuse often outweigh the benefits, but there's another answer hiding beneath the surface that's very important to my point.

Drugs and alcohol are hollow fixes because they seek to maximize the first type of happiness while often working in direct opposition to the second. In other words, even if you're overflowing with happiness right now, that feeling cannot last if you're unhappy with the way you're living your life.

Enter the second type of happiness: Overall Life Satisfaction. The second type of happiness involves the holistic evaluation of how your life is going. Although it has the ability to affect your mood, this type of happiness isn't really emotional: it's spiritual and intellectual.

Are you happy with your life in general? Are you happy with the choices you've made? Do you understand and approve of the way you're living your life? These questions live at the heart of this second type of happiness.

Correcting a lack of equilibrium in the first type of happiness can be a chore, but correcting one in the second involves major lifestyle changes.

So what do you think? Do you need to make serious changes in your life so you can feel happy about the way it's going? Some points to consider:

1) Professional: Most adults spend the majority of their waking lives at work. Does your job pay enough to cover the bills? And beyond that, does your job excite and motivate you?

2) Relationships: Do you feel good about your relationships? Are you associating with people for reasons that feel important and correct to you? Do these relationships fulfill you?

3) Health and Fitness: Do you feel good about the things you eat and drink? Are you clean and sober? Do you get enough exercise?

There are many other considerations besides these, but the point I'm making is that sometimes you have to take a hard look at your life and decide if your lack of happiness is the result of wayward moods or deeper imbalances.

You Can Learn to be Happier

Research has made it very clear that you can learn to be happier, whether through state control or lifestyle change.

You have choices. You are not powerless. Knowing which type of happiness to pursue, at which times, is half the battle.

This article is copyright © by John Place. For more personal development articles, visit John Place Online.

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