When I mentioned to a friend I was going to use “Being Happy | Being Single” as a tagline for Flying High Solo, she shrieked, “No, no.  Not happy! Content, maybe.”  It got me thinking – what does it mean to be happy?  What is happiness, really? And more importantly, how do you achieve happiness?

My friend admitted happiness to her meant having a spouse.  And being single – a contented or satisfying life was all she could achieve. This seemed like more than a semantic issue to me.  It touched the core of Flying High Solo – and my feelings about my own life.

What the dictionary says

Young Woman with Smiley Emoticon on Green Background

Some say just smiling, putting on a happy face, can raise your happiness level. Photo: DepositPhotos, copyright, william87

First I went to Webster’s which defined happy as “delighted, pleased, glad, as over a particular thing: to be happy to see a person. 2. Characterized by ….  pleasure, contentment, or joy.”  Lots of synonyms here – plus these for happiness – enjoyment, satisfaction.

So being satisfied, contented, glad, pleased, enjoying yourself – all seem to describe being happy.  But what was it about the word that so triggered my friend?

Does being married make you happy?

This is a loaded question – loaded with folklore, personal opinion, along with many studies saying married people live longer than singles (I always question whether that relates to happiness….). To answer this, I referred to the excellent, well-researched book, Singled Out, How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (2006) by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in “Singlism” (both a descriptor and the name of her 2011 compilation of writings).

Wedding couple hugging, the

Depositphotos, copyright, 2011, Kzenon

In Singled Out, DePaulo, like any good academic – she teaches at University of California, Santa Barbara – analyzed the results of a study on happiness.  She found several interesting things – “In the year surrounding their wedding date, people who married showed a tiny blip in happiness.  …. though, within a few years … the continuously married people were then, on average, no happier than they were when they were single.”   She concluded – “marriage did not make people “happy.” Typically, people who got married enjoyed a brief honeymoon effect, then went back to being about as happy or as unhappy as they were before they married.”

Interestingly, DePaulo found that “The group that started out with the lowest average happiness scores consisted of people who did marry but eventually got divorced.”  So they were unhappier to begin with.

On a personal note, I must admit this makes sense to me…  I was of the generation – or the mentality – that believed the myth that finding the “right one” was the key to happiness.  I was young and naïve then.  It has taken me years to learn that no one can make you happy.  Only you can do that.  And many of us can benefit from learning how to be happier.  This article gives some ideas on how.

A boy flies a kite

Copyright. DepositPhotos

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Depositphotos, copyright pikselstock

What’s interesting in Webster’s definition is that it implied the momentary – the fleeting – as in “over a particular thing.”  (That squares with DePaulo’s conclusion that around the date of marriage, people were found to be a bit happier).

But what about overall life happiness?  Is it just an accumulation of enjoyable, satisfying moments?  If so, is there a roadmap for these moments?

Rubin’s Happiness Project

I turned to my half-read copy of the 2009 New York Times best seller, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  Rubin says she pretty much had it all –  a good-looking successful tuned-in husband, a great writing career, a wonderful daughter, good friends, an exciting life in New York City.  Yet – she didn’t think she was happy (or happy enough).  So she set about researching happiness – and in her book cited scores of experts – from Aristotle to Martin Seligman, a psychologist who pioneered positive psychology in the early 1990s.

Man Working At Desk In Busy Creative Office

Depositphotos, copyright, monkey business

Armed with all her research, Rubin sets out on the road to “happiness,” a year-long project.  Her book is extremely detailed and supported by lots of research and great quotes on happiness.  She deals with everything from getting enough sleep to exercising to organizing her closets to parenting to showing love to being altruistic, to name a few. It all makes sense – but after a while, I was overwhelmed.

Rather than neatening my closets  (although I know that would make me happier!), I wanted an easier way to understand happiness and add to my happiness.  Would buying a new pair of shoes help?

The American way

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Depositphotos, copyright, 2010, olly18

In the U. S., the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right (our Declaration of Independence puts it right up there with life and liberty).  And most of us pursue it eagerly – through food, relationships, sex, sports, career success, exercise, electronics, hobbies, movies, clothes, cars, vacations, daily cappuccinos, beer or wine, or the dream of winning the lottery.  Lots of pursuit – but do we need all that to be happy? How about just one or two “big” ones? Will that work?  Or does our happiness – being happy – depend on a more complex, more elusive recipe?

Your state of mind

Here’s what I learned – being happy is both easier and harder than we think.  It’s easier because it’s up to us – and it’s harder because it’s up to us.

According to happiness expert Shawn Achor, material things don’t predict happiness levels.  He noted in a TedX talk YouTube video –  if we know what you have, we can only predict about 10% of your happiness level.  90% of your happiness depends on how you process the world.

Senior man with glasses reading book in living room.

Depositphotos, copyright 2013, ysbrand

It’s all about the mental lens through which you view your life and experiences.  (Might your grandmother say your attitude?)  Achor’s 21st Century terminology is “your brain at positive.”

So being happy – achieving happiness – depends on our ability to think positively about what we have and do. (Cognitive psychology says our feelings follow our thoughts – so thinking positive thoughts makes us feel better). Here’s Achor’s recipe for achieving happiness.

Five Steps to Happy in 21 Days – To do each day

1)   Write down three gratitudes

2)   Journal about something positive

3)   Exercise – get that body moving

4)   Meditate – let your brain go quiet so you can get in touch with your core self

5)   Perform an act of kindness – help or complement someone

Achor says doing these five things every day for 21 days will reprogram your brain for the positive… and therefore, happiness. (My Dahn Yoga instructor said 21 days is a kind of magic principle – 21 days creates change and rebirth.).

Different kinds of happiness

Getting positive mind, doing these five things for 21 days, especially the meditation, may lead you to something deeper – you may wonder what you really want to do with your life.  Here’s another take on what makes a happy life.

Earth. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

DepositPhotos, copyright Yaruta

According to M. Alexis Karris, Ph.D., “Though the definitions of happiness vary, a mainstream view is that there are three types of happiness: “the good life” (e.g., positive emotions, pleasure, gratification), “the engaged life” (e.g., activities that put one in a state of absorption or flow), and “the meaningful life” (e.g. Aristotle’s eudemonia; using one’s strengths towards a higher purpose; investing in something bigger than one’s self) (Seligman, 2002). Research indicates that the meaningful life is the most important and robust type of happiness (Seligman, 2002).”

So it turns out there are several kinds of happy lives – the good or pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.  These seem to relate to what you’re doing, that is, having glass of wine with a friend, enjoying a good dinner, buying the shoes or golf clubs you wanted (the good life).  Or – happiness may come from your focus on your work or hobbies – those things that challenge and engage you so you lose track of time (the engaged life).  Or you may be working to save the environment,  teaching the next generation, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or working at a non-profit dedicated to social change (the meaningful life).  Each of those, presumably, creates a kind of happiness.

Relationships

In my various other readings on what it takes to be happy, there’s consensus on the importance of having some relationships –  someone (or two) to confide in.  So having a couple of friends is important – but you don’t have to be a couple to have a couple of friends.

Doing happy

Girl with thumbs up

Sometimes it’s good to just get in touch with your inner child – and be happy about the “little” things. Photo: Depositphotos, copyright, ikostudio

So far we have – happiness is up to you, whether you’re married, coupled, or solo.  And to add to your happiness, you can read The Happiness Project and follow her guidance; you can create a positive mind and view each day with gratitude and creativity; and you can make sure you’re doing things that honor your values, whether that’s pleasure, passion for a task, or achieving some higher good, or, better yet, a combination of pleasurable moments, getting lost in a task, and doing some good in the world. Plus a dose of friendship.

So, how to explain my friend’s skittishness about the phrase “being happy being single?”  I can’t.

Happiness is a personal matter… we can only start with ourselves – then maybe all that positive mind and innate happiness will spread and bring a bit of joy or contentment – and yes – happiness to others.

For those who want some additional thoughts on happiness, I came across an organization dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, aptly called – the Pursuit of Happiness Organization.  It notes that “key areas of consensus on [happiness] variables …  include social engagement (communicating), civic engagement (caring), spiritual engagement, personal strengths and virtues, positive attitudes and regular physical exercise.  It even has a happiness quiz.

By Bojinka Bishop, April 30, 2014

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Comment(s) on What does it mean to be happy, anyway?

  1. Carol Garske says:

    Intelligent, excellently written. It is so great to have a “Singles” voice. Interesting also to read the statistics found on the topic. I look forward to the more issues.

  2. Logan Dent says:

    Interesting take on this topic. There are so many ways to measure happiness. Perhaps one of our first challenges is to figure out how we want to measure happiness for ourselves.

  3. I don’t read many blogs but when I saw “Being happy” in the browser tab of your blog, that’s what enticed me to started reading. I think it’s a GREAT choice for a tagline!

    After a 15-year relationship, I became single only 3 months ago. I started out on the usual roller coaster of upsetting emotions, but I really wanted to change my life and be happier. The key for me has been having fun and finding ways to laugh. Instead of spiraling deeper into my painful emotions, now I can spiral higher into more good feelings. It feeds on itself.

    I agree that “It’s all about the mental lens through which you view your life and experiences.” And I don’t think it should be as complicated as Rubin’s book lays out. Simplicity seems to be part of happiness! I bought some crayons and a sketchbook and found happiness drawing pictures, despite my lack of “artistic talent.” A picture of a rainbow I drew in neon colors gives me endless enjoyment.

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