Like it or not, quite often in life we find ourselves feeling unhappy. It’s a natural state, just like any other emotion. The difference is that happiness is one of those emotions we want to hold onto forever, no matter what. When we can’t keep the happiness flowing we feel like there is something wrong with us, or with our lives.
In his 1949 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl took his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and transformed them to apply to average people and everyday life. Frankl said the last of the human freedoms is, “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Many years later, Frankl observed, “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.'” Most advertising seeks to tell us we can acquire happiness simply by making the right purchases, while society tells us we need to be the “right” type of person to be happy. “But,” Frankl recognized, “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
The challenge is happiness is a present moment emotion. It comes and goes, just as frustration or anger can. It can be very difficult to hold on it over long periods of time. If you try, you’ll feel happiness morph into resentment, as you look back on how you felt in the past. Looking for happiness in the future brings excitement and anticipation, but also worry that the happiness might not be achieved. Pure happiness is only in the moment. It can be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be bottled.
Science tells us that emotions are simply a cocktail of chemicals in our brain. There is no one “happiness” chemical, but rather four primary ones to keep in mind: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These levels rise and fall throughout the day based on the body’s ability to generate them, and the ability of neurons to receive them, and we experience these rises and falls as moods. It’s the meaning we put towards those moods that makes them desirable to not ― not the moods themselves. Happiness is one most of us desire above all others.
Frankl suggested that, instead of looking for happiness in an of itself, we should look for meaning. Lasting happiness ensues when one has found one or more meanings to their existence. We can ‘bottle’ our happiness when we recognize those meaningful elements of our lives that bring happiness into our present moment.
For many, meaning can come from the responsibility of caring for a child, or sharing a life with a loved one. For others, it’s the desire to complete an unfinished work or larger accomplishment; to leave our mark on the world. No matter what the drive, we all have these “whys” in our lives. But present day hardships and frustrations can often obscure those elements that give our existence meaning.
Frankl advises us to be conscious of the ‘whys’ in our lives, no matter how small. He recommends constantly reminding ourselves of the goals we have set that have put us on our current paths. These ‘whys’ can motivate us and give us have perspective when the emotions of daily life become too much. They can build appreciation for what we have, and return our focus to the people and things that truly matter to us. Often, just concentrating on these ‘whys’ can help us to generate the feelings of happiness associated with them. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” says Frankl.
Think of times when you have felt happy, or when your life has felt most full of meaning? What circumstances often surround those feelings of happiness for you? Can you identify the ‘whys’ beneath those circumstances? What is one concrete way you can remind yourself of these ‘whys’ when times get tough?
“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” ― Benjamin Franklin