I want everyone to be happy. I want people to choose careers, mates and hobbies that make them happy.
I know a few people who never seem to be happy. One misfortune leads to a domino effect of unhappiness. While things for me don’t always go exactly as I’d planned or hoped, I’m usually able to tell myself that the pain or unhappiness part is only temporary, or that something good will come of it.
Side note: I don’t believe that fate will just take over and turn the bad things into good things. It’s about our mindsets. When bad things have happened, life has almost always turned out perfectly fine “in the end.” It’s not because fate stepped in, it’s because I had to stop the situation from sucking. And things didn’t become awesome instantly – it took time. Usually a lot of un-fun, unspectacular time that eventually resulted in a positive outcome. Maybe not the positive outcome I originally wanted or expected, but a positive one nonetheless.
How do we all make these decisions about whether to play the victim or “control our own destiny”? Why are some people able to keep an optimistic outlook, even when they encounter life’s setbacks, while others can never seem to get over any of the setbacks they’ve experienced?
How we define happiness
I’ve talked about defining success – the two can be intertwined. For me, being successful means I’m happy. But everyone’s definitions of success can be different. For some, just because they’re happy doesn’t also mean they’re successful. And for so many more, they might think of themselves as successful but they are absolutely miserable.
Why is this?
Part of it has to do with setting expectations. For a lot of people, setting expectations comes from external sources: our parents, extended family, neighbors, friends, coworkers and now social media.
Social media makes us constantly compare ourselves to one another. We compare our opinions on controversial things and about where we are in life and what should make us happy. If I get an email from my boss that says I epically failed on something at work, I won’t take a picture of it and post it on Facebook. Why? Because Facebook isn’t a place to tell everyone about my failures – it’s a place for me to post my perfectly staged holiday photos that took 80 tries for ONE DECENT PHOTO where one of my eyes isn’t more squinty than the other.
People post all the things that make their lives look happy and fulfilling and flattering. But that’s a sliver of what’s happening in their lives. A couple may post a photo where they’re smiling big for the camera, but in reality, they fight every night. A family might post a photo that makes them look like one big happy family, but in reality, Aunt Ida openly hates Aunt Judy, Mom just said something offensive to your new boyfriend because of his neck tattoo, and your nephew runs around the house screaming because your sister hasn’t disciplined him one day of his life.
All we see is a simple photo with smiling people. We compare our entire lives to that and wonder what’s wrong with us, our relationships, our families. The truth is that lots of things are wrong with you, but they’re wrong with everyone else too. You just don’t get to see it.
You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. This is somewhat unfortunate, because our family members can have such a huge impact on how we see and approach the world. I know there’s nature versus nurture. I think a lot of how we “turn out” as adults has to do with what we experienced as kids. However, I do think that we all have the choice – and obligation, really – to try to think critically about what we experienced, interpret what happened and assess the results. But not everyone thinks that way, or we think that way sometimes, yet hold onto beliefs passed down to us from our families in other cases. Some of those things we hold onto can be detrimental to our potential for happiness.
For example, if your parents expect you to become a surgeon because that’s what your mom/dad did, you might think 1) you can only be happy if you become a surgeon, even though you don’t really enjoy the school work required and you faint at the sight/thought of blood, or 2) you’ll never please your parents because you know you don’t want to be a surgeon and they’ll never approve of anything else you’d choose to do.
The rest of our world can influence what we think will make us happy. They can set expectations about whether we should go to school, what kind of job we should have, what kind of house we live in, etc. All of these things that are so impactful in the equation of what makes us happy, yet it’s being influenced by people who might be in our lives for less than a handful of years.
The people with whom we interact – both in-real-life and virtually – all have an effect on how we define what makes us happy. I’ve focused on how they negatively impact our happiness, which isn’t fair. Social media, our families and everybody else sometimes help us see a completely different perspective we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. But we have to be careful about how we process that information.
This article is the beginning of a series on happiness. I’ve always wondered how people’s decision-making impacted their happiness, and how that influences future decisions. Because of this, I’ve been reading about happiness, trying to understand why we crazy humans do what we do. I’m hoping I can use that information to help the less-happy people in my life approach things differently. Life’s too short to be miserable.
In future posts, I’ll share some of the barriers to happiness and what we can do to change. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on happiness or how you developed your definition of happiness, I’d love to hear it.