Some years back I read a book by two researchers in search of what makes people happy. Beyond general curiosity, my motives were somewhat selfish: I wanted to find out what the secret to happiness so to apply it to myself and be happy.
Finding the “happy people”
I still remember the researchers approach. It was different from what I expected and has stuck with me since then: they did not come from a nerdy angle that started with lengthy definition for “happiness” along with complex parameters and complicated metrics as you may expect. These two researchers went out to find “happy” people by hearsay and then interview them to identify commonalities or factors leading to their happiness – and the very secret to happiness I was after.
Looking back, the researchers used the power of crowd sourcing (long before it became a household buzzword) to find those happy people. In this practical yet somewhat fuzzy approach, they asked broadly who knew people that were “happy”. Then zeroed in on those reportedly happy individuals that several others pointed to. It may not be the most “scientific” approach I ever heard but intuitively it made sense enough for me to accept it and read on.
The researchers found and interviewed, asking if these people felt truly happy and to found out what exactly made them so happy.
The responses surprised me. Most of them, as I recall, did not consider themselves “happier” than others in a particular way despite the many people around them believing otherwise. Of these presumable happy people, most appeared modest and content with their lives. Their happiness came from within and somehow ‘radiated’ out to others.
Overall, they were happy with what they had and not driven by the longing for things they did not have. It seemed they were more resilient or less tempted in what is advertised and suggest making us more beautiful, happy, smart, sophisticated, loved, needed, sexy, admired, or whatever once we buy this or that.
No problems in life?
It got even more interesting for me when the researchers got to the real ‘meat’ probing the million-dollar question: where does this inner happiness come from? Was there an event, experience, or cause? Were these people luckier in life than others, did they win the lottery? Did they not face the same obstacles that most of us encounter; did they not experience pain or feel despair as much?
The answer was a surprise, again, from what I had expected and consistent across responders. What these reportedly happy people had in common were traumatic life experiences, some of the saddest I have ever heard. They had suffered the most painful challenges a human can ever go through; heart-wrenching life stories full of grief with loss and pain on every level imaginable. They had faced certain death, lost loved ones or their health, survived war, crime, assault or terrible disasters. They had lost everyone and everything important to them, everything that they had considered the center of their life at that time.
What they also had in common was a deep gratitude for having overcome these major losses and crises. They were grateful for what they had today starting with their own life. Their happiness truly came from within. They did not crave getting the newest gadget first or show off status symbols of sorts. They were happy being with their friends and family, and going about a simple life they enjoyed every minute. They found beauty again in a flower and took the time to sniff it when others rushed by.
As a learning from these ‘happy’ people for myself, their happiness resulted from enduring a deep and meaningful suffering, overcoming a life-changing trauma and then to truly appreciate that you survived or made it through in the end to live another day.
It even reminds of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, where to protagonist need to descend to Hell (suffering) and work its way up through Purgatory (transformation) to reach Paradise (happiness).
To this day, it serves me as a reminder to value and cherish what I have and can do, and not to become obsessed with what I do not have.
Looking into the abyss
Now we could leave it here to sit back, smile, and cozily reflecting on our lives feeling good for a little while. But why not take it further and ask the ultimate question: looking back when I die, what would I have done different, what would have made me happier?
Obviously, we do not want to wait to find an answer before it is too late. So, let’s crowd-source again and learn from other people at the end of their lives looking back. Thankfully, an Australian nurse recorded the regrets of the dying she worked with over a 12-year period. (The Guardian, Top five regrets of the dying, February 1, 2013)
Here are their top five regrets:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Read the list again. Take a minute and think about it. – Do any of these regrets resonate with you? What would be your greatest regret?
Now that you know what these soon-to-die people wished they had done differently in their lives, what will you do in the time you still have?
But how does this all come together? What is the change within us that in the end made the ‘happy people’ happy? I was still looking for answers, for a pattern and an explanation to this phenomenon.
Let’s take just one step back to look at the bigger picture and combine the path of hardship to happiness by the ‘happy people’ with the regrets of the dying. Is there a general formula that we can apply to ourselves to be happy?
Attempting an explanation
I don’t claim to have scientific evidence, nor did I mull through endless scientific literature, or study medicine or psychology; to me the answer I found appears quite apparent and not new either. It is known as “post-traumatic growth” in the medical world and defined as “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”
A change takes place in individuals during post-traumatic growth that transforms mind, attitude, and behavior:
- Priorities change – they are not afraid to do what makes them happy
- Feeling close to others – they seek and value closeness with people that are important in their lives
- Knowing oneself better – they are awareness of their own needs and limitations
- Living with meaning and purpose – they enjoy each day to the fullest, carpe diem!
- Better focus on goals and dreams – actively seeking to making changes
This transformation changed the ‘happy people’ consciously or unconsciously, and it is this behavior and mindset that others see or sense, which leads them to the conclusion they are happy.
How to be happy
Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could replicate this this transformation and become happy without having to go through the hardship and suffering these happy-after-tragedy people all had to go through? – The good news is you can!
From what I learned from Jane McDonigal, a famous game designer, the favorable result of post-traumatic growth can build four specific individual changes:
- Physical resilience – to not give in to sedentary behavior, meaning to get up and active, physically move!
- Mental resilience – build up your willpower to persist in reaching for your goals
- Emotional resilience – provoke your positive emotions to offset negativity (ideally in a ratio of 3:1, no kidding!)
- Social resilience – draw strength from other people; as a practical approach, genuinely thank one person a day or touch another person for at least 6 seconds.
Everyone can benefit for this simply by choosing to do so. It gets even better: over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies confirm that applying these changes can prolong your life by up to 10 years! Amazingly, not only are the ‘happy people’ obviously happy, they also live longer!
So if you are in search for your happiness, as I was, chose to make these personal choices and start your transformation to happiness today!