If you’re looking for a quick dopamine hit, you might spend a few minutes scrolling on social media, make a random impulse purchase online, or boost your endorphins with a workout. But what about fostering long-term, sustainable happiness?
Academics have long researched the secrets to living a happy life, but with global searches of ‘how to be happier’ reaching an all-time high this year, it’s a prime time to seek out ways we can deliberately foster more joy in our day-to-day.
Happiness is subjective, and it means different things to different people, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Nevertheless, therapist and psychologist Professor Stephen Joseph says there are some key steps we can all take to cultivate more positive emotions in our lives.
Drawing from over three decades of experience working with clients and researching post-traumatic growth, Joseph has condensed his discoveries into six key lessons, which he details in his latest book, ‘Think Like a Therapist: Six Life-changing Insights for Leading a Good Life’. Here, we asked him to share just a few of the key insights he’s gathered from the therapist’s chair.
1. Learn from post-traumatic growth
Whether it’s dealing with grief, experiencing heartbreak and betrayal, or encountering a life-changing accident, trauma can shatter your worldview and lead to a wide array of mental health issues, including PTSD, disruptions in sleep patterns, anxiety, and depression.
But in recent studies, researchers have found that as many as 70% of trauma sufferers experience a fascinating concept called post-traumatic growth – positive psychological changes that can arise after facing a challenging or traumatic event.
“Most people affected by trauma wouldn’t consider the experience positive, or ever wish to relive it. However, there can also be an acknowledgement that amidst the terrible hardships, they’ve undergone a type of personal development, discovered new strengths, or adopted a more positive perspective on life,” explains Joseph.
After conducting extensive studies on this phenomenon, Joseph believes that there’s something valuable for everyone to learn from it, regardless of whether we’ve personally experienced trauma.
According to him, anyone can acquire the ability to view the world through this fresh perspective, cultivating gratitude for friends and family, and reassessing what truly matters in life. By doing so, we open ourselves up to experiencing higher levels of life satisfaction.
“One of the very specific features of post-traumatic growth is a recognition that it time is precious and shouldn’t be squandered,” says Joseph. “Studies have shown, time and time again, that events that confront people with their own mortality seem to be a springboard to positive changes in outlook:”
In this way, Joseph says that trauma can teach people what really matters to them, and who really matters too. “So few of us are prioritising what we know to be important, as we’re overwhelmed by day-to-day, trivial concerns,” he notes.
So how can we adopt a post-traumatic growth mindset? “Reflect on the fact that life is limited, but turn into a productive thought by thinking about how you can spend this precious time, rather than being distracted by momentary pleasures,” Joseph says. Having an awareness of death might sound a little grim, but it can motivate you to make wiser decisions and live a life that’s uniquely meaningful to you.
2. Accept yourself, flaws and all
In the age of social media, the relentless pursuit of more can lure us into believing that our happiness hinges solely on attaining the ‘next big thing.’ Whether it’s more money, clearer skin, a better car, or a new wardrobe, comparisons to others can deceive us into thinking that ‘fixing’ ourselves holds the key to happiness.
However, constantly measuring ourselves against those seemingly possessing more desirable traits or achievements can plunge us into feelings of envy, discontentment, and self-doubt.
“As humans, we’re shaped by the messages around us, easily influenced by societal standards,” explains Joseph. “Each generation learns what’s supposed to matter. We seek happiness by ticking boxes or seeking validation from others.”
The ability to embrace ourselves, flaws included, and grant self-love and acceptance regardless of our imperfections is pivotal to a happy life. Science supports this notion; individuals whose self-worth relies on their internal compass, rather than external opinions, tend to report lower levels of depression and anxiety.
“When we release ourselves from others’ expectations, we gain the freedom to be authentic,” Joseph emphasises. A high-powered city job might seem impressive on paper, and we might excel at it, but does it truly fullfil us, or does it lead to burnout and despair? Liberated from expectations and external pressures, we can explore new paths, embrace failure and craft a version of happiness that may defy convention.
3. Remember that happiness is a direction, not a destination
“When people are at their best, they are living their life to their full potential, doing things that they find meaningful and purposeful, feeling pleasure and joy in their activities, and are engaged in rewarding and intimate relationships,” says Joseph.
Each of us is on a journey to find who and what makes us tick, consistently reevaluating our goals along the way. “What we learn is that happiness is not a destination,” emphasises the therapist.
If we’re persistently enduring an unhappy ‘today’ in hopes of a brighter future, we’re neglecting what truly matters. This might mean staying in an unsatisfying relationship, enduring a job solely for financial reasons, or delaying pursuits we truly desire. While it’s cliché to say that we should live each day as if it’s our last, this mindset prevents us from squandering time, realising that happiness isn’t a distant state but something we can relish every day.
“Imagine yourself in your eighties, reflecting on your life from a rocking chair. What advice would that older version of you offer you right now?” prompts Joseph. Very few us would wish we’d spent more time on social media, that’s for sure.
With this perspective, we can prioritise the pursuit of happiness, waking up daily to lead a purposeful, authentic, and meaningful life. The best version of ourselves isn’t defined by material possessions, social status or an outward digital display of who we are online; it’s when we’re content and comfortable in our own skin.