Hi! My name is Kathy and I’m a happiness addict. Just about any article or podcast that explores the topic jumps to the top of my to-do list. That’s why, when I saw that The Atlantic magazine was hosting an all-day online conference called In Pursuit Of Happiness I signed up. While I only watched a small portion of it live, I later spent a couple of days listening to over a dozen speakers with a wide variety of “happy” topics. And you know what? Even though I am pretty well versed in happiness ideas and research, I learned a few things that I thought would be good to share. Interestingly enough, one of the suggestions about how to be happier included the idea that we should share anything we hold dear to us because that helps magnify the experience. So here goes!
Hosted primarily by author, Harvard professor and Atlantic columnist Arthur C. Brooks, the day began with the obvious question, “What is happiness anyway?” Brooks explained that he believes that happiness is made up of three “macro-nutrients.” They are; enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose. According to him, unhappiness isn’t the opposite of happy, it is instead when those three macro-nutrients tilt dramatically out of balance or when any one of them is missing altogether.
But Brooks doesn’t stop there. He suggests that there are four “Dishes of Happiness” that can keep our happiness, satisfaction and purpose in balance. Perhaps predictably they are faith, family, friendships and work. Of course he isn’t implying that you must be religious. Instead he teaches that faith is the need for a life philosophy bigger and more transcendent than yourself alone. That can be nature or any one of a number of things. He also doesn’t suggest that family means those directly related by blood. As for work, this is something that matters to you that you freely put out into the world. He believes each of these “dishes” need to be practiced a bit every day to keep us in balance.
While he covered a lot of ground over the course of the day, when addressing our emergence from the pandemic he offered some advice. Rather than asking ourselves: What did I miss out on during COVID? Or; What did I hate about 2020? Brooks suggests that we ask ourselves: What do I not want to go back to from before COVID? And; What did I like about 2020? By changing our focus we can learn from and grow toward great enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose in the future.
I particularly appreciated the three practical exercises Brooks offered to increase happiness. They were:
#1 Breaking The Social Media Habit. In this exercise Brooks shared that for every negative (COVID, politics, local news) you read on social media there is researched evidence that your sense of happiness decreases. Yet most of us are addicted to reaching for our phone to scroll through Facebook, Instagram or even Twitter without thinking. His suggestion is that we do a two-week experiment where we only grant ourselves 30 minutes per day on all of our Social Media accounts for two weeks. Plus, every day monitor how we are feeling emotionally and mentally. I’ve decided to take this one on myself. Want to join me?
#2 Reverse Bucket List. Brooks claims what most of us know already, that our satisfaction level is elusive. That’s because our level of satisfaction is not a function of what we have, it is actually our satisfaction divided by what we want. And our wants grow and expand especially when we focus on things like Bucket Lists. In other words, when we tell ourselves what we want (but don’t have) we decrease our satisfaction levels. His suggestion is rather than constantly adding to those lists, we slowly and consciously eliminate them by choice—hence, a reverse bucket list.
#3 Intention Without Attachment. Brooks doesn’t teach that we should just give up our intentions. In fact, he said that having a plan to get to where you want to be in the future adds to our sense of purpose and meaning. But he does recommend that if/when we have a big goal in the future, that rather than just focusing on that big goal, we break it down so that we intermediately, monthly, weekly and daily take small steps in that direction. The idea is not to focus on the end result but to set our direction along the way and enjoy the journey.
Another interesting speaker was Laurie Santos, podcast host and Professor of psychology at Yale. She reminded us that improving our social conditions and letting go of comparison were two important steps to being “happy with your life” rather than just “in” your life. Also providing good reminders was U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy. He explained that happiness to him is a combination of joy, fulfillment and meaning. Unfortunately our current definitions of success (power, wealth and fame) actually detracts from happiness. We might rather ask ourselves, “What do we want to center our lives around?” Most importantly he said, “Other people don’t gain by our lack of happiness. Instead, when we are fulfilled we are best able to contribute to the lives of others.” Murthy recommends two practices every day: 1) maintain eye-to-eye contact for at least 30 minutes a day with those you connect with (yes, even on Zoom); and 2) share a 22 second hug with someone close to you every two hours every day.
Towards the end Deepak Chopra, author and founder of the Chopra Foundation reminded us all that ultimately anything we are “pursuing” remains removed from us and is not something we embody. Instead, he believes that happiness is an eternal state within. Plus, happiness without resistance, attachment or reason is complete joy. Once we stop chasing happiness it will likely find us.
Yes there were more speakers with valuable information. But if I remember nothing else but these short ideas my level of happiness, satisfaction and purpose will stay high. Also at the top of the list is remembering as Brooks repeatedly said, “Happiness is love.” I tend to think it is short-sighted for any of us to believe we’ve read, heard or studied all there is to know about any subject—let alone happiness. Let’s keep in mind that the SMART approach is to stay open and willing to keep learning, growing and enjoying the journey as we go.
To Watch The Atlantic’s The Online Conference