The Pursuit of Happiness

When I get what I want, then I will be happy. 

I’ll be happy when I’m rich. I’ll be happy when I have an expensive vehicle. I’ll be happy when there is a Trader Joe’s in Amarillo and when the construction is done on I-40. It’s easy to believe that happiness will come when you get whatever you want. But these ideas are known as “conditional happiness,” and rarely, if ever, work.

There are better ways to live a happier life, including techniques rooted in ideas that have been around for centuries. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a modern counseling technique that is very effective for depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, eating disorders, and much more. The basis of CBT can be traced back several thousand years to a philosophy known as Stoicism.* Many of the techniques used by the Stoics can still be very effective today when searching for a more meaningful, fulfilling life. 

The Stoics sought the ability to be content with whatever life hurled at them. Can you bravely face life’s challenges, can you bounce back from adversity, can you be a source of strength and inspiration to others when they are facing life’s challenges? 

Below are a few of the strategies that were used way back then to be truly happier—and are still proven effective today:

Focus on What You Can Control
We can control some situations, but we can’t control everything around us. Focusing on things you can’t control does not increase your happiness. In fact, it can lead to what Buck Owens and Roy Clark described as “gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep, dark depression, excessive misery.”

So put your best efforts into focusing on what you can control and try not to worry about what may—or may not—happen later. 

Let Go of Anxiety and Regret
Research shows that letting go of resentment and regret as we grow older increases contentment and happiness, and holding on to these grudges and regrets causes us to take more aggressive and risky actions. The healthiest and happiest people become aware of the negative emotions they have held on to, and then choose to let them go.

Do Good for Others to Feel Good About Yourself
Every person we cross paths with presents us with an opportunity for kindness. Consequently, they also provide us an opportunity to find happiness. If you want to feel better today, be of service. Think less about your own problems and try to help others with theirs. You’ll be amazed at the effect this can have—on both you and them.

Exercise
We know exercise is good for your physical health. It also releases endorphins that minimize stress, depression and anxiety. Getting out of your head and into your body can be very valuable for your mood. Any daily physical activity that helps a person get away from the noise of everyday life is valuable. Walking, fitness classes, lifting weights, yoga, running, riding your bike … all of these are ways to improve your mood. 

Connect with Others
Starting a conversation with a stranger has been shown by research to have positive effects on the mood and well-being of the person who initiates the conversation. Research also shows that the person with whom the conversation was initiated was equally positively impacted. Try stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging someone in conversation. 

Do Less
So many of the things that we think we must do, and so much of what we end up doing, turn out not to be important. We do it out of guilt, laziness or even out of greed. Take some stress off of yourself and figure out what you can cut out of your routine. And don’t feel guilty about saying “no” if someone asks you to do something when your plate is already full.

Take Time to Be Grateful
Stop and notice what is going on around you. There is a lot that we take for granted. Feeling and showing gratitude has been shown to help people feel more positive emotions, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. There are many opportunities to say thanks, so try and take them.

Laugh
Stressful experiences in everyday life suppress the immune system, which increases the risk of infectious illness and heart disease. A good laugh can help prevent stress from accumulating and affecting the immune system, protecting you from disease. Research has found that laughter can increase oxygen to the heart, lungs and muscles, increase endorphins, improve your mood and reduce physical pain.

We think we need a lot to be happy. However, we’ve seen other people achieve what they think is the perfect dream life, and we find out they are miserable. You already have what you need to be more fulfilled, and happiness will not be decided by outside events. The person who can be grateful and focus on what is good in their existence will lead a more fulfilling and happier life. 

*“Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy” By D. Robertson and T. Codd, The Behavior Therapist, vol. 42, no. 2, Feb 2019

Author

  • Jim is the chief executive officer of Family Support Services of Amarillo (FSS), a not-for-profit agency that traces its roots back to 1908, offering counseling and behavioral health services; advocacy services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking (including Amarillo’s only Safe House for survivors), education and prevention programs for at-risk children, families and adults; and a full-service Veterans Resource Center for veterans, their family members and surviving spouses. Jim has worked in the behavioral health care field for more than 20 years, and has undergraduate and graduate degrees from WTAMU.