Happiness Does Not Come In A Gift Box

Dr. Nancy Hurst, Ph.D

Nancy Hurst

Registered Psychologist


Is there a “happiness formula”?
How does happiness happen?

Sometimes we imagine that if we can only find the right formula happiness will somehow land in front of us and we just need to open the box. 
We sometimes think:
I will be happy when … my career is where I want it to be.
I will be happy when … I can afford the car I want.
I will be happy when … I am financially secure.
I will be happy when … I lose 40 pounds.
I will be happy when… I meet the right person.
But it seems the more we focus on an end state of happiness, the harder it becomes to hold or achieve this feeling.  

We’re being fed lies
Our culture feeds us the lie that happiness is found in material success.  This lie seduces us into over extending ourselves financial ly and leading to financial stress and sometimes crisis.  Sure it feels good to buy a special item, but the joy of buying is usually short lived.   As a counselling psychologist I have seem many clients who are very financially successful, but are unable to find happiness and create happy fulfilling relationships.  It seems clear that money can not buy happiness when we look at all the wealthy celebrities who destroy their lives with alcohol and drugs.  
 Of course a certain amount of financial security is important since we do have some basic needs like food, water and shelter.  But money beyond a certain point does not increase joy.  Carr (2004) found that after a certain level of financial needs are met money does not bring any more happiness.   The risk is that in focussing so much on financial success, we neglect the relationships that could increase happiness and meaning in life.

What is happiness?  Happiness is difficult to define because it is very personal, and reflects how we feel.   What makes one person happy may be very different from what makes another person happy.    Achor  (2010) states that scientists define happiness as the “experience of positive emotions-pleasure combined with deeper feeling of meaning and purpose”(P. 39).  I personally like Shawn Achor’s definition as “happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential” (p. 40, 2010).  Sonya Lyumbomirsky (2007) author of The How of Happiness, uses the phrase “creation or construction of Happiness” since “research shows that it’s in our power to fashion it for ourselves”.  Ultimately it is up to each individual to determine what they will need to do to increase the likelihood of creating a happy life for themselves. 

The truth about happiness   
Scientists have found that the state of happiness leads to success rather than the other way around.    For example, Diener, Nickerson and Sandvik (2002) found that how happy people are as college freshman predicted their financial success nineteen years later.  In her review of the research Lyubornisky (2007)  found that “the benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes , more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support and richer social interactions, more activity, energy, better physical health and even longer life.”   Research at the HeartMath institute  where they study the relationship between physiological measures and emotions supports this.  They report that “positive emotions tend to lead to synchronization of the body’s systems, thereby enhancing energy and enabling us to function with greater efficiency and effectiveness “(McCraty, p. 17, 2010). 
According to Happiness researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky  (2007) our state of happiness is 50% genetic, 10% circumstances and 40% personal control.  Happy people read these statistics and hear “happiness is  within my control”.  Unhappy people hear “it’s genetic and I’ll never be happy”!   Focusing on genetics leaves one feeling powerless and unnecessarily helpless to change.  In fact new research indicates that DNA is more malleable to the environment than previously believed (Lipton, 2005).    Everyone has painful life experience and it is important to grieve and work through challenges, but those circumstances do not need to destroy our lives.  

The truth is happiness is likely to follow when we begin to listen to ourselves and engage in relationships and activities that bring fulfillment rather than some elusive state of happiness.  Happy feelings (like anger, sadness, fear, etc) are a natural outpouring of internal reactions to our experiences.   A lack of happiness is likely an indication of problems in how we are living.  Happiness can be used as a barometer for how things are going, and may suggest that there is room for some changes.  By using your feelings of unhappiness as an indicator of a problem, you may need to refocus aspects of your life or address an issue.

For instance say you find you are unhappy in your marriage.   Often people look outside of their marriage for someone whom they imagine will be able to provide what their spouse seems to be lacking.  This generally leads to short-term pleasure, but long term pain.  Instead, it is often wise to turn to one’s spouse and open up discussions about what is not working in the relationship and how to improve it.   Looking for ways to pursue a loving caring relationship with your spouse may very well lead to your happiness.
If you are feeling unhappy with your life it is an opportunity to examine your decisions, what you value and how you are living.  It is important to be clear about what is important to you and base decisions accordingly, which is likely to increase your feelings of happiness.  There are a number of areas of our lives that we can examine, and insight can be gained from how happy people approach different aspects of their lives.  Happy people take ownership of their happiness, challenge their negative thoughts, value relationships, have purpose, enjoy the moment, connect with spirit, give to others, are authentic , forgive and let go of the past.

Take ownership of your happiness:
Marci Shimoff wrote the book “Happy for no Reason” after interviewing 100 people whose happiness was not based on external circumstances.    The people she interviewed reported that they feel peaceful most of the time, while still experiencing the inevitable feelings of sadness and anger that accompany difficult life events.   Most of the people she interviewed reported that they found happiness by choosing to approach life in a particular manner.   Marci found that these people took responsibility for themselves and how they lived their lives.   This means getting into the driver’s seat instead of letting others pick your direction.  Once you take charge things can really change in your life.  Decide that you are going to approach life in a positive way.   Victor Frankl who lived in a concentration camp observed that despite the horrific circumstances some people chose to take a positive approach.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. ..in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him-mentally and spiritually.  (Frankl, p.87, 1984)

Challenge your negative thoughts
 Frequently we are bombarded by negative thoughts, and often people assume the worst.  Negative thoughts can stimulate the parts of our brains involved in depression and anxiety.   We tend to have a “negativity bias” which is an inborn tendency to register negative feelings and experiences more deeply than positive ones.   If you are given 10 compliments versus one criticism what do you remember?   Happy people resist negative thoughts and do not let them take over.   The rest of us need to actively challenge this negativity bias.  Happy people notice everything good that happens to them.   This lesson is taught in the parable of the Cherokee elder.  The elder tells his grandson that the battle in your head is the battle between two wolves.  The first wolf is unhappiness, fear, worry, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment and inferiority.  The second wolf is happiness, joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth and compassion.   The grandson inquires “Which one wins?”  The Cherokee elder responds “The one you feed!”  Which wolf are you feeding?  Choose to focus on the meaningful events and good relationships in your life.   Seligman (2002) found that just by focusing on positive events for 15 days very depressed people reported to be significantly less depressed. 

 Some times it is helpful to write down negative thoughts and beliefs and actively challenge them with questions like “is that really true?” or “is that really awful or just annoying?”  Try to turn the negative into a positive and write it down.  Have you ever been upset with yourself because you make a mistake at work?  It is easy to get down on ourselves for being careless or stupid.  But the reality is that everyone makes mistakes, and errors can be seen as learning opportunities.  Happy people are able to see the positive in a negative situation.    Often it is hard to see that something good can come out of a difficult situation, but it is important to believe that you gain strength through dealing with life’s difficulties.   This does not mean that we want to suppress the hurt or anger in a difficult situation, but we do not want to dwell on it either!  It is important to feel the feelings and then search for the positives and make decisions about how to correct or prevent a similar situation from occurring. 

Value relationships:
 Let go of fears and allow yourself to open up to people and love them with all your heart.  Share all your thoughts and feelings to connect at a deeper level.    Deiner and Seligman (2002) found that the main distinguisher between the happiest 10 percent among us is the strength of their social relationships.    When women bond it releases oxytocin (chemical associated with calming), and this decreases stress.  Perhaps this is why women tend to want to talk when they are upset.    It is easy to get caught up with work and responsibilities, but it is vital to make time for family and friends.    Happy people put family and friends close to the top of their priority list.  One of the best ways to keep relationships happy and healthy and supportive is by showing appreciation.   Expressing appreciation is a win-win situation.  You will feel better by having expressed it, and the other party will feel better after receiving it.   This brings people closer together, deepening the connection between them  (Hurst, 2005).   When people feel appreciated they are motivated to repeat the behaviour.   Do you make time for friends and family?

Actually this entire article could have been about how important it is to invest in relationships rather than chasing after money and material things.  A study that has followed 268 men from the 1930’s until today and distinguishes between the happiest and unhappiest people found one central characteristic .   George Valliant, who conducted the study for 40 years stated the findings can be summarized in on word “love…” (Shenk, 2009).

Find your passion and live on purpose:
 When we are involved in work or activities that we feel passionate about we feel inspired and on purpose, which increases our sense of happiness.  Find your passion!  What activities absorb you, and make you forget about time?  What is it in that activity that you love?  Although some may decide that they need to change careers.  Often it is a matter of finding meaning in your current job.  Achor (2010) argues that finding purpose and happiness at work may be as much a mindset as it is the actual work.  What aspects of your job do you feel excited about?   Stretching yourself to pursue passions and become everything you were meant to be is living on purpose.  Living on purpose creates intrinsic happiness.   Happiness no longer needs to be pursued, it is the natural consequence of living on purpose.

Enjoy the moment :    The old cliché “take time to smell the roses” emphasizes the value in appreciating every source of beauty, and every gift that is present in one’s life.   According to Lyubomisrsky (2007)  “…those skilled at capturing the joy of the present moment--hanging on to good feelings, appreciating good things--are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt and shame”.   Focusing on love, openness, gratitude and kindness in the moment and every situation is likely to leave us feeling happier.  Living at a slower pace and embracing each moment requires making difficult decisions and may require some sacrifices.

Connect with spirit:
 Religious people are “happier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious people” (Lyubomirskky, 2007).  Believing in God gives life more meaning and purpose.    Those who believe that God created every person are more likely to value themselves and others.    When one has faith there is the knowing that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel; that no matter what the struggle you will emerge from the depths of despair.  An inspiring example of a happy person is Bethany Hamilton on whom the movie “Soul Surfer” is based.  Her arm was bitten off by a shark when she was surfing.   She almost died when she lost 60 percent of her blood in the incident.  She faced many obstacles, but ultimately it was her faith that enabled her to overcome huge obstacles to become a first place champion surfer.

Give to others:  
Cloud (2011) argues that giving and helping others feels good and creates a sense of fulfillment.   We all know how good it feels to give a gift or do something for someone that makes them feel special.  Lyubomirsky (2007) found that individuals who completed five acts of kindness over the course of a day report feeling much happier than others.  Giving to others, however, needs to be balanced with self care (Cloud, 2011).   It is important to give freely and not exceed your emotional capacity to give.  We know that we are giving too much when we start to feel resentful, drained and unhappy.   Self care means listening to your self and taking time to exercise, eat well and rest. 

Be Authentic:
“You can not be inauthentic and be happy.” (Holden, 2009) I often see really good people who have based their lives on pleasing others.  They have tried to do the “right” thing by doing what they feel is important to their parents, spouse or is seen as culturally appropriate.   When asked to do something they say “yes” without thinking about whether they are really ok with it.   Always putting other peoples’ needs ahead of our own is a recipe for unhappiness.   It is important to take some quiet time to listen to ourselves, be clear about what we want in life, and what makes us happy.   If we are clear about what is important to us, we can make choices that reflect these wishes and desires.  If we do not get in the driver’s seat of our lives and choose our direction we will likely end up somewhere we do not want to be.

A key difference between happy and unhappy people is the capacity to forgive.  We all know bitter unhappy people who hold grudges against people who have hurt or offended them.   In fact research even shows that forgiveness has physical health benefits.  Carr (2004) found that heart attack survivors who have learned to forgive are less hostile and have fewer heart problems then less forgiving people.  This makes intuitive sense as it is not hard to imagine that holding onto hurts,  thoughts of revenge and anger will leave you feeling upset.    Holding onto anger distorts current and future events in a negative way.  For example, a person that still feels victimized by a critical parent often misinterprets others comments as critical.

Deal with your past:  Sometimes it is hard to understand why we our not enjoying life more and this may be related to unhealthy beliefs about ourselves.   Messages that we received as a child can hinder us in our present life.  Sometimes these messages are very direct, for example a parent telling a child they are “useless .   Other times they are more subtle.   For example, I often hear stories from clients about how as a child they came home feeling proud of a 96% on an exam only to hear from a parent “why didn’t you get 98% or 100%”.  The message people often take to adulthood is “I must be perfect”.   Perfection is an unattainable goal that guarantees disappointment in oneself.   As mentioned earlier in this article it is important to challenge these negative beliefs.  However, sometime these thoughts are so emotionally engrained that the assistance of a counsellor is required to help unlock them.     Holding on to unhealthy beliefs can distort current events.  For example, a person that feels victimized by a critical parent may approach life with an expectation of being criticized and hear criticism even where it is not intended.

Make choices that let happiness happen:
 It is important to make choices based on our values and interests and then pursue them.    Sometimes we have to push ourselves out the door to start making some of the following changes: 
* join a sports team or pursue individual physical activity
*volunteer for a cause that is important to you
*engage in activities that foster personal growth, like book clubs or artistic outlets
*pursue academic goals or professional growth, like school or workshops
*pursue spiritual connections and growth
*disengage from destructive relationships
*show your love in tangible ways to those close to you
*focus on what you do well
*take time to say a kind word to a stranger or engage in friendly conversation
*enjoy the present moment
We think that when we achieve a certain goal we will be happy.  In fact the opposite is true.  Happiness and living an authentic life leads to financial, career and relationship success.   It is when we listen to our authentic selves and follow our passions that we create happiness in our lives.

Dr. Nancy Hurst is a psychologist in Edmonton and the Director of Compassionate Counselling Inc.


Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. Crown Publishing Group.
Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology: the Science of Happiness and Human Strengths.  Psychology Press.
Cloud, H.  (2011).  The Law of Happiness.  Howard Books.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002).  Very happy people. Psycholgical Science, 13, 81-84.
Frankly, V. (1984).  Man’s Search For meaning.  Washington Square Press.
Holden, R. (2009). Be Happy: release the power of happiness in you.  Hay House.
Hurst, N. (2005). Marriages that Promote Growth.  Marriage  & Family Review,37, 3, 47-71.
Lipton, B. (2005). Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles.  (mountain of Love).
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007).  The How of Happiness.  New York: Penguin Books.
McCraty, R. (2010). HeartMath Research Center.  Institute of HeartMath.
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting fulfilment. New York: Free Press.
Shenk, J. W. (June 2009). What makes us happy?  The atlantic monthly.
Shimoff, Marci (2008).  Happy for No Reason: 7 steps to Being Happy from the Inside out.  Free Press.
Diener, E.,  Nickerson, C., & Sandvik, E. (2002). Dispositional affect and job outcomes.  Social Indicators Research, 229-259.


Visit the author at: www.nancyhurst.ca

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