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Happiness can be quite a paradox. Every human being wants to be happy, but the more you try to pursue it, the more it seems to evade you. “Many times when you ask people if they are truly happy, they take a little time to think and then come with the answer no,” says Dr Adel Karrani, Consultant Psychiatrist and Deputy CEO at American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

How can this be possible? Could it be you’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places? The pursuit of happiness seems to be such a big deal. On the internet and in bookstores, a thousand gurus tout different remedies for human misery. 

Researchers all over the world are still persevering to find out why it eludes most of us and how we can find ways to attain happiness.

Recently we have seen a dramatic rise in scientific studies on positive psychology and the science of happiness, or to put it simply, discovering what makes people happy. Fortunately, many of these studies point to precise ways of thinking and acting that can strongly influence our sense of well-being and happiness. The findings are now enriching the practices of counselling, clinical psychology, psychiatry and life coaching. 

“Actually psychology, or let’s say mental health, plays a great role in people reaching their state of happiness,” says Dr Karrani. “When you look at happiness, one of the most important factors is health. And everyone knows that one’s physical health is never complete without mental health. So for someone to be happy, it’s not enough to just be mentally stable. You need to be positive too. Therefore, psychology does play a huge role in every aspect of our lives, in making us happy and for our overall well-being.” 

Chasing away happiness

Research suggests people who strive to feel happy all of the time may suffer disappointment, and people who pursue happiness as if it were the only thing that matters may, ironically, chase happiness away. 

“Actually happiness is a state of mind and if your mind is happy, nothing will slip away from you,” says Dr Karrani. “Look at it this way, if you are happy you wouldn’t worry about anything in the world. The pursuit of happiness is the issue. It depends on where you’re looking to pursue happiness. A lot of people go after happiness in a completely wrong direction, which is let’s say in a depressed or a sad direction. That’s why people get lost and happiness slips through their hands.

“For example if your family life brings you joy, but you are more concerned about your job and are working hard towards a career that’s depressing you, then you are ignoring your true happiness that’s your family. This is important to note. If you understand what makes you happy you will never lose that thing. However, on the road to happiness many of us need guidance to discover the proper direction to reach there.” 

Science shows that happiness not only feels great but also envisages better physical health and even great performance at work, particularly in this fast-paced world where our jobs become the centre of our lives. “Part of the assessment of happiness is productivity and we all know that it is inversely related to our psychological state,” says Dr Karrani. “If someone is positive psychologically, they will be extremely productive. However, if they are suffering from any mental illness, their productivity will be significantly reduced, leading to them taking a lot of sick leaves, doing nothing at all, staying in bed all the time, or even quitting their jobs. So having a positive state of mind is extremely important to happiness.”

Be positive

Indeed, some studies show personality traits such as optimism and pessimism can make a difference in many areas of health and well-being. The positive thinking that usually comes with optimism is vital in effective stress management. And this is associated with many health benefits. 

“It is not just about feeling positive or negative, but it’s more to do with having a healthy mental state,” says Dr Karrani. “You have to be able to do what you need to do in an appropriate way. Also you must enjoy what you’re doing. Whether you’re studying, working, or a parent, if you’re doing what is expected from you in a right way without causing any negativity around, then you are feeling positive.” 
So what should one look for if you’re not feeling positive? Dr Karrani says look for signs such as the feeling that you are lagging behind, for instance if you are employed but just can’t perform, a mother unable to manage her children, a father who can’t look after the family, you have issues with your friends or family, you have trouble physically — with your sleep, aches and pains. This means there is something that is not stable at your mental level and that’s when the person needs proper assessment from a psychiatrist to know if he or she can be helped. 

“It is important to keep our eyes open to see if we are doing what we are supposed to do in the right manner. If the answer is no, then there is something amiss and it is mainly a mental issue,” he says.

Despite popular perception, people who think positive don’t always see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Positivity expert Joffrey Suprina, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Behavioural Sciences at Argosy University, says part of effectively adopting a positive mindset is training yourself to become a realistic optimist.

“Many people think positive thinkers only look at the good side and ignore everything else,” he says. “But if you go too much in that direction, there’s a potential for harm as well. 

“Positive thinkers are individuals who recognise both the bright side and the negative, but they choose to focus their energy and time on the side that’s going to promote the most positive outcome.”

There are also many people who seek happiness through physical possessions. Researchers even have a phrase for this temporary fulfillment: retail therapy. Can it fully satisfy our desire for happiness?  

“It is very important to recognise that owning things does not make us happy,” explains Dr Karrani. “The most important criteria of happiness is enjoying what we have regardless of whether it is very little or a lot. The ultimate aim is to be satisfied with what we have.”  

We want more

One of the main reasons why having more stuff doesn’t always make us happy is that we adapt to it. “Human beings are remarkably good at getting used to changes in their lives, especially positive changes,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California. 

“If you have a rise in income, it gives you a boost, but then your aspirations rise too. Maybe you buy a bigger home in a new neighbourhood, and so your neighbours are richer, and you start wanting even more. You’ve stepped on the hedonic treadmill. Trying to prevent that or slow it down is really a challenge.”

The best approach is to consciously try to foster appreciation and gratitude for what you have. The whole process of adaptation, after all, comes from taking what you have for granted, so you can slow it down by reminding yourself of why you value what you have.

“As I’ve said earlier, people look for happiness in the wrong direction, the right way is to just be happy with what you have,” says Dr Karrani. “Try to find things that give you enjoyment and do not pursue happiness just by collecting stuff.”