Employee & Community Health

Happiness: Beyond the fleeting feel-good moment

1/7/2019 by Drs. Dagoberto Heredia and Matt Schumann

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Happiness. The quest for it is so ingrained in us that it’s even written into the Declaration of Independence: “…certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But how do we achieve it?

Happy in the moment

We all know when we feel happy — we’re filled with a sense of joy or pleasure about someone we’re with or what we’re doing. But we also know the feeling of happiness doesn’t last, no matter how much time we spend chasing after it.

Seeking what gives us meaning

What does last are the behaviors that give us a more complete, rich and meaningful life. They’re the foundation that fosters hope, optimism and a desire to engage with others. No one can tell you what gives your life meaning — it’s unique and specific to you. And finding that meaning starts by building from the inside out, by asking yourself, “What are my values, what means the most to me, what gives me a sense of purpose?”

Often things that give us happiness are right in front of us, and we let ourselves get distracted from them due to guilt, shame or worry. Take some quiet time to really think about this and jot down your thoughts about what makes you happy. Then you can start building some goals and taking the first steps to live flexibly, but consistently, with the aspects of life that make you happy. Once we’re aware of what we value, we can take action to build opportunities for happiness and meaning, rather than wait for happiness to come by.

Building inner meaning is a gradual process. For instance, if you value family, start by spending 15 minutes of uninterrupted time with your family. If the outdoors and nature fulfills you, go to the park and relish your surroundings for 10 minutes a week. These simple, and gradually increasing steps, are what build opportunities for happiness.

Every feeling is fleeting, but if you can build consistent activities into your life, that’s what will bring deep-seated, lasting happiness. Often people who are unhappy can benefit from being consistent and matching what they value with actions.

Benefits of happiness and meaning

Research shows us that happy people are healthier, live longer and have lower rates of heart disease, stroke and infection. Being positive makes us more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as eating well and getting regular exercise, which circle back and contribute to happiness.

People who are deeply happy and have meaning in their life tend to:

  • Have a network of social relationships. They want to be out and about in their neighborhoods, workplaces and even casual settings, such as coffee shops. They’re more comfortable and confident when with a group.
  • Be more productive, cooperative and creative at work. They are better able to collaborate and contribute to reaching a common goal, as well as more apt to find the middle ground.
  • Be good friends, neighbors and citizens. People with a positive mood see others more sympathetically and are more inclusive; they find ways to get along, despite differences.
  • Do good to feel good. Doing good can be volunteering, reaching across party lines, respecting cultural diversity, helping neighbors they don’t know. The more we do it, the better we feel and experience greater happiness.

Happiness in the moment is always going to slip away. But when you know what gives your life the most meaning, happiness comes along for the ride.

Dr. Dagoberto Heredia is a clinical health psychology fellow in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH).

Dr. Matthew Schumann is a clinical health psychology fellow in the Pain Rehabilitation Center and in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.