What’s in happiness? Counselling psychologist and CARITAS Malta director Dr Anthony Gatt says that what makes most people happy are when people have some money, invest in relationships, lead a simple lifestyle, live with appreciation and acceptance, are altruistic, have a good laugh and have a meaning for living.
#Happiness 1: Adequate Means To Go By
“Studies carried out on life satisfaction and well-being clearly indicate that a person who does not have adequate means to live a decent life, will experience lower levels satisfaction in life. Sometimes we hear romantic statements like “some people don’t have anything and are still happy or “be happy with what you have . These create a false perception of reality. If you are going through poverty your happiness will suffer. Material deprivation or poverty has a substantial effect on one’s happiness and satisfaction in life. Poverty is serious suffering. I have witnessed people who cannot make ends meet, who live in constant anxiety. Persons with low income who at the end of the month look helplessly at empty cupboards as they run out of money. I have witnessed persons who resort to emergency shelters with humiliation.
On the other hand, having lots of money does not necessarily make you happy. On the contrary, if the acquisition of wealth is your basic drive in life you run the risk of living a very dissatisfied life, always chasing the next acquisition. Running after material gain, is running after something which you cannot reach. Pleasure is experienced on the acquisition only to be replaced by a void and another chase. In a way it is like running after happiness and never finding it.
So basically, not having enough money to make ends meet and the feeling that you never have enough money, can both lead to unhappiness.
#Happiness 2: Meaningful Relationships
On their deathbed many people recount how at the end of the day, rather than their material acquisition or career advancement, what really counted was the quality of relationships they held with others. It is about the meaningful relationships they built, how much they succeeded to share their life with people, how much they helped those around them improve their life. People who invested in relationships look back on their life, with greater satisfaction and might feel more peaceful facing death.
What about quality in relationships? The more secure you are as a person, the healthier the relationships. Security is simply defined as , a sense of trust in self and others: trusting that you can depend on yourself and trusting that that you can depend on others. Persons who are very emotionally dependant struggle with autonomy, are not self-reliant and fear aloneness. They run the risk of staying in a relationship even if it is toxic, for fear of ending alone. On the other hand there are those who withdraw from the world because they do not trust others but only themselves. These struggle to share with others, always expecting that others will hurt them, always disappointed with others’ rejection. We need a balance of self-reliance and social support because to be able to cope and thrive there will be times when one has to stand on his/her feet alone and other times where one needs to reach out for support. This balance will help the person not despair when alone and also be able to welcome and accept the available support.
#Happiness 3: A Simple Lifestyle
There is that well-known Brazilian story of the fisherman and the entrepreneur, where the fisherman was happily enjoying his simple life which the businessman didn’t quite understand. Material things can alienate us both from ourselves and from the people around us. Materialism and consumerism decrease not increase happiness. The world we live, especially the media and the commercial world, work on this idea that if you consume this product, buy this brand or have this car, people will love you and respect you more. It is a sort of trap. If you get caught, it can rob you of happiness.
Residents at San Blas therapeutic communities and the Prison Inmates Programme describe with great joy the discovery of happiness in life’s simple things. They start to re-experience the rewarding feelings of going for a swim in the weekend after a week’s hard work, a genuine encounter, the joy of tasting chocolate on the rare occasion of receiving this treat, or even a good cry. John*, a resident at our drug rehabilitation programme described to me.. “with time I have started to experience ‘crumbs of happiness’… I still feel anxious most of the time and it is difficult for me to be happy but I have started to experience these crumbs more often .
#Happiness 4: Appreciation and Acceptance
Being able to see what is positive in one’s life and appreciating this, while embracing and accepting the fact that life cannot always be a bed of roses, has alot to do with happiness. John, the person in recovery who spoke to me about ‘crumbs of happiness’ (little moments of happiness amid several struggles) confessed that these moments help him keep going on.
When you are going through dissatisfaction or a challenging period it is particularly important to keep an eye out for good things that come your way or good things that you seek out. John described to me his appreciation for small joys in daily life, and how these helped him hang on to his recovery. He reflected on what was contributing to his feelings of fulfillment and also tried to invest in what was behind these happy moments. John described the joys of seeking out the support of his keyworker, appreciating a genuine encounter, learning to accept his difficulties rather than continuously fighting unpleasant emotions, accepting that there are times of sadness and accepting that this is part of human living. Being able to see, embrace and enjoy what is positive while also accepting that life cannot always be easy and befriending the unpleasant feelings, has a lot to do with experiencing happiness and living with difficulty peacefully.
#Happiness 5: Altruism
Acts of kindness and show of support to others is another aspect which makes people happy. Across the board, volunteers and staff at Caritas speak about the deep satisfaction of contributing to others’ lives. What one gives is received many times over in fulfillment and meaningful living. This is not to say that people who engage in pro-social behaviour and help others, do it for their own selfish intent to feel happy, however the very act of helping has this aftereffect. A person who engages in helping needs to make sure that the satisfaction of personal needs do not take over the needs of the persons receiving help. When this happens it may lead to more harm than good. This happens when for example a helper has a need to be needed and fosters the dependence of the helpee onto the helper. However if the priorities are right, helping others is a life-giving act and gives meaning and fulfilment to ones own life.
#Happiness 6: A Good Laugh
A beautician once told me that we need to laugh five times a day to keep our face muscles toned. This might well be true but surely laughter is the best medicine. Laughter releases endorphins, a pain killing, relaxing hormone. Laughter adds value to life, helps us take life with a pinch of salt, not take ourselves too seriously, ease our anxieties, helps us connect, lightens our life and makes it more fun. While I can be very serious about life I also don’t need to take life too seriously. This is paradoxical but life is all paradoxical.
#Happiness 7: A Spiritual Life: A Meaning for Living and Transcendence
What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? What is my place in the world? How do I make sense of death? Existential questions that remain unanswered add anxiety and at times despair in one’s life. We are meaning making beings. We ask questions and seek out answers. A meaning for living is like the wind in the sails of a sailing boat. We draw the energy and drive to live life in its fullness.
In my own personal journey I have found meaning in enjoying this human life while I have it, and contributing to making the world a better place to live in, I find meaning in nurturing my wife and children, I find meaning in helping others see the beauty that lies within them. I find meaning in feeling connected with others, with creation, with God. Spirituality is the part of human living that has to do with meaning in one’s life and with the experience of transcendence i.e. connecting with what is beyond you. It took me ages to come to understand the meaning of the word transcendence. I could come to understand it when I slowly started to experience a deep spiritual connection with others, with creation and God.
Is this an essential list to happiness?
This list is from personal experience, the experience of 14 years of practice as a counselling psychologist, and from research. For some, the search of happiness is straightforward, for others bumpy and for some others it might feel outright impossible. My own personal process of searching for happiness brought me to this list. It is important that we are in the process of searching. As John said, sometimes we come along ‘crumbs of happiness’ but as we become more expert in how and where to search we can come by more and more happiness and potentially also live in happiness.”
*Name has been changed.
Published: December 2018
Read more from Dr Anthony Gatt:
“I Hit Rock Bottom” – Getting The Basics Right To Get Up