The Story of Happiness

happiness-is-a-story

Last week I wrote about how the self – our identity – is considered by many psychologists to be a kind of narrative; that the self is a story.

I briefly mentioned that, if our own identity can be seen as a story, then certainly our sense of happiness might be seen that way too.

But, to suggest such a thing, don’t we need to get to the heart of what happiness is? It seems obvious, but have you ever tried to pin down exactly how you conceive of happiness? Few of us do, and as a result it can remain abstract and half-considered, despite the hunger to pursue it that defines much of the western world.

A History of Happiness

“Since we all of us desire happiness, how can we be happy?” asked Plato in 380 BC, and – despite varying definitions of across cultures and eras – this fascination endures today. In recent years, the science of positive psychology has sought to define and measure the assorted shades of happiness, with varying success. Perhaps that is the real seduction of happiness: that we can’t quite define it in truly fixed terms because it is as intricately woven and unique as our DNA.

Is happiness simply an emotion, or a state of being? Is it a gift, or a skill? Does it rely on quality, or quantity? And what does it look like? Is it big, or small? Loud, or lightly whispered? Does it sparkle, or sigh?

Happiness is a tricky mistress; because everybody
 seems to classify her differently, and sometimes what we think will make us happy doesn’t quite do the job in the way we’d hoped. This is why it can be helpful to try to define (and, perhaps, regularly redefine) happiness, because the more sincere the definition, the more it can serve us; offer us a reason for being; be our mission should we choose to accept it…

A good way to begin to conceptualise your own story of happiness, is to think about what you stand for.

What kind of happiness do you stand for?

John Lennon famously said, in regard to his politics, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if your happiness doesn’t stand for something – if your idea of it is vague, or simply inherited from others (the media, your culture etc.) – you might find you’ve being accepting mediocre and unfulfilling versions of it. Maybe for you happiness is political; maybe you believe in a universal basic income, or a share-economy. Maybe happiness is freedom: from the dreary office cubicle or student debt.

Far be it from me to supply you with a narrative for happiness, the task is yours and yours alone. Yet, if you’ve ever pondered “will [insert person/job/object here] make me happier?” then it stands to reason that you should have a clear (albeit evolving) definition – a story – of happiness. How else could we ever hope to glean authentic answers to such questions?

One of my favourite definitions of happiness is this one:

“Happiness can’t be reduced to a few agreeable sensations. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world—a profound fulfilment that suffuses every moment and endures despite inevitable setbacks.” — Matthieu Ricard

 

I think I’m pretty happy with that as my ‘story of happiness.’ What about you?

Try It: Write the Story of Your Happiness

If you want to explore your very own story of happiness – to begin to paint a clearer picture of this oft elusive seductress – as always: I suggest you write it out. Start a blank page in a journal or notebook, and begin with the words:

Happiness is…

Then, without stopping, editing, or censoring yourself, write for five minutes. Inevitably, you’ll have been carrying around some definitions that you’ve inherited but that may not suit you anymore, and in my experience the longer you write, the further you get beyond these ‘stock’ answers. You might find it helpful to write a ‘Happiness isn’t…’ list too, if you sense you’ve got some pretty stubborn definitions to shake off.

This ‘free-write’ doesn’t have to make much sense, think of it more as a cleansing ritual: a way to rinse away any particularly sticky or stale stories. You may even choose to do the exercise two or three times. As I say, the longer you write, the clearer you usually get.

My hope is that, eventually, you’ll strike gold, and by that I mean you’ll get a definition that makes you think, “hallelujah, that’s it! That’s what it’s all about!” It might be as succinct as a few words, or a long and elaborate manifesto, whatever feels right. Keep going until you get there.


Share?

If you want to share a snippet of your story – or a favourite quote like mine – I’d love to see it! You can either post it in the comments below, email it to me megan[at]meganchayes[dot]com or share it on Instagram with #happinessisastory and tag me @megan.c.hayes so I definitely won’t miss it.

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The Story of Self: Who are you anyway?

self-as-story

Meet Jane.

Jane: The facts

Jane is 28, lives in a large US city, works for a medium-sized corporation, is recently married and comes from a big family.

Yawn. Not very interesting, is it?

Why? Because these are the facts of Jane, yet they don’t give away much about her. We don’t know Jane from this report of the key aspects of her life. If Jane read this account, she probably wouldn’t see much of who she feels she really is in it. If her friends read it, they’d probably think ‘that could be any one of my friends.’

The problem with the description as a way to really know Jane is that it lacks personality; it lacks a story.

In fact, many psychologists would say that’s exactly what personality is: a story we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, and to others; a story we author and co-author with our culture and those close to us.

“Identity itself takes the form of a story, complete with setting, scenes, character, plot and theme.” – Dan P. McAdams

 

Could this be true? And how might this affect the way we look at our lives? Or our happiness?

Let’s look again at Jane.

Jane: The story

What if I told you Jane grew up on a coffee farm in central America; that she began painting as a child and then moved to North America to study Fine Art at college where she met Joe, who wanted to be a pilot? What if I told you that she’s taken the job at Dull Corp. so that Joe can finally get his pilots licence and they’ll be able to save and start a family, who they’ll eventually move back to Central America to enjoy the same happy childhood years? Then Jane will finally have the time to paint again, the thing she really loves.

Now do you feel you know Jane a little better? This is Jane’s story. This is how Jane knows Jane. This is how friends, and family, and husband Joe, know Jane.

Why is this important?

I think this illustrates that the meaning, purpose and value of our lives are not often found in the facts alone, like what we do, where we live, or who we know. Meaning, purpose and value are found in the stories we choose to tell; the stories whereby we weave these facts into something more than the sum of their parts.

As McAdams writes: “Life stories are based on biographical facts, but they go considerably beyond the facts.” He adds that people “appropriate aspects of their experience and imaginatively construe both past and future to construct stories… that vivify and integrate life.”

Whether or not this theory is ‘true’ (and the debate continues amongst psychologists) I think it’s useful. I think it empowers us, because it gives us permission to be creative with our own lives; to retell unhelpful stories, as we might do in CBT for example. It helps us to think of disruptions to our story as plot twists rather than conclusions. It helps us to keep going in the tough times, flourish in the good and perhaps even to be wild optimists. Because, of course, if our very identities are organised as stories, then certainly our sense of whether we are happy or not is a part of this story, if not a story of it’s very own. I think this is pretty revolutionary, especially for the field of positive psychology.

Try It: Write the Story of Your Self

How might we apply this theory to our own lives? Have a go at the same exercise I did with Jane, but with your self as the subject.

Step 1

Write purely the facts about your life, as I initially did with Jane. This will probably feel dry, and dull and not like you at all, and this is a great way to remember we are not defined by the facts of our lives alone.

Step 2

Tell your story. Write a brief paragraph that sets out the evolving narrative of your life as succinctly as possible, with an eye on your remembered past, a taste of the present and a glimpse of your imagined future. If you need help getting started, use my example of Jane as a template:

I grew up [where?] and I began [what?] as a child.
I moved to [where?] to [study/work] and I met [lover, business partner, best friend] who [tell us something of their story].
I took a job at [where?] so that I could [work my way up the ladder/save for my other big dream].
In the future I will [move/travel/start a family] because that’s the most important thing to me.

If the story feels meaningful and rich with purpose, then you can stop here. If it doesn’t, why not try a further exercise: rewrite the story. Rewrite it and rewrite it again until you hit on a version that feels meaningful, whether your focus is in the past, present or future. Try writing in both the first and third person. Notice any difference in how this feels. Importantly, this may not be something you feel able to do in one sitting, and that’s fine; take a few days or even weeks to work on your rewrites, remembering that our stories are constantly evolving and it’s not necessary to have your story “figured out.”

I believe this exercise is potentially very powerful because, if psychologists such as McAdams are right, who we are is never a fixed and idle thing; personality is a fluid and evolving narrative that, rather than being a storyline we’re stuck with, is a story we get a lifetime to edit and re-tell.


Share?

If you want to share, I’d love to see your story. You can either post it in the comments below, email it to me megan[at]meganchayes[dot]com or share it on Instagram with #happinessisastory and tag me @megan.c.hayes so I definitely won’t miss it.

Did you like this? Let the world know: