Becoming happier yields many benefits: Your physical immune system strengthens, relationships grow, productivity and creativity increase, and overall performance at work or in school improves. Even without all these benefits, the value of happiness lies in the fact that it simply feels good to feel good. It’s in our nature to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and want to experience the flutter of joy rather than the weight of suffering.
But there’s a real problem. Studies suggest there is harm in placing too much value on happiness or on becoming happier. UC Berkeley psychologist Iris Mauss (and subsequently others) showed that people for whom happiness is very important—who claim happiness is a key value of mine—end up being less happy and feel lonelier in the world.
Constantly reminding yourself how important happiness is—and how much you want it—can backfire. This is the paradox of happiness: The more we value it and therefore want it, the more elusive it is.
If we’re trying to become happier, then how do we resolve this paradox? Maybe self-deception? Do we fool ourselves by pretending we don’t care, while secretly, deep down, we do? Do we tell ourselves, I don’t want to be happy (wink wink) . . . ? This gets complicated! Fortunately, there is a solution. We can pursue happiness indirectly.
These elements each contribute to whole person wellbeing and are key to attaining more happiness. They make up the acronym SPIRE.
- Spiritual wellbeing: Are we living mindfully and purposefully? Spiritual wellbeing is about finding a sense of meaning and purpose. It can certainly be religious, however, it doesn’t have to be. A banker who considers her work a calling can experience greater spiritual wellbeing than a monk who finds his work devoid of meaning. We also experience spiritual wellbeing when we’re present in the here and now, rather than being distracted by the then and there. When we’re mindful, we elevate ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones.
- Physical wellbeing: Do we take care of our bodies? This is about the mind-body connection and the impact they have on each other. Physical wellbeing is about taking care of ourselves through activities like exercise and through inactivity in the form of rest and recovery. We nourish our physiological and psychological wellbeing when we eat healthfully and touch lovingly.
- Intellectual wellbeing: Are we challenged and curious? We need to exercise our mind and learn new things. One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that many of us, spending more time at home, had more time to engage in intellectual development and growth. Research shows that people who constantly ask questions and are eager to learn are not just happier, but are also healthier. In fact, curiosity contributes to longevity!14
- Relational wellbeing: Do we nurture connections that nurture us? The number one predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. We are social animals and need to connect, to belong. But it’s not just about relationships with others—it’s also about our relationship with ourselves. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Isolation doesn’t have to be isolating, and we’ll look at how to cultivate healthier and happier relationships even when apart from loved ones.
- Emotional wellbeing: Are our feelings both honored and balanced? What do we do with painful emotions when they arise, which they inevitably will? How do we cultivate more pleasurable emotions, like joy, gratitude, and excitement? And how can we reside on higher planes of wellbeing for longer rather than merely enjoy temporary peaks?
Spire is a fitting word. One meaning of spire is the highest point of a building, like that of a church tower. Happiness is the highest point that we aim for, the star that we aspire to reach. Spire also means breath. Happiness gives us breath and increases our energy, engagement, and motivation. Altogether, the elements of SPIRE inspire us to live our best life, a happier life.
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a story about a tourist who visited Italy. He comes upon a construction site with workers all around. He approaches one builder and asks him, “What are you doing?” The builder says, “I’m laying bricks.”
The tourist walks twenty more yards and sees another builder doing exactly the same thing. He asks that builder, “What are you doing?” The second builder says, “I’m building a wall.”
Finally, he sees a third builder on the site, performing the same work as the other two. The tourist asks him, “What are you doing?” The builder looks at him and says, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God.”
No matter how rote the task or how vast the challenge, our perspective matters a great deal and can make all the difference in terms of our experience.
The first element of the SPIRE of happiness is spiritual wellbeing. Most people associate spirituality with religion or prayer. However, this is by no means a requirement. While spirituality can certainly be experienced in a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or a temple, we can also find it in our day-to-day lives. We can experience spirituality in two ways: when we’re feeling a sense of meaning and purpose in what we’re doing, and when we’re fully present and focused in the moment.
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. —Thich Nhat Hanh
The study of happiness is always relevant, no matter what you’re going through. It obviously helps in good times, but it’s no less important in getting us through difficult times. It contributes to our resilience and helps us become antifragile; in other words, it strengthens us when we’re facing a challenge.
The first step to fulfilling our potential for physical wellbeing is to recognize the inseparable connection between mind and body. What gets in the way, however, is a widespread belief, known as dualism, that the mind and body are distinct entities.
Why is the dualistic perspective problematic? MIT systems scientist Peter Senge wrote, “Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.” He explains, “Living systems have integrity . . . their character depends on the whole.” In the same way, dividing a human being into two—into a mind and a body—does not produce two small human beings or two viable entities that we can cultivate and grow. It is an artificial separation. If we want to effect change, we need to look at the whole person. Remember, happiness is whole person wellbeing.
The unity of mind and body manifests itself in various ways. For example, your thoughts and emotions influence your body—from its posture to its performance—while in turn your movements can affect your mindset and heartset. Research on the “facial feedback hypothesis” highlights this connection: Putting on a smile or frown, a kind face or an angry face, generates the emotion that we associate with the face.
When subjects imitated the face of an angry person, their heart rate and skin temperature increased, and they started to think angry thoughts.
The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you’ll make one. —Elbert Hubbard
When Aristotle, the wise Greek philosopher, described a human being as a rational animal, he suggested that our ability to think and to reason—our intellect—defines us. But is this defining quality, which Aristotle argues distinguishes us as a species, good for our happiness? There is a common belief that to be happy we should strive for the mindset of a grazing cow—that without thinking we will be free from worrying, and we can just be . . . happy. After all, the argument goes, thinking often takes us down the spiral of brooding and gloom. However, for most if not all people, just living as an animal—gratifying physical needs and little else—would lead to much unhappiness in the long-term. How, then, do we best use our intellectual capacities so that they contribute to, rather than detract from, our happiness?
Intellectual wellbeing has several facets. First, intellectual wellbeing is about fostering your innate invincible curiosity, your natural desire to learn more. Second, it’s about the value of delving into subjects deeply, both as a source of pleasure and to sharpen your thinking. Third, it’s about being open to making more mistakes. Paradoxically, it’s when we learn to embrace failure—recognizing it as a vital experience rather than something to fear or reject—that we prime ourselves to reach new heights.
Friendship doubles joy and cuts grief in half. —Francis Bacon
What is the best predictor of happiness? This simple question looms large over data that has been collected for almost a century. Beginning in the late 1930s, researchers at Harvard embarked on a major long-term study, one that still continues today.1 For generations, they followed two groups: a large cohort of students and members from the adjoining city. The researchers studied the participants over the course of their lives, using questionnaires, interviews, physiological assessments, and environmental measures. After all these decades, having collected quite literally millions of data points, researchers examined the facts in search of the most important component of a happy life.
What did they find? You guessed it. It’s not money or accolades, material success or prestige. According to the research, the number one predictor of happiness is relationships—specifically, having socially supportive, intimate relationships. It’s what amplifies the good times and buoys us through difficult ones. The interesting thing about this finding is that it didn’t really matter who the relationships were with; for some people it was their romantic partner or a best friend, for others it was their extended family or close connections at work. Healthy relationships weren’t the only factor important for happiness, but they were the most significant one.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. —Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
There is a paradox at play here: When we reject painful emotions, they only intensify. We reject them again; they grow stronger and gnaw at us more deeply. Whereas when we accept and embrace painful emotions, they don’t overstay their welcome. They visit and then leave just as they came.
Let’s take grief, for example, arguably the strongest of painful emotions. Research suggests that people who go through grief fall roughly into two groups. One group comprises those who are considered to be tough. Following a loss, they decide, “I’m going to be strong. I’m going to get through this. I won’t let this get to me.” They put on a brave face, pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and go on. The other group, those who are considered softer and less tough, might say, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through it.” They cry, they talk about it, and they experience their emotions. They break down.
When we look at the two groups from the outside, we might look at the first group and think, Wow, they are holding up so well. We might look the second group and think, I’m worried and just hope that they will be OK and make it through. But a year or more later, what the research suggests is that the second group is likely to be in a much better place than the first group. The second group gave themselves the permission to be human and allowed the natural process of grief to take its course.
Why does it work this way, whether for grief or anxiety or envy? Why do painful emotions subside when embraced, and intensify when rejected? Here’s a little experiment. For the next ten seconds, do not think of a pink elephant. You know the one I’m talking about, Dumbo with the big ears? That pink elephant? Well, do not think of a pink elephant for two more seconds.
My strong hunch is that you thought of a pink elephant. Why? Because when a phrase is repeated over and over again, we think about it. And when we hear do not think of it, when we try to suppress the thought, it makes us more likely to continue to visualize it. That’s part of our nature. This phenomenon, described by psychologist Daniel Wegner as part of his ironic process theory, applies to painful emotions as well. When we attempt to reject painful emotions, they grow stronger and persist longer.
Our emotions are a phenomenon as natural as the law of gravity. Imagine you wake up every morning and say to yourself, I’ve had it with the law of gravity. I refuse to accept gravity! What will happen as a result? Well, first of all, you may fall down. And if you live in a tall building or enjoy hiking mountains, you may not survive for long. But, even if you did survive, you would lead a life of constant frustration. So, naturally, we don’t reject the law of gravity. We accept it. We embrace it, we even play games with it. Imagine the javelin throw competition or the high jump event at the Olympics without gravity? Meaningless.