“To be truly happy and contented, you must let go Of what it means to be happy or content.”
-Confucius, Chinese philosopher, (551BC – 479 BC)

Maybe musician Bobby McFerrin was right when he wrote “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.” Otherwise, he might have written, “Don’t worry. Be happy when you get what you think you want in life.”

So, what do you think would make you happy? Winning the lottery? Getting a promotion? Having the perfect relationship? Buying a new Porsche? Having the perfect body? Is happiness really as Mark Twain implied in his Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “Happiness ain’t a thing in itself – it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant.”

If you think that you know what would make you happy…well, how do I say this? I don’t actually think you do. Please forgive me. I’m not questioning your intelligence or your ability to imagine. I’m just implying that perhaps we, as human beings, don’t really have the mental capacity to be able to forecast what would make us happy. In truth, it’s one of the few flaws of our truly marvelous imagination. Let me explain why.

I think you would agree that in order to decide what would make you happy, you would have to peer into your future and “imagine” having what you believe would make you happy. In a sense, you must visualize yourself “in” that future moment, being – happy. But you can only do that by going back in your memory bank and looking at what has, in the past, made you either happy or unhappy. Unfortunately, there is one big problem: most of your memories are made up.

Most people think that we go through life recording our memories on some kind of mental video cam and that we can rewind the tape and take a peek at what has happened in our past, as if it was movie. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We actually record our experiences like “snapshots,” such as getting a speeding ticket, missing an appointment, relishing a great meal, giving birth to a child or winning a coveted award. The fact is that the core of our memories is comprised only of these “real moments” and they “stick” because they have either a positive or negative emotion attached to it. So we remember only the best and the worst of times. What’s left are huge holes that need filling in.

This is where our wonderful imagination goes to work and fills in, connecting the empty gaps between our snapshots with “movies” that make our memories seem complete. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes, “…when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating… This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.”

The bad news is that, when we try to predict what will make us happy in our future, we are actually guessing, based on how we felt in a past that we have mostly invented.

Whew! If that’s not enough, we also tend to rationalize with lightening speed about almost every negative experience that could teach us a lesson. Plus, it’s obvious that we aren’t going to be the same person in the future that we are now and…you get the picture. Our imagination simply cannot provide us with an accurate preview of our emotional future.

That may be the reason why so very many people are bitterly disappointed when they get what they think they want and never understand that they are actually getting what they need in order to learn about what actually would make them happy. While all this may sound a bit bleak, you really can do quite a lot to contribute to your happiness.

Studies have shown that your genes contribute to around 50% of your happiness quotient. Since you don’t have much control over your genetic heritage, you might as well let that half go. There is also strong evidence that the circumstances in which you live influence approximately 10% of your level of happiness. And the reality is that you may or may not have control over your circumstances. If you do, work at changing them and, if you don’t, move on. So what’s the remaining 40% about?

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” Here is the very good news: the remaining 40% of your happiness quotient is the most important because it’s the part over which you do have control. This includes all areas of your life including your thoughts and actions.

What can you do now to enhance your state of happiness?

  1. Do a health check. Research has undeniably supported that the healthier you are, the happier you are. Get a physical, exercise, quit smoking, limit your drinking and eat right. Your happiness depends on it.
  2. Do a relationship check. Toxic relationships kill your happiness. You do have control over the quality of your immediate relationships and you can change your attitude if you must work with toxic individuals.
  3. Do a passion check. If you are not taking some time every day to fulfill your passion, you had best rethink your priorities. Maybe it’s reading, playing a musical instrument, writing or spending quality time with your loved ones. The much loved physician and author Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, “Happiness is mostly a by-product of doing what makes us feel fulfilled.”
  4. Do a long-term goal check. Long-term plans indirectly contribute to your day-to-day happiness. Are your goals aligned with your values? Have you thought about your life’s’ purpose? There is still great truth in the words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

The truth is that you do have a lot of control over your happiness. You control the present, the now, your moment-to-moment actions and thoughts. Don’t worry. Be Happy.