Why achieving happiness is not the same as being happy

A happy person can be perfectly realistic: happiness does not mean the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them effectively and also to know how to manage all of our emotions, including the unpleasant ones

Happiness is not what we get with material or external goods, that is called well-being.
Happiness is not what we get with material or external goods, that is called well-being.Maskot (Getty Images)

Every March 20 is the International Day of Happiness, an initiative that started in Bhutan and was approved by the U.N. in its resolution of June 28, 2012 “to promote the integration of happiness in public policies.” According to the United Nations General Assembly, “governments and international organizations must invest in conditions that promote happiness by defending well-being and the environment in policy frameworks, such as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”

But what is happiness? Throughout history, philosophical thought has asked this question on countless occasions. Seneca, in his On the Happy Life (De Vita Beata), said that “all men wish to live happily,” and to do so the first thing we must do is discover what happiness is, and what it consists of. Such a transcendental question is one of the reasons for the birth of ethics in ancient Greece. “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less,” said Socrates.

According to the philosopher, happiness does not come from external rewards or recognition, but from internal success, since by reducing our needs we can learn to appreciate the simplest pleasures. For Plato, “The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.” And so on. There are countless quotes from great thinkers throughout history.

For its part, Webster’s dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment: joy.” Also as “Felicity, aptness” and, in its third meaning, as “good fortune: prosperity.” Psychology, for its part, also has its explanation.

What psychology says

“Happiness is a complex concept that involves both subjective and objective aspects in a person’s life,” says Rebeca Gómez, a psychologist at the European Institute of Positive Psychology.

Although it may itself be abstract, its manifestations, such as emotional well-being, can be measured and are tangible from a psychological perspective. “It is important to understand that happiness is a fluctuating and dynamic experience and that being happy all the time can be unrealistic, since life is full of emotional ups and downs,” the expert says. And she adds: “The search for well-being involves effectively managing all of our emotions, including the unpleasant ones, and cultivating a sense of general satisfaction.”

For this psychologist, it is best to focus on activities and aspects of life that provide meaning and satisfaction: “Happiness is often found naturally when you immerse yourself in authentic experiences and focus on the process, rather than just on the result.”

When talking about happiness, it is important to clarify that achieving happiness is not the same as being happy. “Being happy can refer to a momentary state, while achieving happiness implies a more lasting and general state of well-being. In fact, positive psychology focuses on developing and enhancing personal strengths and promoting a comprehensive sense of happiness and satisfaction with life,” Gómez explains.

What are happy people like? Do they have similar traits? According to Gómez, it is very common for happy people to exhibit characteristics such as gratitude and empathy, and they have positive social relationships. “It is also the identification and cultivation of personal strengths that contributes significantly to general well-being,” she explains.

However, the expert continues, “it is very important to remember that happiness in no way means the absence of problems, but rather the ability to deal with them effectively when they arise. In fact, developing emotional resilience and using positive coping strategies can allow a person to find happiness even in challenging and difficult situations.”

“Achieving happiness usually derives from having meaningful experiences, healthy relationships, personal achievements, being grateful, and maintaining a connection to activities that bring meaning and purpose to life,” says Gómez. “A happy person can be perfectly realistic contrary to what others mistakenly believe, since they tend to be minds that evaluate situations, but also have the ability to focus on the positive aspects and seek constructive solutions.”

Positive psychology, the expert explains, “does not deny life’s difficulties, but rather promotes a balanced perspective that includes appreciating the positive while facing challenges.” “Happiness is a personal journey that involves balancing realistic expectations, cultivating meaningful relationships, and finding satisfaction in personal development. These practices, combined with a positive attitude and appreciation of everyday experiences, can contribute significantly to a fuller and more satisfying life,” she sums up.

Happiness and stress

One of the most disruptive factors that hinders us in feeling happy is stress, and it occurs a lot in the work environment. Ana Hernández is a consultant who specializes in stress regulation in corporate environments. Her aim is to get companies to improve the efficiency and well-being of employees, and she believes that it is absolutely possible to be happy at work even if it is not our dream job.

“The main thing is to take into account the mental attitude towards it. In other words, ask yourself questions such as what your professional work is going to contribute to society or why you need the job, since choosing your job for economic reasons is not the same as choosing it because of its location or because it is what you were trained for.” All these questions, she adds, “help you make the connection between the purpose for your day-to-day work and your dedication to it.”

Can you be happy in a job that you don’t like? The expert believes you can: “It’s all about the interpretation you want to give it and what you choose to focus on. For example, it might not be the job you would want, but it covers your financial needs. That is to say, pay attention to accepting that your work situation does not have to be forever and prepare to look for a job that you really identify with, since not doing so would be resigning yourself and that can lead to unhappiness.”

Stress is a physiological response that is designed to come into operation in life-threatening situations. It helps us stay alive. “There are people who are more productive as an exam or project deadline is approaching because the mind puts all its power at our disposal to help us succeed. But if this level of stress continues over a longer period, there comes a time when it takes over our mind and that is when it begins to cause harm. It becomes somatized, and the mind wins the race. In other words, stress cancels out happiness.”

However, the expert continues, “happiness comes from within, from being calm, from being in balance, from having confidence in oneself and even though complicated situations arise, facing them as an opportunity that life presents for us to evolve as people.” And she offers some advice for those times: “Be aware that during those difficult periods there may be a time where we struggle, but it will pass. You have to trust in the impermanence of situations, because everything has an end.”

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