Set reasonable goals
In the pursuit of happiness, we need to set reasonable goals in accordance to what we value in life. According to desire-fulfillment theories, achieving these goals will then bring about pleasure (Benatar, 2006). Achievement of these goals can also directly contribute to feelings of endorsement, one of three faces of happiness (Haybron, 2013).
In response to this, some may instead argue that we should eliminate desires, including desires to attain goals. Since no desires that we have, including these goals set out, can be satisfied immediately, we endure a period of frustration before the desire is fulfilled and this frustration results in suffering. Buddhists also argue that desire is the cause of suffering as our desires are frustrated more often than fulfilled, resulting in us experiencing pain more often than pleasure (Singer, 1994). This is further supported by Epicurus who believes that katastematic pleasures are better as it is a feeling of having no more desires, which is more stable (Muyskens, 2019).
However, these goals set in place are not only meant to give us happiness when we achieve them, but they also give us a sense of purpose. According to Headey (2008), non zero-sum goals promote life satisfaction, which contributes to happiness. Furthermore, the fact that few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures (Singer and Mill, 1994) as well as the large majority of society being unwilling to plug into Nozick’s experience machine (Nozick, 1974) when given the choice to show that apart from attaining happiness, the experience of doing something matters to us. In both cases, becoming lower animals and being plugged into the experience machine prevents us from experiencing conscious decision making and the resultant effects of our decisions. Despite the promise that both scenarios give, for maximum happiness, society at large rejects it, suggesting that happiness gained without effort from us may not be as valued. It can be further argued that the attainment of desires and goals not only contribute to endorsement, which is fleeting (Haybron, 2013), it may even contribute to engagement as one enthusiastically takes on what life has to offer (Haybron, 2013) in pursuit of the goal. It may also contribute to attunement as the individual knows that he is living his life to the fullest as he tries his best to achieve the things that matter to him, resulting in him living life without regrets.
It is also crucial to ensure these goals are reasonable and attainable. Setting our minds on reaching impossible goals without careful evaluation of our abilities is simply setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment, which will only result in suffering.
Hence, setting reasonable and attainable goals results in satisfaction when we achieve it and gives us a sense of purpose, contributing to a happier life.
Change our attitude towards suffering
The next step in achieving happiness is changing our mindsets towards suffering. Dealing with how we view suffering is crucial as suffering is inevitable. According to Schopenhauer, life is a constant state of striving and satisfaction, and according to Benatar, no matter how we evaluate life, coming into existence is suffering (Benatar, 2006). From a hedonistic point of view, where the quality of a person’s life is dependent on the amount of pleasure, negative mental states make up the majority of our experiences, even in the best lives, even if they are only mildly negative ones. According to desire-fulfilment theories or according to objective list theories, frustration of desires and the lack of things that are objectively good predominate our lives. Since we are already in existence, it is pointless to compare between existence and non-existence. Instead, we can look towards how we view suffering in order to increase our happiness in our lives.
The Stoics suggest to remember that nothing is permanent, that no bad feeling will last forever (Muyskens, 2019). Taoists similarly emphasizes on going with the flow, adapting and accepting difficulties and sufferings that come our way instead of resisting them (Stead, 2018). It may seem that these thoughts encourage us to resign to our fates, to just accept suffering without seeking ways to improve our lives. However, they do provide a new perspective on dealing with suffering – instead of viewing them as bad things that happen to us, and spend time dwelling on how unfortunate we are to have to suffer, we can have hope that that suffering will soon pass, and change our attitudes to seeing these sufferings as opportunities for growth. Layard (2005) draws attention to an interesting finding that supports this view. It was found that a person’s health was chiefly affected by his subjective assessment of his own health rather than objective results obtained by the doctor. This suggests that our attitudes towards difficulties and sufferings we face may play a large role in how much we actually suffer.
In addition, sufferings can lead to more happiness for an individual. Suffering can build our character, teaching us values that can benefit us in other aspects of our lives, creating more positive mental states. For example, suffering in the form of having to study long hours for good grades can teach us the importance of discipline, which is a character trait that will benefit us in other aspects of our lives, be it in the sport we play or even in our future jobs, which will lead to more success in those aspects and bring us more happiness. Furthermore, akin to the example by Seligman (2004), where a pet lizard needed to stalk and shred the food it was fed before it was willing to eat it, our pleasures are tied by evolution to a series of actions. Believing that we can achieve pleasure through shortcuts and avoid sufferings is foolish. Instead, it is suggested that suffering in the pursuit of a goal contributes to the pleasure and happiness we attain when we eventually reach our goals. Hence, suffering can in fact lead to greater happiness.
Sufferings by an individual can lead to an increase in happiness for society at large too. Individuals throughout history and even ones today have suffered for causes larger than themselves, benefiting society and generations despite them having suffered tremendously in the process. For instance, Rosa Parks, an African American who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, a violation of the racial segregations laws in that city, in fighting for racial justice. Her act resulted in her suffering, as she was jailed, fired from her job and forced to leave the city after receiving multiple death threats (Brinkley, 1999). However, it relieved the sufferings of the generations after her as that act propelled the civil rights movement.
Hence, knowing that our suffering can increase our happiness and happiness for society, and changing our attitudes to suffering, we can increase our happiness.
Learn to be grateful
Another way to achieve happiness is through learning to be grateful, which has been proven to be an effective happiness intervention. A study showed that college students who were asked to keep a gratitude journal on a weekly basis for 10 weeks reported feeling better about their lives and were optimistic about the upcoming week, as compared to students that did not (Alipour, Pedram, Abedi & Rostami, 2012).
However, it is crucial to note that gratitude should not only arise when we compare the things we have with what others do not. Many tend to be grateful through comparison, for instance, being grateful for their food when they think of children in other countries who are starving. Sirgy argues that when people have to evaluate their lives, they often use a benchmark to compare their achievements against (Weimann, Knabe and Schöb, 2015). This may be detrimental as there are always others who are better off than us, and if our gratitude arises only from comparison, looking to those who are better off than us will result in not only a decrease in gratitude but may lead to resentment, lessening our happiness.
With the rise of social media, comparison between individuals has become increasingly easy and benchmarks for comparison has become less objective. Social media allows individuals to carefully manicure their online profile, resulting in many only posting their best and happiest moments online (Manago & Vaughn, 2015). Passive observation by others provokes social comparison. The comparison may have an even larger effect than comparison to celebrities as the former are more relevant standards for self-evaluation (Manago & Vaughn, 2015).
If comparison results in gratitude and hence happiness, richer countries should be happier. However, comparing between poorer and richer cities or countries, there is evidence that the inhabitants of poorer cities or countries are not less happy than that of richer ones. Furthermore, comparing between the past and the present, the average level of happiness in 1970 was not much different from that in the late 1940s in the United States despite average income being about 60% more (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).
Hence, comparing our lives with others’ is proven to be an ineffective way to achieve gratitude. Instead, finding gratitude through expectations based on our achievements related to our own past can allow us to see how far we have come. Gratitude in this form, without comparison with others, allows us to be truly grateful for what we have, irrespective of what others have, contributing to happiness that is more stable.
Evaluate how satisfied we are with our lives
Evaluating how satisfied we are with our lives is also essential for achieving a happier life. Socrates is famous for his view that “The unexamined life is not worth for a human being” (Nussbaum, 2008). After deciding what we value in life, setting reasonable goals, changing our attitudes regarding suffering and learning to be grateful, we need to evaluate if we are satisfied with the lives we are living.
While hedonism suggests that we evaluate our overall happiness through calculating our net balance of positive and negative mental states, many other thinkers believe that there is more to overall satisfaction with our lives. Aristotle argues that happiness is about eudaimonia, beyond feeling good, it is about doing good through identifying one’s virtues, cultivating them and living life in accordance (Di Tella et al, 2006), while Seligman believes that authentic happiness involves both positive emotions and valuable activity (Seligman, 2002).
Similar to them, I believe that happiness in life is more than merely placing positive and negative mental states experienced in a lifetime on a scale and seeing where it tips towards. Instead, I believe that happiness is an overall satisfaction with one’s life, where we know that we have lived our lives to the fullest, pursuing the goals we have set out for ourselves in accordance to what we determined to be valuable in life. Considering what we are grateful for and evaluating our lives, we can also ascertain if what we have decided matters in life, and the goals we have set out initially have contributed to our happiness. If we find them to be erroneous, we are able to change and modify them, coming up with new goals that we can now pursue and achieve happiness. Such self-reflection and re-evaluation can be helpful in ensuring we are on the right path towards happiness.
Do not be overly concerned with how happy we are
Individuals seeking a happiness action plan are often trying to find ways to make themselves happier. As such, it may be counterintuitive to suggest that being happy requires us to care less about whether we are happy enough. However, this principle is echoed by John Stuart Mill as well, who believes that true happiness comes when we are not seeking it out. This may be due to the fact that our happiness is sometimes out of our control – some are predisposed to having negative mental states due to their genetic traits. Studies have shown that happiness is partially determined by one’s genetic set point. Through examining twin and adoption data, the researchers concluded that happiness was 80% genetic (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Furthermore, even things after our death could affect our legacy and hence our eudaimonia. Some Christians like Thomas Aquinas also believe that perfect happiness in this life was impossible because that requires the perfection of ourselves, which is something only God can do (‘Aquinas and Happiness’, 2012). As such, achieving maximum happiness is often not something we can control. If we place too much importance in achieving maximum happiness in our lives, we run the risk of being more upset when we realise that we are unable to achieve it. In fact, this is similar to the problem society faced during the enlightenment, where new optimism about happiness led to happiness becoming the goal of life. Achievements associated with happiness, such as the American dream, became an obligation, where even the government’s role was to aid individuals in achieving happiness and its related goals, making those who failed to achieve it were made to feel as if they were to be blamed for their failure. Therefore, one needs to avoid placing too much importance in their pursuit of happiness in order to lead a happier life.
In conclusion, there is no fixed set of steps one can look to in order to achieve a happy life. However, deciding what brings us happiness, setting reasonable goals, changing our attitude towards suffering, learning to be grateful and evaluating how satisfied with our lives may make us happier. However, it is also crucial to note that happiness is often a by product of the things we pursue, pursuing happiness in itself may not be feasible, hence we should not be overly concerned with how happy we actually are.