Many of us wish to feel good and experience a sense of contentment with everyday life experiences, which, in turn, leads to happiness. But, today’s definition of happiness (as a multifaceted construct) is not what happiness meant to the first thinkers who explained ethics and the nature of humanity. For our purposes, we will consider happiness to be synonymous with a sense of satisfaction, contentment and wellness. In psychological terms, the absence of happiness is a symptom of depression: the inability to experience contentment and satisfaction for extended periods of time. Whether it is caused by a form of clinical depression, a personal tragedy or simply a challenging season of life, a lack of happiness can be a reason that someone would seek professional counseling.
Whether a client has been diagnosed with a form of clinical depression or is feeling down for a particular reason, counselors do not “provide” people with happiness. Instead, professional counselors help people find ways to make sense of life and build on their ability to remain curious and creative about their experiences. This assistance, in turn, provides people with a deep sense of gratification, which some may term as happiness.
The study of happiness
Happiness has long been an area of interest for researchers. After all, achieving it is a high priority of people around the world. Counselors in particular are eager to deepen their understanding of clients in their personal journeys.
In the last several decades, the study of happiness has achieved prominence in large part due to its counterpart, depression, as the American Counseling Association reported in its publication Counseling Today. Each year, major depressive disorder affects 14.8 million adults, which is approximately 6.8 percent of the U.S. population. Once thought of as a largely adult condition, depression is increasingly affecting children and teens. The publication reported that one in every 33 children is depressed, and one in eight adolescents experience depression at some point.
Once people experience depression, several additional issues can arise, including anxiety, addiction, heart attacks and even suicide. Consequently, counselor-researchers are very interested in finding ways to alleviate these symptoms. However, whereas the concepts of happiness and depression are related, they are far from antonyms. Decreasing depression does not necessarily equate to increasing happiness. “People can become less depressed but still not be happy,” Dr. Ron Pekala, a coordinator for research and development at the Coatesville VA Medical Center, told the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “There are two sides at play here — positive and negative. These emotions come from different parts of the brain.”
A search for answers
An ongoing study at Harvard University has followed 268 men from the college’s classes of 1939 to 1944 for more than 75 years. The research over that time has found that relationships are key to a person’s sense of satisfaction, contentment, self-efficacy and even euphoria, which can be summed up as an overall sense of happiness.
A related 2015 survey, also by Harvard University, suggested that your sense of happiness can be influenced by choosing to be happy in whatever you do and taking care of yourself physically, financially and emotionally.
Happiness is elusive and multifaceted, and it cannot be simply deduced to be a consequence of one’s actions. If wishing to change were all there were to it, everyone would simply wish their less than desirable feelings away. However, attitude plays a large role. The survey found that people’s dispositions toward their jobs, wealth and income were more influential than those factors in and of themselves.
While taking care of yourself emotionally may have a clear connection to your sense of happiness, the connection between physical and mental well-being may not be as clear. In the survey, 78 percent of those individuals who identified as “extremely happy” reported that they exercise at least three times every week. And in this group, 93 percent said that they are in “excellent” or “very good” health. These results suggest that the role of taking care of yourself physically can have an impact on your sense of happiness.
Tips for a happier life
As a counselor, you cannot magically make your clients feel happy. Rather, through your education and training, you will be equipped with strategies to help people discover what factors in their lives provide them with a sense of happiness.
In addition to the Harvard study’s recommendations to augment a personal sense of satisfaction in life, other germane practices that may help people preserve a sense of contentment in life include the following:
- Pay attention to the little things. It is easy to become overwhelmed when you look at big problems and long-term plans. Focusing on the little things can help people find moments of peace in the midst of turmoil. Instead of trying to control everything, focusing on the individual positive things that happen each day — no matter how small — can remind people of the things for which they have to be thankful.
- Practice self-control. When someone is simply unhappy, it is easy to turn to coping mechanisms that may prove deleterious over time, such as overeating, smoking and other vices. Whereas these coping mechanisms may appear to be solutions for feeling better in the short term, they will likely only create more problems in the long run. Clients will do better when they choose to take care of themselves physically and emotionally, through self-care such as eating right, exercising, spending time on hobbies and managing stress.
- Live in the moment. An uncertain future is a major cause of stress and anxiety for many. When someone is depressed or otherwise emotionally down, looking at the future can add to a self-evaluation that leads people to experience a sense of worry or unhappiness. As a counselor, you can help people live in the moment and enjoy everyday pleasures that can help increase happiness, according to the American Counseling Association.
- Give back. Often when a person is in the midst of personal struggles, it can be difficult to see anything outside themselves. But, trying to see, understand and assist in the struggles of others can actually help a person get out of his or her own head and away from negative feelings. A Japanese study in 2006 found that people become happier through kindness. The researchers found that happiness levels increased when the participants simply counted the acts of kindness that they performed throughout the week.
- Find purpose. While it is impossible to pinpoint one single cause of depression, the fact remains that when a person experiences intense negative emotions, it can be hard to see anything else. However, the American Counseling Association reported that finding a purpose can help shift people’s focus from dwelling on their own problems. Whether it is working with a volunteer organization or training for a marathon, working toward something can increase a person’s level of happiness.
Pursue a Master’s in Counseling at Bradley University.