Most of us want to be happier, but we don't even know what true happiness means! We walk around feeling unmotivated, stuck, and unsure of our next steps.
The truth is that the path to happiness is just a few steps away. In today's episode, I'm walking you through exactly what happiness is and exactly how you can put yourself on the path toward finding it.
Here's what we cover:
1. What exactly is happiness?
2. 4 myths about happiness
3. 4 truths about happiness
4. Simple, practical steps anyone can take to feel happier
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
Related Podcast Episodes
TBOY Episode 84
Hey everyone. Welcome back to this week's episode on The Best of You Podcast. I'm so glad you're here. I'm so glad we made it through the holidays and into this brand new year. I have so many exciting things in store for us this new year and I cannot wait to share them with you. I loved getting all of your feedback on the survey–thank you so much for taking the time to fill that out and giving me such thoughtful ideas.
It feels like a true partnership where I was benefiting from the wisdom and your questions and your ideas and what you want to learn about and how you want to grow. It just meant so much to me. So thank you for taking the time to do that. I look forward to circling back and bringing those into upcoming episodes.
As we kick off this new year, I wanted to hit the ground running with a conversation about happiness. So many people come to see me, whether as a therapist or through my work creating this podcast, people ask me so many questions, and often what is underneath is:
I want to feel better. I don't want to feel this pain. I don't want to feel this chaos. I don't want to feel this confusion. I don't want to feel this frustrated. I want to feel better. I don't want to feel this way. I want to feel better.
Often when we're thinking about what that better is, we don't even really know what it is. I just know I don't want to feel this way, but I'm not exactly sure what it is that I'm supposed to feel. What should I aspire to? What is a healthy expectation of my family, of my friends, of my work?
All of those questions get at this idea of what is happiness? The truth is there are so many false ideas about what that is out in the world that we don't even know what it is that we want. We just know what we don't want. So today I'm going to walk you through what science has to say about happiness, what the Bible has to say about happiness, and spoiler alert, it's surprisingly similar.
Then I'm going to walk you through a very practical set of questions to help you increase your understanding of what the true nature of happiness actually is. Because if you don't know what you're aiming for, how can you achieve it? Even worse, if you're aiming for something that's actually faulty, you have a misunderstanding of happiness, you're going to be heading down the wrong path.
If you understand what happiness is and how it really works, you can then take the steps that you need to move toward increasing degrees of happiness. So let's dive into learning what happiness actually is.
What is happiness? Social psychologists have studied happiness for years and the answer is that it's a complicated psychological state. It's not a simple feeling. So if you're pursuing a feeling of, oh, I just want to feel happy, you’re pursuing something really fleeting, sort of like a feather floating in the wind that you can't really ever grasp.
That's not a worthwhile pursuit. So right here at the top, I want to say, if you're pursuing this idea of, I just want to feel happy, you're pursuing the wrong thing. You're pursuing something that you can't really get. Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher, Arthur Brooks, says that happiness is a complex state that includes three distinct elements: enjoyment, purpose, and satisfaction.
Each of those three ingredients is fairly complex in and of itself. He also says that happiness is not a destination, and that's what I mean by that feather floating around in the wind. It's not something you're actually going to find and go, I have it. I have achieved happiness.
It's a pursuit. It's a direction more than it's a destination. It's impossible to arrive at the location of happiness. It's a way of being in the world where you orient to those things that tend to bring you more happiness.
So if you make your goal happiness, as in, I just want to be happy, you're setting yourself up for failure. Instead, Brooks suggests making your goal to become a little bit happier. That's something you can pursue through orienting yourself to the substance of what brings happiness. Sometimes I like to think about this as the metaphor of the steak and the sizzle.
So much in our culture promotes the sizzle, not the steak, the deep, substantive ingredients that create a really healthy, nutritious meal.
So happiness is not just a fleeting sense of a dopamine hit. You can chase dopamine hits all day long, and you're never really going to experience happiness on a deep core level. Happiness comprises all that life has to offer, including what's hard in a way that orients your whole being to contentment and satisfaction.
This is what the Bible calls joy, a deep abiding, stable sense of no matter what life brings my way, I'm okay. I'm content. As Paul says, it's a deep nuanced state of being that has to be broken down and pursued in its component parts. It's an overall orientation of your life toward good, noble, beautiful things.
It takes a whole body shift, an orientation of your mind, your heart, your will, even your nervous system to the things that actually move you toward increasing degrees of happiness. Sometimes it's helpful to understand happiness to think about its opposite, which isn't necessarily depression. It's more along the lines of what psychologists call languishing.
This is a term that Adam Grant popularized in a 2021 New York Times article, where he described this pervasive sense of languishing that we're seeing in our culture. He defines it in this way: languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you're muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.
Grant says languishing is the absence of wellbeing. It doesn't necessarily mean you're in a state of deep depression, it just means you're not fully thriving or flourishing in your life. You're not thriving. You're not experiencing that abundant life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. This is really common. So many of us often feel this way.
I really liked that definition of languishing that Grant supplied because I think it's a really interesting category for so many of us where, again, you're not in a deep state of depression, maybe you're functioning in your life, but you also don't feel this elusive feeling that we often call happiness.
You might be noticing inside yourself, things like, I don't know if I feel happy. I'm not sure my life is happy. You might not even really be taking the time to unpack that, but you're just aware of that inside.
To understand happiness a little more, I took out some of those terms from Grant's definition of languishing and looked at them against their opposite. What is the opposite that would essentially help us move the needle toward happiness.
So first, if you look at that term of stagnation, which is sort of a lack of progress, a feeling of being stuck, not really moving anywhere, not really growing or seeing results in your life, the opposite of stagnation is a sense of generativity, a sense of creativity, a sense of movement, a sense of forward motion of progress of, of moving toward health. We need that to feel a little bit happier.
Number two, he talks about emptiness, and if you think about the opposite of that, it's a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, a sense of what I do matters. That's an essential ingredient to feeling that happiness that we all long for.
Number three, he described a sense of foggy focus. if you think about just a lack of direction and foggy focus the opposite of that, you might think of words like clarity, perspective, even conviction. I know where I'm going. I know what I'm doing. Even if I don't always like it, I have a sense of clarity. I know what I'm doing, which leads to a greater sense of happiness.
Number four, he talks about languishing as being unmotivated. What's the opposite of being unmotivated? Feeling inspired, imaginative, or brave. It's that oomph to get up and do the thing that you don't really want to do, but that actually leads you to feeling a little bit happier.
Then lastly, he talks about a sense of feeling checked out or disconnected, the opposite of which is connection. It's moving toward others instead of away from them. There's a gap in between each of these, from stagnation to generativity, from emptiness to purpose, from a foggy focus to clarity, from unmotivated to inspired, from checked out to connected.
There's a gap in between each of those states that requires you to take an action step. These things don't magically happen. We have control over that gap. We have to do something to get ourselves from stagnation to creativity, from emptiness to meaning, from lack of focus to clarity, from unmotivated to inspired or brave, from checked out to connected. We have to do something to bridge that gap.
We have agency, we have the power to put ourselves from that pool of languishing where we're just drowning in muck to the path that moves us toward happier lives. Here's the paradox of moving toward happier–it requires you to confront the hard things. It doesn't mean that you pretend like what's hard isn't there, like what's holding you back isn't there, like what's keeping you feeling stuck or empty or unfocused or unmotivated or checked out isn't there.
It's facing those things honestly, and making a choice to move the needle toward what's ultimately going to bring you more happiness. We're going to get into how you can take steps practically each day to move that needle.
There are four words that I want to boil this down to, to give you a directional aim, if you're feeling any of those qualities of unhappiness or languishing. I want you to think about four words to orient the next decision or next step that you make.
How can I move toward creativity?
How can I move toward a sense of calling?
How can I move toward courage?
How can I move toward connection?
Again, it's just one tiny step and that language of moving toward makes it manageable. It's not, how can I become creative? How can I become courageous? How can I become connected? But if you think about it as moving toward, how can I take a step toward creativity? How can I take a step toward a greater sense of calling? How can I take a step toward courage? How can I take a step toward connection? Happiness becomes manageable.
It becomes right in front of you. It's in that next brave step that you take. These words give you a directional aim. In that very orientation you're making a choice to move toward happiness, and this works. This is a foolproof way to create more happiness, more abundance, more of what the Bible calls joy in your life.
So at the end of this episode, I'm going to get into some steps you can take literally today to put yourself on the path toward happiness, which is the goal. The goal is to be on the right path. Remember, it's not the destination. It's to be on the right path. You're not going to avoid suffering. You're not going to avoid things that are hard, but you're on the path that gives you what you need to experience increasing degrees of happiness, regardless of what you travel through in your life.
This is possible. It's a possible goal to be on a path that no matter what comes your way, you have a stable abiding sense of wellbeing. But before we get to those practical steps you can take, I want to talk about what doesn't lead to happiness, because we need to be able to identify when we're on the wrong path, when we are completely going down the wrong road and we are not putting ourselves in the position to experience greater degrees of happiness.
The first step to getting a little bit happier is to recognize where your ideas about happiness are misplaced, where you're seeking happiness in all the wrong places. This can be really subtle. It can be really insidious. Oftentimes, we have the right principles or the right ideas.
We know that happiness isn't found in this or that. But little messages inside of our minds creep in and we start subtly deceiving ourselves about where happiness lies. These subtle messages are even harder to detect and weed out because we are bombarded with false messages about happiness all the time, constantly from the media, from advertising, from shows that you watch, from social media.
So it takes some work to detect what is coming into our minds that is leading us down the wrong path so that we can orient ourselves to where true happiness lies. Now again, what I'm sharing with you today comes from decades of social science research, which very much validates what we know to be true about happiness as it's found in the Bible.
It is fascinating to me that what social scientists are finding empirically validated over and over again underscores what we know to be true about happiness from the Bible. So here are four myths about happiness.
The number one myth is that happiness is found in fame or fortune. Now, many of you listening are like, I know that. I know money doesn't make you happy. I know being famous wouldn't make me happy. But I want you to really take a minute and think about subtle messages you may tell yourself. Even if part of you believes that, okay, money and fame are not going to actually make me happy, there may be subtle messages inside your mind.
Oh man, if I just had a house that I loved, or if I just had a little more of this or a little more of that, or oftentimes this comes in with comparison. If I just had what she has, then I would feel happier. You may not consciously tell yourself that, but I guarantee if you take a look for just a moment inside the thoughts that swirl through your mind, you will find some of those thoughts.
If I just had a little more of that, I'd be a little bit happier.
Now the truth is, when it comes to financial stability, it is essential to have your basic needs met. More happiness comes when you are able to put a roof over your head and provide for your basic needs, your basic food, your basic shelter for your children, and you're able to provide for yourself.
It is true that as you are able to provide for yourself with basic financial stability, you do experience more happiness. The problem is once your basic needs are satisfied, we tend to get on a treadmill of wanting more and more and more and more.
Once your basic needs are met, additional wealth, additional accumulation of more, more, more actually begins to have a diminished impact on happiness. So the pursuit of wealth in and of itself to a certain point after your basic needs are met, leads to more stress, more comparison, and more strained relationships.
This is empirically validated through scientific study. You want to have enough. If you're struggling to meet your basic needs, that can lead to greater stress and diminished happiness. But once those basic needs are met, the pursuit of more wealth actually leads to diminishing returns.
Our culture tends to tell us we want more. We want more. You need more of this. You need more of that, you need more. It tends to set you up to compare yourself to unrealistic expectations that you see on tv. You see in movies, you see in advertisements, when in reality, if you have enough and you have a roof over your head and you can feed your kids good food, to be able to show gratitude genuinely in your heart for what you have puts you on the path toward happiness.
But if you subtly start to want more and start to tell yourself, if I had more of this or more of that or more of what she has or more of what her kids have, you're going down the wrong path that will not lead you to more happiness.
The same is true for this idea of fame, or what we might call external validation, being known, having people love us. It doesn't necessarily have to be fame, as in I'm a famous person. It's having the love of many people–another word you might use is popularity.
The myth is that getting a lot of approval and validation from others is often perceived as a path to happiness, but it is a false path. You might feel a dopamine hit when someone likes your post or someone compliments you, it might boost your self esteem for a moment, but pursuing those likes is a dead end road. It does not lead you to happiness.
The truth is that if you pursue other people's approval and being liked by others, whether it's on social media or whether it's in your real everyday life, it does not lead to happiness. It's the wrong path. We do need connection with others. We do need to feel known and understood by a few people in our lives.
But true happiness, that abiding sense of joy and satisfaction and contentment does not come from pursuing external validation. That's a dead end road. It's just like money. The more you get, the more you want, the more you get, the more you want.
It's a dead end road. It will not lead you to happiness. It leads to more comparison, more feelings of inferiority and more stress as you want more. Instead, the path to happiness is identifying the people who love you for who you really are, who know you and come alongside you and experiencing gratitude for those people–that moves you on the path toward happiness, moving toward true connection versus external validation.
Number three, I know many of you will relate to this. Happiness is not found in the pursuit of perfection. Again, another hamster wheel, another dead end road. The myth is that striving for perfection, whether it's in your appearance, whether it's in your achievements, whether it's in your relationships is often seen as a way of attaining happiness. Again, this is magnified by social media.
If I could just be a little more perfect, then I would be happy. That's a myth. It's a lie. That's the wrong path. The truth is that the pursuit of perfection is a never ending journey that leads to unhappiness. The pursuit of perfection fosters self-criticism, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations.
Here's the paradox, as you embrace imperfection, as you embrace the beauty of flaws in your life, you grow in self compassion, which helps you set realistic goals, which puts you on the path toward true happiness. The more you embrace the imperfections, the flaws, and you learn to release them and you learn to even enjoy them and appreciate them, you move down the path toward true happiness.
Lastly, there's a myth that if you could avoid all negative emotions, you could find happiness, and it's a complete myth. You see this in toxic positivity or in faith communities, you see it in spiritual bypassing. If I just pretend like I never experienced a negative emotion or never experienced any doubt, then I'll be happy.
Again, this might not be a conscious thought, but you might notice that you try to suppress or ignore any feelings of sadness, of anger, of grief, or you try to avoid thinking about those emotions, then that's how you become happy. But the truth is, and we just went through this in the whole series in December, negative emotions are a natural part of what it means to be a human.
They provide insights that help you grow. If you suppress or deny those negative emotions, you're suppressing cues that your body is sending you to help you move toward greater degrees of happiness. When you notice feelings of sadness or grief or anger, and you pay attention to those cues, then use them as information to help you grow or heal, or remove yourself from unhealthy situations, you move down the path toward happiness.
So on your road to happiness, you've got to watch out for that subtle insidious chatter in your mind. You may not literally be pursuing fame or fortune or popularity or perfection or the avoidance of all negativity. Maybe you agree with me. You're like, Alison, I know that I know those things, but here's the thing.
You've got to watch out for those thinking traps that we talked about back in episode 51 that subtly encourage you down this road toward unhappiness. So here are some examples. Comparison. If I had what she had, then I'd feel better. I'd be okay. My life would be working. If I just had what she had, that's a slippery slope. You've got to catch those thoughts.
Blaming. It's his fault. If he would change, then I would feel happier. That doesn't work. You have to take charge of your own happiness.
Avoidance is a trap. I'll just ignore it. I'll just pretend like it's not there. That doesn't get you to that next step. That doesn't move you toward those four words. Creativity. Calling. Connection. Courage. Avoidance doesn't move the needle.
Numbing. Oh, just shut it all down. Now, so often we don't consciously think that. We just reach for the food or we reach for a glass of wine. I just can't deal with this and we just numb it down. That does not move the needle. That does not move you on the path toward happiness.
Finally, shame is a big one. I'm just not worthy. I'm just not worthy of happiness. I'll never be someone who feels this way. That doesn't move the needle.
Remember you have agency. No matter what's hard in your life, you have agency to move the needle toward creativity, connection, calling, and courage. You have choices you can make to put yourself on the path.
Use the hardships in your life as an opportunity to move toward happiness. Don't bypass the reality of hardship or suffering. Instead, name it, invite God into the struggle, and then take a small step toward creativity, connection, calling, or courage.
To close, I want to walk through those four categories and talk about practical steps you can take today to put yourself on the path toward happiness. Now remember, this is not the instant gratification path. That is not the path that leads to happiness.
The instant gratification path actually leads to unhappiness; the path toward happiness is a series of intentional steps that you take. These are empirically validated steps. They're validated by science and they're validated by the Bible.
If you take these steps, you will put yourself on the path toward happiness. Number one, taking steps toward connection. Remember, it's connection that moves the needle toward happiness. It's not popularity. It's not the dopamine hit of a like on social media. It's not scrolling.
You might get some instant gratification by turning to your phone in a moment of unhappiness. But true happiness requires you to take a step toward actual human connection. It means picking up the phone and calling a friend, calling someone who loves you and saying, I'd like to connect. Could we take a walk this weekend?
It's showing up at your church or at your local community center and joining a group, knowing that it might take a few tries to find a group you actually like. If you're at work, instead of eating lunch by yourself, you know what? I'm going to see if this colleague that seems kind of interesting to me wants to eat together.
It's taking a step. Maybe they don't. Maybe you do eat together and it actually turns out to be kind of a bust. But you took a step to put yourself on the path toward happiness.
Now remember, I didn't say you will experience happiness in that moment. You might not. Maybe you don't connect right in that moment, but you're putting yourself on the right path.
If you keep taking those steps, you will find connection, which will lead you to greater degrees of happiness. Science tells us this, and the Bible tells us this. What is a step you can take to move toward connection with other people?
Number two is courage. What is a step you can take to be brave? This gets right into what we were just talking about. The path to happiness requires courage. It is not the path of least resistance. It requires the courage to do something new.
What is a step you can take toward courage? It might be getting up and turning off the show you've been streaming on Netflix and having the courage to walk outside and enjoy the sunshine. That might be your brave step that puts you on the path toward happiness.
It might be having the courage to move away from that second glass of wine, set it aside and move toward something life giving. That takes courage. It takes courage to change a numbing behavior.
It takes courage to face a thinking trap in your mind. For example, if you've been listening and you heard me talk about comparison and you realize oh my gosh, I do that I tell myself. That if I only had more of this I would be happier. A courageous act would be to say to yourself, what if just today I practiced gratitude.
I am grateful for the home that I have. I am grateful for the job that I have. I am grateful for the friends that I have. I am grateful to be talking about how to practice gratitude. Shifting the way that you think that will put you on the path toward happiness.
Number three, let's talk about taking steps toward calling. Instead of languishing, instead of stagnating, instead of feeling unmotivated, instead of feeling unfocused, what's a step you could take toward a sense of calling?
You might go take a test online to determine your strengths. We talked about Strengthfinders back in episode 53. You might take a step toward prayer to say, God, what are my gifts? What are the talents you have given me? You might make a note in your notes app on your phone of the three gifts you feel like you have to offer other people. That's putting yourself on the path toward happiness.
You might think about someone you could serve. No matter what your job is, no matter whether you work at home or in an office, no matter whether you wait tables or whether you're an engineer, it doesn't matter. You might take a step toward how can I be useful? How can I be helpful in this situation?
That's moving toward calling, which moves you toward a sense of purpose, which leads to a sense of satisfaction and that puts you on the path toward happiness.
Lastly, what's a step you might take today toward creativity? What's a hobby that you've let go by the wayside that brings you joy, that you'd like to pick back up? What's an activity, whether it's taking a jog, or walking under the stars at night before bed, or playing with your dogs, or laughing with a friend? What's an activity that you enjoy? Move toward that.
What sparks your imagination? Is it reading a good book? Is it writing? Is it journaling? Is it drawing? Do it. Move toward that. That puts you on the path toward happiness. Now again, it's a step. It's going to take several steps. Maybe you pick back up the paint brushes and you're like, I don't even remember how to do this.
I haven't done it in so long. it's a little bit frustrating the first time. This is not about instant gratification. This is about taking steps to move toward creativity, toward imagination, toward a sense of refreshment that will put you on the path toward happiness. These things are empirically validated.
It is also what the Bible tells us to be true. As we move toward a sense of connection with other people, as we move toward brave acts of showing up in this world, of taking control of our own lives, as we move toward our calling and a sense of purpose as we move toward creativity and imagination, we put ourselves on the right path, and happiness becomes a byproduct of being on the right path.
Happiness flows from the inside out, as we are known, as we are connected with others, as we understand our calling and purpose, as we are courageous in how we show up in our lives, and as we participate in creativity. Happiness flows out as a result of those brave acts.
Today as you're listening, what is a brave step you can take to move toward connecting with someone who loves you? What is a courageous act you can do to show up more authentically and more honestly In your life? What is a step you can take toward the calling or gifts God has put inside of you to use for good in this world? How can you move toward creativity, imagination, the good things that bring you life? Every brave step you take will unlock the happiness, the joy, the abundance that God created you to enjoy.