Everyone wants to be happy. It pretty much goes without saying, but it can be difficult to define what happiness actually is. We associate words like joy, fun and contentment but the main reason it’s not easy to define is because happiness is very much subjective.

We have the power to decide what happiness means for ourselves. In my years of psychological study I’ve come to see happiness as being double-sided.

Internal Happiness

The quality of being happy ‘inside’, which tends to come from self-acceptance.

To accept oneself is not always simple. The first step is to explore who we are deep down and reflect on ourselves, seeing we have qualities we like within us and those we don’t.

This is called introspection — the art of self-reflection. This isn’t easy to begin with because one must first admit to oneself they are not perfect. This might sound silly, everyone knows no-one’s perfect, but to actually delve into your own perceived flaws or relive situations where you failed can be quite difficult.

By asking yourself why you act the way you act, why you do the things you do is the first step toward a deeper understanding of yourself. This might sound painful, and to be fair, it is, but it’s a necessary step of self-understanding. It’s this process of self-reflection which eventually leads to some form of self-acceptance. It’s kind of like cleaning your house — it’ll get messier before it gets organised.

I first began introspection a few years ago, pretty much because I was forced to. I launched a startup and had to really question my own shortcomings when the business wasn’t performing well. It wasn’t easy at all; in fact it was quite painful, but I learnt so much about myself, and wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been in that position.

I was out of my comfort zone and my back was against the wall, but it was because of this I had to self-reflect and learn about who I am, and why I react the way I do. Introspection often happens when you’re outside your comfort zone. If often happens simply because you’re forced to; you must self-reflect in order to improve. The other option is to bury your head in the sand and give up, which you could do, but then you would never learn anything and happiness would elude you.

Asking yourself why you are the way you are will help you discover your good traits and your bad. It will illuminate in which parts of your character you’re strong and which of your positives you want to accentuate. It’ll also help you see which sides you want to delve deeper into and improve on. We tend to discover most about ourselves not from victories, but our shortcomings, our defeats and our flaws.

Self-acceptance comes in understanding that both sides of you are what make you unique, the good and the bad. You are all sides of yourself and no less, and that’s what makes you You.

External Happiness

Outward happiness can be many things, but one of the keys seems to be social contact.

We’re social beings by nature, we need others to survive. To those who say ‘no, I can get by completely by myself’, when you came into this world you weren’t alone, if you were you would’ve died before you could sit up. Now, I’m also fully aware of the joys of solitude. There’s nothing quite like time alone completely to oneself, but time alone all the time would be quite the miserable existence. Social contact, especially with those we want to be around like family, friends, loved ones or beloved pets is one of the things which can really bring joy.

Experience also comes into play. As well as being social, we’re also creatures of variety. Familiarity breeds contempt and if we’re forced to do the same thing all the time our minds can stagnate. Where there’s comfort of familiarity we also need variety to keep life interesting. Experiences make us happier than material goods, and experiencing new things, people and places feeds our need for novelty, learning and variety.

How The Internal/External Combine

Inward and outward happiness affect each other.

Inward happiness affects outward. For example a person’s level of self-contentedness is sure to affect their experience of external situations. You could put a deeply discontented person into a tropical paradise and they’d find something wrong with it. You could put a mostly-contented person in an empty field and they’d have a great time.

Outward happiness can affect inward. Experiences can make you happy (sounds so obvious now that I’ve typed it) and more-so if they’re novel, provide you with memories and especially if they’re shared with the right people.

Both sides affect each other, but none more than when it comes to finding personal purpose.

We humans crave meaning. We find it difficult to fill our lives with things we deem meaningless — defining purpose for ourselves is one of the most important steps toward happiness. From introspection, reflecting on yourself, you can come to understand what matters most to you. What you like doing the most, what gives you most satisfaction, from what you can derive most meaning.

The most important thing is to define it for yourself because only You can.

We tend to find what means something to us from both introspection and experience. We can reflect on what we’ve done before, but we have to keep experiencing new things in order to grow and continue reflecting. Inward and outward factors affect each other, and we can keep growing, learning and moving toward what we decide is meaningful for ourselves.

Happiness is a consequence of doing. It flows from inward self-realisation, outward experience and pushing toward where we find purpose in ourselves. That’s where true fulfillment comes from. When you’re driving toward your own personal purpose, happiness isn’t in the reaching of the destination, it’s the consequence of the journey. 

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash