The study of happiness has been ongoing for centuries. It's generally accepted that money doesn't buy happiness. But what does? Is it our relationships? Maybe it's our mental outlook or attitude? Or possibly our status in society? More likely, it's probably a complex relationship of all these factors -- plus many more.
My personal belief is that while all of these things are important, the most vital characteristic to long term happiness is control.
When I think back on the times that I am most content and happy with my life, I realize that it's always when I have a high level of control over what is happening to me. For illustration, lets look at the opposite of this phenomenon. Ever since I graduated from college in 2009 I've been looking for a full-time teaching job. As the months and months of joblessness stack up, I've become more and more agitated (and even depressed). Searching for a job in this economic environment does not allow for very much control. Preparing my resume and filling out applications allow me to have some control over the situation, but as soon as I apply for a position my feeling of control dissipates.
You may notice, however, that this lack of control is a construct of my own mind. For some people, actively searching for positions, writing resumes, preparing applications, and following up is something they feel they have much more control over. I'll bet you that this type of person does not find the job search as nearly as soul-sucking and depressing as I do.
And therein lies a great avenue for personal development; learning how to take control over situations that are causing us anguish.
Here are a couple situations where many people feel like they have no control and a couple ideas to begin changing your mindset:
Work: The workplace can be an environment where you feel like you have no say, no control, over anything that happens. Obviously, different jobs will have various levels of autonomy. If you happen to be at the highly autonomous end of the spectrum, then your potential for control is enormous. What can you do to make yourself more effective throughout the day and possibly even finish your work earlier? What is your Great Work and how can you do more of it? If you're job is less autonomous, you might have a little more trouble finding ways to exert your control. Start with the smallest of environments (your desk or workspace) and routines (is there a better way you can ring up those groceries?) and gain control over those first. Later you can try to gain more and more control over what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, how you feel about what you do.
Health: When I am at my unhealthiest, I feel like I have no control over my habits. I'll eat whatever I want, workout intermittently, and just generally feel like crap. Gaining control over my health does wonders for myself psychologically and usually only consists of a couple simple steps. Tracking what you're putting into your body is an eye-opening experience on several levels. Seeing the actual number of calories and array of food that you're consuming is quite often enough to spur positive change. Similarly, planning and tracking your workouts allows you to have a level of control that is often missing.
Emotions: This is probably the most difficult and most abstract topic to talk about controlling. Our emotions control almost everything about the way we act. How we react to positive events, negative events, and everything in between differentiates us as people. I would never recommend curtailing your positive and negative emotions to the point where everybody exists in some intermediate and dull range. However, I do recommend taking the time to figure out how to recognize what causes us to overact, both positively and negatively. In my experience, meditation has helped me control my emotions in a way that nothing else really has. Figure out what works for you.
If you want to be happy, you have to feel like you have control over yourself. Your environment, work, health, emotions, and relationships are all important aspects of your life that require you to be in control if you are to be at your happiest.
Where do you feel out of control and is it hampering your happiness? What can you do to change that situation?