This question has long been the subject of various psychological theories about individual development. Abraham Maslow described it as an individual's desire for fulfillment—an internal yearning to maximize one’s full potential by becoming everything a person is capable of becoming.
In a nutshell, self-actualization is about living life to the fullest. It involves that quiet internal voice that keeps trying to persuade us to make the most of the gifts and talents with which we are born, and to use them to make a difference in our own lives and those of others. However, unless we are sensitive to its whispering and are willing to listen to it, it often goes unheard.
All human beings possess the potential to excel. When we are able to function at our highest capability, we have a feeling that nothing is lacking or left wanting in our lives. We have a sense of freedom and liberation—a sense of harmony and satisfaction that tells us we are an integral part of all that surrounds us. In simpler terms, a self-actualized person is first and foremost a happy person. However, the definition of what comprises a “happy person” is going to have a different definition for every single person. Thus if we are to live fully actualized lives, we must first figure out how to be happy. To do that, we have to know what it is that makes us happy. Any journey to self actualization, then, is really a pursuit of happiness.
Various others have added their voices to support this idea. The Dalai Lama, in the opening line of one of his addresses states: “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.” He then describes the elements that go into making happiness possible: good health, the wealth or material things we accumulate, and fulfilling relationships. However, he goes on to explain that none of this will produce happiness for someone whose basic mental attitude is negative. He says, "If you harbor hateful thoughts or intense anger somewhere deep down within yourself, then it ruins your health...if you are mentally unhappy or frustrated, then physical comfort is not of much help."
According to Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, happiness is comprised of three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. While all three are important, Seligman says that of the three, engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life. He states, “There are no shortcuts to happiness. While the pleasant life might bring more positive emotion to one’s life, to foster a deeper more enduring happiness, we need to explore the realm of meaning. Without the application of one’s unique strengths and the development of one’s virtues towards an end bigger than one’s self, one’s potential tends to be whittled away by a mundane, inauthentic, empty pursuit of pleasure.”
We tend to think of happiness as a journey or a destination—once I achieve….am able to do, be, or have...then I will be happy. But true happiness is neither a journey nor a destination—real happiness is an attitude and a feeling. Abraham Lincoln stated this pretty well when he said "Folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
Happiness is a Choice
There are many who would argue against this. For someone who is functioning solely in survival mode, choosing to be happy may be a foreign concept. If you have not eaten in three days, are severely depressed, homeless or alone in the world, real happiness is difficult to imagine. But as humans, one of our basic goals is to elevate ourselves beyond basic survival to the level of self actualization where being happy can be and is a choice.
Choosing to keep a positive attitude regardless of the situation is the key to being freed from it. No one can make you feel bad unless you allow it, thus no one can hurt or offend you without your permission. Once you realize you have a choice about this, it no longer makes sense to say something like “You make me so angry!" because no one else can make you angry—it is a response you choose for yourself.
Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, understood this well. He remarked, "Happiness doesn't depend on outer conditions, it depends on inner conditions. It isn't where you are or what you have that makes you happy or unhappy; it's what you think about it. For example, two people can be in the same place at the same time, and one is happy and the other is unhappy. Why? Because of a different mental attitude.”
Mental attitude is always the key and choosing to be happy is absolutely liberating! Even during the darkest of times or when undergoing trauma or experiencing pain, turning the focus of your thinking away from your distress can make a huge difference in how comfortable or uncomfortable you are, how happy you are able to be, and where you are able to go in life regardless of setbacks and adversity.
Judith Albright, MA, is a stress management specialist in Fort Collins, CO who uses tapping and other energy healing techniques to help people neutralize stress and change negative beliefs that are sabotaging their lives. For more information about Judith, her work, her personally supported courses and her e-books, visit www.stressfreewitheft.com.