As young children, we simply can’t wait to grow up, complete schooling, and ‘enjoy’ the trills of
adulthood – earn money, have your own house, drive your own car, etc. And the major stressors
at that age usually revolve around ‘must-pass’ exams, peer acceptance, being popular, and so on.
As we hit adulthood, our goals change to having a good job, earning good money, and starting a
family. Upon achieving these milestones, we then realize that a good job is not just about the
prestige or the salary you are being paid. Are you happy doing your job? Are you excited to
show up at work? Do you enjoy the interactions around the job you do? Similarly, it is not all
about starting a family but is it with someone that makes you happy? And as we eventually hit
mid-life and then old age, do we look back at our lives and are we content and proud of how we
have lived and what we have achieved? Overall, through the phases of life, it becomes clear that
our goals change over time. But the underlying constant is a desire to be happy and content with
our lot in life. What is true happiness and how can we pursue this elusive goal?
What is happiness?
Happiness is a subjective emotion that means different things to different people. Happiness is a
positive emotional state characterized by joy, contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment. It is
often associated with pleasant experiences like love, friendship, success, good health, and
achieving goals or desires. Is it an attainable state of well-being or is it merely an illusion that is
difficult to attain? Happiness is not an illusion, as it is as real as any other emotion you might
feel. All we need is a good understanding of the state, and how to acquire and retain it.
There is an important distinction to be made, between transient feelings of joy when one attains a
desired goal or passes an examination/gets a job/promotion, etc; and the persistent feeling of
contentment and inner joy that is longstanding. The latter is what we are more interested in here.
Secondly, happiness is not a goal that can be attained and then pocketed, such that it will simply
abide with you forever and ever. It is a never-ending pursuit that necessitates constant nurturing
and sustenance. Many people claim that they will be happy once they get a promotion, marry,
have children, build their own house, etc. However, when they attain these milestones, they only enjoy it for a brief moment before reverting to their pre-existing normal state and start feeling
disgruntled with their lot, as they now aspire for something else.
Happiness comes from contentment
Thus, we must conclude that happiness is a state of mind, that comes from contentment with
one’s circumstances and that is not tied to the aprons of outward milestones. It is a conscious
decision to make the best of one’s circumstances, change negative situations that are causing
distress, and generally be optimistic and upbeat about life and what it has to offer. As well as
confidence in our own ability to act on our circumstances and environment to alter unpleasant
circumstances, while jealously guarding our emotional tranquility.
In some forms of therapy, therefore, we commonly state that it is not the external circumstances
of your life that really matter. No. What matters is how YOU interpret the circumstances to
yourself and how YOU allow them to impact your thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. For
instance, you have failed an important examination and you are naturally upset about it. If you
tell yourself that you tried your very best and still failed, then you are more likely to be
inconsolable and miserable and simply give up. However, if you perform honest introspection
and pinpoint the weak areas that you underperformed in, you are more likely to have renewed
impetus to overcome those weak areas by preparing better and working really hard the next time.
Therein, lies the key to success via the willingness to take one’s fate in your hands and work
really hard to change the situation. When you succeed in passing the exams, you would have
boosted your self-confidence and sense of self-satisfaction – critical building blocks to your
persistent state of contentment and happiness in the long run.
How about when the situation is outside your control? Such as economic recession or absence of
the naira? The greatest fallacy is to imagine that you are helpless and powerless. No matter the
circumstances, you will always have options. Solutions may come from an option to sidestep the
issue, explore alternatives, change strategies or location, etc. It may involve resigning from a job,
ending a relationship, or relocating within or outside the country. But we are never, ever without
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 16th March 2023