Hot-air Baloon

Ch-1: Our Search for Happiness and Self-Actualization

Part 1

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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CHAPTER 1, Part 1,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Where do we begin our quest for happiness?  

Happiness, then, is at once the best and noblest
and pleasantest thing in the world. . .
we always choose it for itself and never for the sake of something else.
(Aristotle, Ethics )

Happiness is an emotion that includes many shades--from peace and tranquility to joy and ecstasy Unhappiness includes all negative emotions--from depression, apathy, and sadness to anxiety, guilt, and anger. These negative emotions are commonly called “stress.” People who feel stress are more susceptible to many kinds of mental and physical illness--including infection, viruses, AIDs, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. For example, studies have shown that people with prolonged anger or depression are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack as the general population! They are also more likely to die afterward. Researchers have also found that getting control of negative emotions and feeling happier can have a powerful effect on these diseases. [1]

Our emotions vary from moment-to-moment each day. Suppose you wore an emotion gauge that measured and recorded your emotions each moment during a typical week. What would the results look like? How much of your typical week is spent feeling happy--20%, 40%, 60%, 80%?

Do you ever long for more happiness, but fear that wanting it is selfish or naive? Do demands from family, friends, career, or even chores seem more important than your happiness? When you consider that many people face basic problems like hunger, poverty, crime, abuse, and fragmented families, do you ever feel guilty about wanting happiness?

However, if valuing happiness is so bad, why would great philosophers like Aristotle and Bertrand Russell value happiness above all other human experiences? Why would Buddha and Jesus value happiness and love so much? Were these men so naive or selfish?

Deep inside, we all want happiness, but how can we obtain it? Are we happy just because we’re lucky enough to have the right genes or the right circumstances? What if we aren’t so lucky? What if we face difficult circumstances such as rejection, failure, illness, or poverty? Can we rise above those difficulties and choose to be happy?

We can’t control our emotions the way we can flip on a light switch. However, we can develop an inner power to master our emotions. Many people believe they have little or no control over their happiness and other emotions. They are right; they don’t. Not yet! Until they learn the mental structures (values, beliefs, and life skills) necessary to gain control of their happiness and emotions, they cannot control them the way many others can. These differences in cognitive structures are the main reason some people are chronically happier than others. A person can’t play tennis or the piano or even talk until they learn the mental structures needed. Gaining control over emotions is even more complex. However, your brain’s cortex has the ability to learn structures to gain control of emotions as surely as it can gain control of your body. There is strong research evidence to support this claim.


During the summer when I was 16 years old, I was visiting my father in Phoenix. I had a lot of time to think. I had grown up assuming that happiness was just a by-product of meeting other goals. I assumed that what was really important was to be a top athlete, to have a special girlfriend, to be popular, to have lots of money (and a great car), and to be the best at almost everything I attempted. However, I wasn't too successful at meeting these goals, and I wasn't feeling happy at the time.

Something seemed wrong with this way of thinking, but I wasn't sure just what it was. I could see that not everyone could be the best or have the best. If people have to be the best to be happy, doesn't that condemn everyone else to miserable lives? If people have to own the best to be happy, doesn't that doom all poor people to misery?

These beliefs didn't make much sense--especially since some people with little success or money seemed happier than many people who "had it all.” My father had lived by this “be number one” philosophy and had made lots of money. But he did not seem happy.

Yes, something was wrong with this way of thinking. But what could be better? I knew that eventually having a happy marriage was important to me. I thought about what I would want in someone else. I formed a fairly clear image of what she would be like--based on women I had known and characters from movies. The person I wanted would be someone who would be warm, happy, enthusiastic, self-confident, intelligent, honest, emotionally expressive, had interests similar to mine, and more!

However, I didn't even have a girlfriend. Even if I ever found such a terrific person, why would she be interested in me? I asked myself what someone like this would want in a man she would meet. What I realized is that she would probably want a man who had the same positive qualities I was looking for in her!

This conclusion caused me to look at myself honestly. I had to admit that I came up short of what I wanted in someone else--in many respects. The quality that seemed most important was someone who was happy--happy with herself and happy with life. It seemed that no matter where I started my thinking, I kept arriving at the same conclusion--people's happiness is the most important quality in life. I decided that what I wanted more than anything else in my life was happiness.

      This simple insight changed my life. At the time, I feared this insight would end as other self-improvement attempts had--with little progress. I was wrong. My life has never been the same since that event more than 50 years ago. That insight was the beginning of my conscious quest for happiness.

Where do we begin the quest for happiness? My first step for choosing to be happy was to choose to be happy! I decided to make an experiment of consciously making happiness number one. So, I made a commitment to make happiness for myself and others the top goal in my life for at least a few months. Part of that commitment was to recognize that I would take primary responsibility for my own happiness from now on. I quit assuming that money, others, fate, luck, a sexy spouse, or the government would make me happy.

If you decide that you really want to be happier, then how can you begin your quest? Today there are many options--counseling, self-help books, groups, classes, workshops, and other opportunities. They can all be helpful. However, try my experiment; try making happiness for yourself and others your top goal for at least three months. In addition, take responsibility for your own emotions.

Making personal growth a priority can produce "miraculous" effects. Who will be successful at this quest and who won't? The persons who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth primary values. They become fascinated with new growth experiences--even personally difficult ones--in order to keep reaching higher levels of development. Each new stressful event can be seen as an opportunity for growth instead of a disaster. You can fail to reach a goal, but you can never fail to learn.

I have seen many clients with problems such as hardcore drug or alcohol addictions who are now reaching high levels of personal functioning. I have seen clients who were so shy that they had never had a close friend become outgoing, friendly, and develop intimate relationships. I have seen angry people become forgiving and fearful people become confident. If you want to make rapid change in a short time, you can do it by immersing yourself in a variety of good growth experiences.

This book can help provide you with tools to get control of your emotions. This book is not about just one type of problem--such as stress, addictions, depression, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, or lack of success in your career. It is about learning powerful ways of thinking that can help with almost any type of problem affecting your happiness. Once you increase your inner power, then you can choose to be happy in difficult situations.

Find role models for your own personal growth. Another way to begin your quest for happiness is to find good role models--such as people who have reached higher levels of happiness. Finding people who started with problems similar to yours can be especially helpful. This is one reason self-help programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have been so successful.

When I was in college, I wanted models for my own personal growth. Dr. Abraham Maslow's study of self-actualizing people provided one model--which has been etched in my brain and has continued to influence my life.

If you are dealing with problems such as persistent depression or anxiety, you may be so focused on overcoming negative emotions that you resist focusing on goals like happiness and self-actualization. However, is it possible that part of your problem overcoming negative emotions may be that you focus too much on problems and on reacting to situations? Does focusing on problems leave you stuck in quicksand? If so, focusing on positive goals and positive models may be your lifeline out of the quicksand. In addition, happiness and self-actualization are closer than you think. You can achieve bits and pieces of happiness and self-actualization quickly. 

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The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

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