How do you know you’re happy? You just kind of do. Recognizing happiness isn’t that hard. You’re laughing. You’re lying on a deck chair. You’re standing beside your wife, watching your kids play together in the front yard. You’re exhausted from a good run. Mystery solved.
Expressing happiness can be the tougher task, made harder by a nondescript label. It’s like saying you like music or you’re going out for food.
“Happiness is a wastebasket term for just feeling good,” says Philip Gable, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Emotive Neuroscience Lab at University of Delaware.
Positive emotions come from multiple places, like relief, contentment, and joy. With any of those, saying something like, “I’m so glad I finished that project” or “Great time at the beach” is not stressful.
But other causes for happiness make it trickier. Sometimes the sentiment is more personal and leaves you emotionally exposed. Other times, pride is the driving factor, and maybe your culture downplayed personal achievements. Maybe your role models were reticent. Or definitely you’ve seen Facebook posts about a new kitchen or vacation and think, “Oy. You really needed to tell everyone?”
You decide to keep things to yourself, and while that will minimize the chance of offending anyone, it won’t eliminate it completely. You’ll also lose out on sharing, which is, well, about sharing something positive. That stuff brings people closer, and once it starts, it can become contagious.
It just doesn’t happen automatically. You need to think about who you’re talking to, when you’re talking and what you’re going to say. None of it guarantees success, because people interpret words as they wish, but if you make it personal and remain authentic throughout, your chances of being well-received rather than getting the brush off get much, much better.
Want to Express Happiness? Check Your Ego
Pride is not all bad, but it’s not all the same. There are actually two kinds, one of which is a thornier reason for happiness, says Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology at University of British Columbia, director of the Emotion & Self Lab and author of Pride: The Secret of Success.
The first is hubristic. It’s grandiose, aggressive, and arrogant, carrying the tacit message of: I’m great and therefore you’re not. The second kind is authentic, and it stems from something that truly matters to you, creating a positive effect that can’t be underplayed.
“Feeling good about ourselves is one of the most powerful motivators,” Tracy says.
It can feel so good that it makes you want to tell others, but the question becomes, “Should you?” Regardless of which pride is in play, the intent of sharing your success and broadcasting your happiness is the same. You’re looking to elevate your status. That’s been a deep-seated aspect to survival, because those with skills were kept around, and this remains the case. Tracy’s research has shown that when given a difficult trivia question, the people who were displaying pride were the ones off of whom others copied.
Sharing becomes a matter of how, and it starts by remembering that it’s an inherently risky process. As Tracy says, no matter how thoughtful you are, some people will still take it as bragging, because that’s how they hear it based on where they’re at
Happy Is as Happy Does: Setting Yourself Up for Success
What can help you be happy without upsetting anyone is to hand-pick your audience. Blanket braggadocious Facebook posts go to people who don’t necessarily know or care about you. Your spouse, family, friends, people who understood the struggle you went through, want good things for you.
Another smart move is to approach your news like an apology, says Harry Reis, professor of psychology at University of Rochester. Before you speak, make sure someone isn’t busy or preoccupied. Speak clearly, without embellishment, and keep it short. The longer you talk, the more it becomes about you. Share credit where it’s due, but don’t resort to false modesty. “The key word is genuine,” he says.
That can be hard to pull off when the news is only about you, so Jessica Borelli, associate professor of psychological science at University of California Irvine, says to look for ways to stress the importance of the relationship. Whether it’s through words or actions, you relay that, “This doesn’t mean as much until I tell you.”
Reis adds that sharing reflects a regard you have for the other person. The flip side is when you keep quiet under the guise of modesty, there can be a “rebound effect”, where the person is left feeling hurt because the assumption is that you didn’t think they could handle your good news or even want to know it in the first place.
If You’re Happy and You Know It, Be Generous and Genuine
Here’s the thing: You can only be so mindful about what might be a sensitive topic for another person. But Borelli says that the difficulty in sharing happiness doesn’t just apply to pride-related accomplishments.
Positive emotions might seem like they should be easier to express, but saying, “I love being with you” or “I’m glad you’re my friend”, both of which stem from happiness, can be scarier. When you open yourself up, you’re no longer in a defensive, protective posture. “Your intent is to bring someone in and the risk is that they might not come,” she says.
But there’s still reason to do it. You’re sharing good news and that creates good feelings, and, “Positive people are more fun to be around,” Gable says. Your relationship with the other person deepens. You feel more connected and that can make sharing easier.
One more thing can help as well: generosity. If you want other people to care about what happened in your life? Do the same. You know what it feels like when someone is happy for you. And conversely, “There’s no bigger buzzkill when your news isn’t met with equal excitement,” Gable says.
It pays to think about how you’ve been reacting, and recalibrate accordingly. Not as some quid pro quo, but as another way of being genuine, because when you offer that attention and joy, it’s more likely to be returned. “It’s a pay it forward type of attitude,” Borelli says. After all, happy is as happy does.