I’m sure that we were all shocked when we heard that Robin Williams had taken his own life this week. As soon as that shock wore off a bit, we probably all asked the same question: Why?
He was very wealthy. He had a lovely family. He had a great and still-active career that he seemed to enjoy. He was adored by millions of people around the world. Yet he must have been very unhappy or he would still be with us.
And then we are reminded of things we may have heard about him and simply not paid a lot of attention to. He had a substance abuse problem for which he had been treated multiple times, the last time very recently. He struggled with depression, too, and those close to him say he was wrestling with it at the time of his death.
He seemed to have everything a man could ask for, yet he didn’t want to go on living. Perhaps the things that we often assume will make us happy -- success, fame, wealth, adulation -- may not be the things that really make life worth living. But if that’s true, what really does make a person happy?
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There is a relatively recent movement in psychology that is seeking the answer to that question. Some mental health researchers are taking a break from treating people who are “sick” to try and quantify what it is that makes people happy.
Having a lot of money is apparently not one of those things. In fact, it turns out that being obsessed with accumulating wealth and acquiring things that money can buy is actually counterproductive to feeling satisfied with life.
And being adored by the public doesn’t bring a person much joy either, it seems. Celebrities often feel isolated because the public adores a well-honed image that they feel the need to try and live up to. Meanwhile, they may feel that no one knows the flawed human being behind the façade, or that they want to know them.
So what does make a person happy? Good relationships are a primary factor. Having people you can depend on, talk to and give and receive real affection from, is enough for most of us to want to get out of bed every day.
Another big factor in personal happiness is having a sense of purpose. A manual laborer who truly enjoys his work is likely to be much happier than a powerful, well-paid CEO, who detests his daily routine.
You should also learn to count your blessings. People who take time to be thankful for the things they enjoy in their lives tend to have a better attitude. Verbalizing or writing down those things can help your brain get on track to viewing your situation more positively. Let’s face it -- most of us like to complain. Venting can be good for us, as long as we don’t abuse the privilege. Make time to explicitly acknowledge the good things that happen to you, too.
There was one thing that stood out above all of these other factors. It turns out the happiest people are those who are able to forgive. That is probably the hardest thing on the list to do, but apparently it’s also the most important. Forgiving those who have wronged us in the past frees us up from bitterness and resentment that prevent us from enjoying the present.
We will never understand why Robin Williams ended his life, and I wouldn’t suggest there is anything good about this terrible tragedy. But this is a good time for us all to reflect on what’s really important to our happiness -- nurturing our close relationships, dedicating ourselves to work we really enjoy and learning to be thankful and forgiving -- so that we can better enjoy and appreciate the short time we have on Earth.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.