The secret to happiness

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How many of you reading this post can really say, that you are really happy? Many of us are far from claiming that we extremely happy or that our state of well being is perfect. What always intrigued me, is that most of us have everything we need to be happy in terms of basically needs, yet most of the time we don’t feel happy. Some would say this is selfish. That there are many more people are the world who have nothing and are happy, yet for some reason, westerners are not. Maybe its greed?
Happiness isn’t like your typically light switch where you are either happy or not happy. It’s more like a light with a dimmer, there is various degrees of happiness we can experience. When our basic needs are met, the light is on but it may not be shining as bright as what it can be.
A basic level of contentment or happiness can be achieved by providing physical and emotional necessities like; food, water, shelter, feeling loved and cared for. For most of us this basic level of happiness is a given, we have food and shelter, we have loving families. This is in contrast to other parts of the world where food and shelter are often a miss.
I don’t think it’s selfish to pursue happiness beyond our basic needs, I think it is our duty to live as fulfilled human beings. If we work on our own happiness we make the world a better place by our interactions with people around us. If we are happy we are able to give joy to those who need it the most, with our capacity to inspire, give back and support others.
I often like to talk about how we can improve ourselves more than just being average. We all want to achieve optimal health and fitness, so naturally why not try to experience optimal happiness if we can do so.

Happiness is not the pursuit of pleasure

The search for happiness is often confused with the pursuit of pleasure. Happiness is less about living the good life, as it is about having meaning in life. It is more about fulfilling our potential and feeling that our lives are meaningful and worthwhile. Studies of happiness show that the following things all enhance our wellbeing and happiness state:

  • A good marriage
  • The company of friends
  • Rewarding work
  • Sufficient money
  • A good diet and physical activity
  • Sound sleep
  • Engaging leisure and
  • Religious or spiritual belief and practice.

 

Optimism, trust, self-respect and autonomy also make us happier. Gratitude and kindness lift our spirits. Other things that provide happiness are; having clear goals to work towards, a ‘sense of place’ and belonging, a coherent positive view of the world and a belief that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

 What makes you happy?

There are a few broad categories that we can work on to improve our happiness, these include:
  • Significance – The feeling of being important and considered special, unique or valued.
  • Connection – Love, intimacy and community.
  • Growth – So we can feel a self of accomplishment and contribute something of value.
  • Be able to give – Showing people you care and people giving back to you.

Whenever these elements are out of balance or missing then we have a tendency to be unhappy. Take for example at work, you maybe highly regarded and an expert in your field, recognised and rewarded appropriately. In your Personal life you may lack connection with others and intimacy with your partner.

Similarly as a stay at home mother you may have an abundance of love, intimacy, feel cared for. However you lack significance or growth, you may feel you are not growing in your career much as you would like. No matter how successful you are in one area of your life, there is still potential to be unhappy in other areas.

The correct balance of the elements; significance, growth, connection and being able to give, is a personal thing. The right balance is determined by your own values and beliefs. Ultimate happiness can be achieved through nurturing core values.

My happiness story

I am a self proclaimed generally happy person, although like everyone I do have my ups and downs. Not to long ago I was at the tail end of a downer. My little dog was seriously ill. He has a genetic disorder in which he has autoimmune flare ups that cause severe pain and weakness, that can lead to paralysis. I thought I was going to lose him.

In conjunction with that, work commitments were heightened and a new friendship ended badly. Although this seems a little trivial compared to some horrific stories I have heard others go through. When we are personally experiencing events, although they may seem small, they are still real and hurt. Like happiness, sadness is subjective.

I tend to keep these feelings of sadness to myself to deal with in private and keep an air of pleasantness especially in public. Although, I have learnt that allowing yourself to feel sad is part of the recovery process. I also believe that there is a time and a place for it. In situations when the feeling is light hearted and happy I focus on being present in the moment and fight back the negative thoughts and worries that plague my mind.

What I have learnt in my happiness journal is that part of my healing process is to start being grateful. Focusing on what I do have, rather than on what I do not or what I am losing. It is a great way to reframe your world in a positive light. This is what I call happiness resilience.

What I have noticed is that if you aim for heightened level of happiness in general you’re less susceptible to extreme “down phases”. What I mean by this is that you need happiness creating habits. Just like healthy eating, it’s hard to eat healthy all the time if you have to consciously think about it day in an day out. Trying to make multiple decisions every day to choose to be healthy or not is exhausting and requires a large degree of willpower. Whereas if you redesign your life so being healthy is part of your life, half the decisions are already made. You are more likely to be happy by default.

Your default happiness setting

Happiness can be learnt over time and we all have a natural happiness default setting, some of us are more pessimistic for example. It is thought that our level of happiness can be adjusted by an additional 10-20% even if you naturally tend to be a negative person, genetic influences are not fixed. Genetic influences are shaped by the environment in which we live: our upbringing, our personal experiences, even the general conditions of life. If we change our environment to make it a happier place, we have the potential to reach our maximum happiness state.

Does money buy happiness?

Studies on happiness have found that the lower a person’s annual income falls below $75,000 benchmark, the unhappier they feel. In the reverse however money doesn’t necessarily guarantee you happiness. People who earn say $90,000 an an example, don’t report any greater degree of happiness compared to $75,000. Even when you get into the millionaire category happiness is only marginally higher.

It’s not that earning below $75,000 makes us sad. It’s the issues that rise from not having enough money to pay for basic things. People feel down because of issues relating to financial insecurity such as paying for bills and not having enough food on the table. After we reach $75,000 per year that part of our happiness basic needs has been taken care of. We can comfortably pay for basic needs, as well as pleasurable extras. So we are able to concentrate on more transcendent things like building stronger relationships with people we love.

Money doesn’t guarantee happiness. Do you use your money for experiences or buying things? It turns out that purchasing experiences produces more happiness, especially when you share those experiences with other people.

Build relationships to build happiness

When I talk about building relationships I’m not only talking about intimate relationships with partners, but also friends, family and co workers. Life is more satisfying with deeper meaningful connections that hundreds of superficial ones.

Work places are a great way to have social connection, because colleagues are right there! It’s estimated that we need 6hours of social time per day to affect happiness. Organisations need to help people in leadership to create and build communities were people can interact on a daily basis. You spend most of your life at work, you have the right to be happy there.

People with strong and broad social relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, support and increase our feelings of self worth. Broader networks bring a sense of belonging. So taking action to strengthen our relationships and build connections is essential for happiness. Not having close personal ties poses the same level of health risk as smoking or obesity. Strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation, helps us recover from disease faster.

Building relationships is hard work and takes time. Start by asking the person you sit next to at work out for a coffee at lunch time. You can build relationships over text, email or Facebook. You need to stay in regular contact. This means allocating time in your life for catch ups. You may want to ring a long lost friend from high school to rekindle friendship.

Creating happiness in your career

A career is what you do in your daily life. Happiness at work is achieved when you do something that’s inline with your talents and what you enjoy. What effect’s your happiness at work is autonomy and your relationship with your manager. Get a job where you can do your best, get a good manager and try to allocate social time for your social connections outside of work.

How to create happiness at home?

Having a strong family unit that is filled with unconditional love and understanding will give you happiness at home. This doesn’t happen naturally for some people and needs to be worked on. Ultimately to build intimate relationships we have to learn to be good communicators and good listeners. Be helpful and understanding, most of all you need to be around often.

In a study of over 100 people, researchers found that people who completed a stressful task experienced a faster recovery when they were reminded of people with whom they had strong relationships. (Those who were reminded of stressful relationships, on the other hand, experienced even more stress and higher blood pressure). Having a loving family can reduce your stress levels.

How can journalling increase happiness?

A lot of happiness books encourage journaling, talking to other people to build social connections, giving back to the community or volunteering is also a good way to enhance happiness.

I came across the idea of keeping a gratitude journal, which I think is a great tool to start doing something small to increase my own level of happiness, more so than a lengthy journal. A gratitude journal is were you write 3 things daily that you are grateful for. I find this becomes a neat little book to read back over when you feel down. It also makes you feel good when you write down your daily gratitudes because you are allowed to think of all the wonderful important things in your life.

Along came across another type of happiness journal that also helped. It involves writing down a one liner about what makes you happy.This was not my original idea, but it seemed to fit a perfect progression for my personal journaling.

As you thinking about the perfect one line to put to ink, you scan your whole day and reflect on all the happy things. It’s a great way to be present and mindful of your surroundings and acknowledge happy times without having to write it all down. It saves time!

The first step to keeping a happiness journal is to be open and aware of all the things around you that makes you happy. Take a mental note of something that makes you happy and jot it down.  Often happiness is not felt by the completion of an out come based task, but by the process itself. It’s the journey and experience that empowers you and makes you feel happy in retrospect.

What makes you happy?

Happiness references

Maisel, N.C. & Gable, S.L. (2009) For richer…in good times…and in health: positive processes in relationships. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

nef (2008) Five Ways to Wellbeing. Report prepared by the New Economics Foundation for the UK Government Foresight Project, Mental Capital and Wellbeing

Uchino, B.N., Cacioppo, J.T. & Kiecolt-Glaser,J.K. (1996) The Relationship Between Social Support and Physiological Processes: A Review With Emphasis on Underlying Mechanisms and Implications for Health. Psychological Bulletin Vol. 119, No. 3, 488-531

Dickerson,S.S. & Zoccola, P.M. (2009) Towards a biology of social support. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, K.W., Mostofsky, E. & Whang, W. (2010). “Don’t worry, by happy: Positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey.” European Heart Journal, 31 , 1065-1070.

Thorn, B.E., Pence, L.B., et al. (2007). “A randomized clinical trial of targeted cognitive behavioral treatment to reduce catastrophizing in chronic headache sufferers.”Journal of Pain 8 , 938-949.

Krantz, D.S. & McCeney, M.K. (2002). “Effects of psychological and social factors on organic disease: A critical assessment of research on coronary heart disease.” Annual Review of Psychology, 53 , 341-369.

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