How to Be Happier
~ By Patricia Kay Youngson ~
There is a field of psychology called positive psychology which studies how we can increase our levels of happiness. There is scientific proof that certain activities and behaviors can make us happier. So how much of our happiness can we influence? Forty percent. We inherit fifty percent of our happiness and ten percent is related to our circumstances.
The positive psychologists have deducd that fifty percent of our level of happiness is hereditary by studying identical twins who have been reared apart. Their levels (or set points) of happiness are the same. Some people are just born to be happier and just naturally use many of the happiness techniques we will discuss.
They further found that ten percent of our happiness is a result of our cirumstances. We seem to adapt to our circumstances, whether positive or negative, in a process called hedonic adaptation. In otherwords we tend to react to positive or negative changes wih increased happiness or unhappiness but sooner or later return to our set point. It is true that married people tend to be somewhat happier than single people, but only marginally.
That leaves forty percent which is the amount of happiness that we have control over. Some people think that is pretty good percent to work with and others think: “Is that all?” Where you fall on that perception probably indicates whether you tend to be optimistic or not (one of the happiness tools we will be discussing).
In our search for ways we can become happier let me debunk (sorry) the common myths about what will bring us happiness and therefore what people commonly pursue. These ineffective pursuits are for: money, romantic love, perfect health, and beauty. For instance, married people are somewhat happier than single, but only marginally so.
Now, let’s look at the twelve happiness activities. Lyubomirsky (“The How of Happiness”) says we need only implement four or so–the ones that particularly suit us and appeal to us. However, I think the more the better and I certainly do more than four. Notice how many of these involve being aware.
1. Gratitude. Gratitude is appreciation, thankfulness–being aware what you have to be grateful for. It is an antidote to negative emotions. There are various ways to do this. You could make a habit to notice something every hour you appreciate. You could list (mentally or written) five things you are grateful every Sunday, for instance. You can also personally express gratitude to people. I recommend never missing an opportunity to thank someone. You could even write a gratitude letter. Strangely, enough, giving thanks for the negative events in your life is also promoted, with the faith that something good will come of them. It is helpful to vary your gratitude practice. The ideal, of course, is for the attitude of gratitude to become a habit.
2. Cultivating optimism. Looking on the bright side. Basically optimism is an expectation of a positive future. One thing to do is to spend 20 minutes on four days in a row writing about your best possible future self. You can also be aware of negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Turn them into positive affirmations. For example, if you find yourself thinking: “I never do anything right.” Replace it with “I do most things right and it is o.k. that I’m not perfect.” When faced with a negative situation, bring to mind any possible positive aspects of it.
3. Avoid overthinking and comparisons. You might call this avoiding worrying and comparing yourself to others. Distraction can help when you find yourself worrying. One way to distract yourself is to replace the negative rumination with a positive affirmation that directly contradicts the negative as in the above example.
Other suggestions are to do what you can to deal with a situation and then let it go. Or you might give yourself a limited time each day to dwell on a problem. Or you could make a list of every possible solution. You might ask yourself: “Will this matter in a year?”
4. Practice kindness. Happy people help others and people who help others are happier. You can open a door for someone. Smile. Let someone in ahead of you in traffic or in the check out line. Give someone a sincere complement (keep your eyes open for the good). Their smile is reward in itself.
5. Cultivate your relationships. For one thing, friends and family can provide support in times of distress. Studies show that there is less hedonic adaptation when it comes to the pleasure and value of our friends and family. Express appreciation to your friends and family. Incidentally, it takes a ratio of five positive interactions with someone to maintain a happy relationship. Make time for your friends, support them, and hug!
6. Develop ways to cope. There are two types of coping: 1) coping that addresses the problem and 2) coping that supports you emotionally. Again, social support helps for emotional coping and possibly for practical suggestions. Another way of coping is to write about the problem. Keeping a journal can almost be like having a therapist to confide in. And use optimism by challenging any negative, pessimistic thoughts (without burying your head in the sand).
7. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a reconcilliation or a pardon, or forgetting, or excusing the perpetrator. You forgive for yourself. The Buddha said: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” And, of course, the Bible says: “Forgive others as you would have them forgive you.” You will know you have forgiven someone when any desire for their harm has decreased and the desire for their good has increased.
So how do we forgive? You could start with bringing to mind the times when you have been forgiven. Another method is to imagine a senario in which you empathize with the offender and offer them forgiveness. You could write a letter of forgiveness which you may or may not send. Or write yourself a letter of apology from them. Desmond TuTu has written a practical book drawn from his own experience called “The Book of Forgiving” that you might read.
8. Increase “flow experiences”. A flow experience is one in which you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you loses track of time. You are so immersed that you are unaware of being hungry, or tired, or in discomfort. This state is pleasurable and provides a natural high. The flow experience happens when you are somewhat challenged by your activity but not overwhelmed by its difficulty. You become engaged by controlling what you pay attention to. When you talk with someone focus all of your attention on them. Be open to new experiences. Learn what flows for you. You can even transform routine tasks by concurrently solving problems in your head, or compose poems, or tap to music.
9. Savoring the good. Savor your positive experiences. Rick Hanson (“Hardwiring Happiness”) calls this: “Taking in the good.” This is exemplified by this quote by Thornton Wilder: “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Relish ordinary experiences. For instance when you eat a piece of chocolate put your whole attention on its creamy deliciousness. Savor your enjoyment of friends and family. Let’s say, you have just finished talking to a friend on the telephone and instead of immediately turning your attention to something else, take thirty seconds or so to revel in the love and communication you have shared. Remember happy times. Be aware of the beauty around you. Take pleasure in all of your senses. Make an album of pictures of people and things you love. These pracices actually help rewire our neuroplastic brain toward more happiness.
10. Pursuing your goals. When we have goals we have a sense of purpose and a feeling of control over our lives. They give us something to work towards and to look forward to. Goals can increase our self-esteem. All of us have goals, but not everyone is committed to achieving them and, of course, it is this committment that is necessary for your goals to promote happiness. When you begin to move toward your goals, making your committment public means you are more likely to carry through. And interestingly enough, pursuing your goals may add to your happiness even more than achieving them.
When we consider goals there are two kinds: 1) Intrinsic and 2) Extrinsic. Intrinsic goals are those that are meaningful to you and promote your growth as a person. Extrinsic goals are those that other people want for you. Naturally you have little enthusiasm for those goals. Examine your goals and see whether they are intrinsic.
11. Being involved in a religion or spirituality. Studies show that religious people are “…happier, more satisfied with their lives and cope better with crises….” (Lyubomirsky, p. 229) The same goes for spiritual people. What is the difference? Both spiritual and religious people are searching for the sacred but the religious do it within an institutional framework.
There can be a downside to religion if a person believes in a wrathful, exacting God and have unrealistic estimates of their own sinfulness. An example of this is seeing one’s own body as sinful. An extreme example of this was medieval times when people hardly bathed because even seeing one’s own naked body was considered so sinful.
One way to practice your spiritual side is to seek meaning and purpose in your life. Prayer is another way. You could practice a type of meditation. There are many different kinds and some will feel more suitable for you than others. There are movement meditations such as Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Yoga and even walking. There are meditations in which you repeat a mantra or someother word that has meaning for you. In some meditations you fix your gaze on an object. A common meditation is sitting with the spine straight and fixing your attention on your breath. Just come back to your breath when your mind wanders–which it will.
12. Being good to your body. Obviously, poor health does not contribute to happiness. You may need to eat healthier. I would recommend organic, nonprocessed food, and lots of vegetables and fruits, along with adequate protein. Carbhydrates should be whole, i.e. whole grains. For the most part, cut out sugar and white flour. Erythrotol and stevia are good substitutes for sugar.
Another way to be good to your body is through exercise. It is good for the brain as well as the body. You could go to a gym or bike or just plain walk. Move!
In closing, the book from which I took these suggestions (“The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph.d) says: “So go for it. Smile, laugh, stand tall, act lively, and give hugs. Act as if you were confident, optimistic, and outgoing. You’ll manage adversity, rise to the occasion, create instant connections, make friends, and influence people, and become a happier person (p. 254).”
Patricia Kay Youngson RN, MA in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University. email@example.com, website: patriciak.com