It’s a New Year — Resolve to be Happy!
Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be. — Abraham Lincoln
Is it possible to choose to be happy? Is happiness really a choice? If so, why does it seem so elusive sometimes? This article will explore: what happiness is; some of the reasons so many of us struggle with finding happiness; and strategies we can all use to cultivate happiness and live lives of greater joy and contentment.
Why is Happiness Often Elusive?
Strangely, being stressed-out is not elusive. Being nervous is not elusive. Being sad is not elusive. Being angry is not elusive. We readily access and recognize negative emotions day-in-and-day-out. But happiness is another matter. Often, we can’t even say for sure whether we’re even happy in some vague, general way, let alone say we are genuinely happy. Why is happiness so elusive, so often? Possibly:
- It may be built into our genetics. By instinct, we may be hard-wired to scan our environment for trouble so as to nip it in the bud. When we are more problem-focused, dwelling in the more unpleasant side of life becomes a habit and happiness can inch farther away.
- We may have grown-up in an overwhelmingly negative, happy-phobic environment. In such environments we often simply shut-down and suppress feelings of joy to avoid being criticized for being a Pollyanna.
- We may feel it’s selfish to be happy. Similar to being told when we were young that there are starving children in the world. That we were guilty of lacking appreciation for what graced our table if we didn’t eat all our dinner. We may subconsciously internalize the suffering of others and feel guilt or shame if we feel happiness when others aren’t happy.
- We may feel it’s virtuous to suffer. You may have heard of the term martyr complex, in which an individual will seek-out suffering and sacrifice over a fulfilled, happy life. Besides the complicated psychological reasons people might do this, it turns out some of us may believe we are virtuous and heroic for being miserable.
- We may be trying to get attention. Some folks have learned to seek negative attention by acting sad because it’s the only type of attention they could get growing-up. They crave someone asking, “Are you alright?” Unfortunately, this is a quick way to be a total downer and someone people avoid. As Mick Jagger sang in the Rolling Stones song, Heart of Stone:
Don't keep on looking that same old way
If you try acting sad, you'll only make me glad
But there’s another possibility — a different way to be. Maybe, we just don’t have a clear definition for ourselves as to what happiness really is, what it looks like, and what it really feels like.
What is Happiness?
So, what is happiness? Happiness means different things to different people. For the sake of this article, let’s define happiness as a pervasive and ongoing inner peace and a sense of overall well-being that helps us weather life’s ups and downs. This doesn’t mean that happy people run around all day in a state of euphoria. As Rubin Khoddam PhD, writes in his article, What's Your Definition of Happiness? for psychologytoday.com:
… positive emotions do not indicate the absence of negative emotions. A "happy person" experiences the spectrum of emotions just like anybody else, but the frequency by which they experience the negative ones may differ. It could be that "happy people" don't experience as much negative emotion because they process it differently or they may find meaning in a way others have not. In fact, using the phrase "happy person" is probably incorrect because it assumes that they are naturally happy or that positive things happen to them more often. Nobody is immune to life's stressors, but the question is whether you see those stressors as moments of opposition or moments of opportunity.
So now we know we want to be happier, we know it’s good for us, and we are cautiously optimistic that we can in fact be happier. The question is, how do we get happier? It turns out, happiness thrives when we cultivate our inner life and properly process the people and events that surround us daily. With that, our mindset is crucial. Mindset is reinforced by our dominant beliefs and can therefore be changed. To do that, a good place to begin developing the happiness ‘muscle’ is to banish beliefs that begin with the phrasing, “I’ll be happy when _____.”
It is far better to say to oneself, “I am happy in this moment because ______.” This is positive action in the moment, not a vague wish for the future and keeps happiness from being contingent on something outside of ourselves. Our future is always built on the ongoing moments we create for ourselves. So why not be happy right now? The more moments we spend accessing happiness in the present, the happier we’ll be in the future. In other words, we take action right now to make a conscious effort to be happy and that happiness pays off in both the present and the future.
This might sound easier said than done. Can we cultivate happiness? If so, what are some of the ways to do it for ourselves. In her article for realsimple.com, 10 Ways to Be Happier, Gretchen Rubin offers plenty of strategies to become happier, including:
- Don’t start with profundities. Ms. Rubin writes, “When I began my Happiness Project, I realized pretty quickly that, rather than jumping in with lengthy daily meditation or answering deep questions of self-identity, I should start with the basics, like going to sleep at a decent hour and not letting myself get too hungry. Science backs this up; these two factors have a big impact on happiness.”
- Do let the sun go down on anger. Ms. Rubin writes, “I had always scrupulously aired every irritation as soon as possible, to make sure I vented all bad feelings before bedtime. Studies show, however, that the notion of anger catharsis is poppycock. Expressing anger related to minor, fleeting annoyances just amplifies bad feelings, while not expressing anger often allows it to dissipate.”
- Fake it till you feel it. Ms. Rubin writes, “Feelings follow actions. If I’m feeling low, I deliberately act cheery, and I find myself actually feeling happier. If I’m feeling angry at someone, I do something thoughtful for her and my feelings toward her soften. This strategy is uncannily effective.”
- Realize that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Ms. Rubin writes, “Challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness. The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction. People who do new things — learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places — are happier than people who stick to familiar activities that they already do well. I often remind myself to ‘Enjoy the fun of failure’ and tackle some daunting goal.”
- Don’t insist on the best. Ms. Rubin writes, “There are two types of decision makers. Satisficers (yes, satisficers) make a decision once their criteria are met. When they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.”
- Take action. Some people assume happiness is mostly a matter of inborn temperament: You’re born an Eeyore or a Tigger, and that’s that. Although it’s true that genetics play a big role, about 40 percent of your happiness level is within your control. Taking time to reflect, and making conscious steps to make your life happier, really does work...
Additionally, in his article, 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy, for inc.com, Jeff Haden offers more happiness strategies — here are some, distilled from his full article:
- Exercise: 7 Minutes Could Be Enough. Jeff Haden writes, “Think exercise is something you don't have time for? Think again. Check out the 7 minute workout mentioned in The New York Times. That's a workout any of us can fit into our schedules. Exercise has such a profound effect on our happiness and well-being that it is an effective strategy for overcoming depression. In a study cited in Shawn Achor's book, The Happiness Advantage, three groups of patients treated their depression with medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results of this study are surprising: Although all three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels early on, the follow-up assessments proved to be radically different:
'The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent.’
- Spend More Time With Friends/Family: Money Can't Buy You Happiness. Jeff Haden writes, “Not staying in touch with friends and family is one of the top five regrets of the dying. If you want more evidence that time with friends is beneficial for you, research proves it can make you happier right now, too. Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we feel. I love the way Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it:
'We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.'
- Get Outside More: Happiness is Maximized at 57°. Jeff Haden writes, “In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve your happiness:
'Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory...'This is pretty good news for those of us who are worried about fitting new habits into our already-busy schedules. Twenty minutes is a short enough time to spend outside that you could fit it into your commute or even your lunch break.”
- Help Others: 100 Hours a Year is the Magic Number. Jeff Haden writes, “One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice I found is that to make yourself feel happier, you should help others. In fact, 100 hours per year (or two hours per week) is the optimal time we should dedicate to helping others in order to enrich our lives.
If we go back to Shawn Achor's book again, he says this about helping others:
‘...when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called "prosocial spending," also boosts happiness.’
- Plan a Trip: It Helps Even if You Don't Actually Take One. Jeff Haden writes, “As opposed to actually taking a holiday, simply planning a vacation or break from work can improve our happiness. A study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as people enjoy the sense of anticipation:
‘In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people.…’If you can't take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it's a month or a year down the road. Then, whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.”
- Meditate: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness. Jeff Haden writes, “Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity, and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it's also useful for improving your happiness:
‘In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants' brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.’Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it's been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”
Also, check out this excellent YouTube video, How to be Happy - The Science of Happiness and Feeling Positive in Life for even more happiness strategies, including:
- Practice gratitude.The video points out that, “In one study, people who wrote down things they were grateful for once a week for 6 weeks, felt happier and less depressed for up to 6 months.” The video quotes well-known researcher, Brené Brown on gratitude:
In 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person with the capacity to really experience joy who does not also actively practice gratitude.
No matter which happiness strategies work best for you, the take-away point is that happiness is well within the reach of all of us, if we resolve to be happy.
What do you think?
- What’s your definition of happiness?
- Do you find happiness elusive?
- What strategies do you use to bring happiness into your life?