The Many Paths to Happiness

For the last few weeks, I've been doing a few courses (all in the name of research of course). Two are on Happiness - (A Life of Happiness and Fulfilment and The Science of Happiness), and the other is on Resilience. (Through Coursera and Edx). All are excellent courses and highly recommended.

In all the courses they talk about how humans are naturally wired to seek the 'bad' or negative in circumstances - it's a life saving strategy (noise in the bush - better think it's a lion rather than a bird, rather being the other way around). However, clearly it doesn't always serve us well in the modern world. In order to combat this, we need to retrain our brains to seek out the pleasant and let these pleasant experiences override the negative or unpleasant. We also need to structure our environment to ensure we are giving ourselves the best chance at happiness.

What has been wonderful about doing these courses at the same time, is their similarities - although they have come from very different approaches and in some cases used different areas of research to support their findings - they have both come up with very similar ways of how to improve our lot in life. As the saying goes "sh*t happens" - life isn't always going to be pleasant or easy, and things from 'bad moods' to being mildly depressed can and will come and go. The good thing is there are things that we can do to give ourselves greater resilience to prevent us going down the rabbit hole of despair.

Interestingly, although we may think that there is not a lot we can do about our happiness 'state' Sonya Lyubomirsky, (author and researcher on Happiness) suggests that although 50 percent of happiness is genetically predetermined, a whole 40% is up to your own personal outlook or take on your circumstances. Which leaves only 10% of what life has thrown at you. So despite your 'lot' in life - you are about to vary your happiness level by about 40%.

Firstly, you need to identify what happiness means to you - understand what it is that truly makes you happy. This is often not what we think - true happiness is generally a feeling of deep contentment and is not usually related to short bursts of pleasure. Happiness values may be based on feeling love/connection with others, a feeling or sense of abundance or a sense of authentic pride and a sense of progress towards mastery. It is important to know what this is for you, and that this is what you aim for on a day-to-day basis - rather than chasing the big happiness 'pie in the sky' - make decisions on a daily basis that will move towards the things that truly make you happy.

(An exercise to help with this is to write down ten things which give you great pleasure. When you have done this, look at the list and think about how often you actually do these things. These are the things you should be prioritising in your life. Try it - you'll be amazed at what you love doing and how little time you spend actively seeking to do these things!)

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand promotes 'The Five Ways to Well-being' This is based on a collaboration of research from around the world, and the results came down to: Exercise, Connect, Give, Learn and Notice.  Interestingly - other research states that the three main lifestyle factors which affect resilience are; Sleep, Exercise and Diet. Let's break these down (and add a few more!)

Exercise

Exercise has been shown in some studies to be as good as an antidepressant in assisting and person to recover from depression. More importantly - the effects are longer lasting. If you've not already seen this video on exercise - take a look. Exercise releases oxytocin and other feel good hormones, improves health and fitness, reduces hormones related to stress - the benefits are overwhelming. The positive effects of an exercise routine can last up to 12 hours!

Sleep

Sleeping approx. eight hours a day is connected with good mental health and resilience. Sleeping too little (less than six hours) or too much (more than 9 or 10 hours)  is hazardous to your health and increases your chances of stroke and developing metabolic syndrome among other things. If you think you are doing OK living off less that approximately eight hours sleep - think again - studies show it just isn't good for you. (See my blog on sleep for further information)

Diet

Getting the right nutrition, ensuring a high quality diet of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, lean meats (if you are a meat eater) and adequate protein. Having the essential nutrients will provide you with a body that is able to function at optimum level. This will include having a well functioning immune system, ensuring you are not depleted of essential vitamins or minerals which may lead to depression, anxiety and other mental or physical issues. This improves your overall physical wellness as well as increasing your resilience to stress.

Connect

Out of all the above - this is one which overwhelmingly is related to happiness and wellbeing. Relationships time and time again are one of the main things that appear to related to happiness and longevity. Along with connecting and belonging - touch is also seen as a very effective stress reliever, releasing oxytocin and stimulating our vagus nerve (and our parasympathetic nervous system - the one that helps us to relax), decreasing our inflammatory response, increasing our immune response, decreasing our stress response and regulating our heart beat. Feeling compassion - for ourselves and others can also stimulate the vagus nerve and produce the same effects. It is an amazing discovery to understand how interconnected our brains, bodies and emotions are. Even being with other people who show compassion help to regulate our own heart rate and raise our own levels of oxytocin. Also, being able to trust the people you are surrounded by is directly co-related between a country's level of happiness scores.

Giving

Giving enhances happiness (see my blog on giving here). And it is in the giving that produces the feeling, rather than people who feel good - who then chose to give. But there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way to give. Giving indiscriminately and above your means is not likely to provide you with happiness - it is likely to lead to burnout and feeling hard done by. So one of the first rules of giving is to ensure that you also attend to your own needs.  It helps if it's fun, within your range of means (ie not going to leave you broke -either in time or financially) and ideally if you can be able to witness the person receiving the gifts reaction, it helps you to also feel a sense of gratitude and pride (which is totally OK!) 

Gratitude

A sense of gratitude has been shown to improve health and happiness for individuals. A simple exercise which has been proven to improve mental well-being involves spending some time each day finding 'three good things' to be thankful for. This has long term consequences on health and well-being. See my blog on Gratitude here

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, being in the moment, not getting caught up in negative thinking is one way of reducing the emotional attachment to negative emotions. It's what the Mental Health Foundation talk about by 'noticing'. Having a sense of awareness, being present and paying attention to the little details can greatly enhance one's sense of well-being. It is, after all the little things that count. Meditating is one way to help this - however there are various forms and types of practising 'being in the moment' (check out my blog on 'Mindful Eating')

I love this cartoon my Michael Leunig. To me this represents; Seeing the good in things, Finding the positive in everyday life, Paying attention to the small things. Allowing yourself to get carried away by the things you love can bring you out of a negative thought pattern. Birds are great for this!

I love this cartoon my Michael Leunig. To me this represents; Seeing the good in things, Finding the positive in everyday life, Paying attention to the small things. Allowing yourself to get carried away by the things you love can bring you out of a negative thought pattern. Birds are great for this!

Smiling

Research suggests that our brains don't know when we are faking a smile (a smile - not a grimace!) from the real thing. Putting a smile on your face - even when you don't feel like it - can promote feelings of happiness. Studies have shown that people who have received botox - reducing their ability to frown - actually feel happier. Smiling is of course infectious and contagious - smiling is likely to lead to being smiled back at... which is likely to lead to more of a smile from yourself - even if you didn't really feel like it in the first place. :-)

and a few other happiness gems...

One thing that is important about promoting happiness is having self compassion. When things are tough - the last thing we need to be doing is to kick ourselves when we are down. Having self compassion and a bit of understanding of our own fragility is the kindest thing we can do.

There is also something to be said about understanding that you cannot control everything in your life. You can only be responsible for your behaviour (internal) and not be responsible for others' behaviour (external control). Once you understand this - you can stop the frustration of trying to 'change' someone else's behaviour (or circumstances beyond your control) - and know that you can only change the way you handle it. (Accept it, Change your Attitude about it, or Leave the Situation)

One of the other behaviours that is associated with happy states is experiencing flow. This involves taking part in an activity which involves practicing mastery. This is why hobbies can be so satisfying - but ideally it would be great if we could experience this in our everyday work life. Flow occurs when you participating in something that is slightly above your level - something slightly challenging enough so you don't get bored and not so difficult that you become disheartened. We tend to get 'lost' in these activities, time passes at an extraordinary rate - flow brings us great joy and satisfaction.

A few other things which can be helpful - planning a holiday (more so than taking one!) and having a shorter commute to work (interestingly an long commute to work ensured your marriage was more likely to fail - ekk), and spending time outside in nature. Along with this - is that when needing to make big decisions in life, take into account your emotional happiness in the decision - ie the job that might earn you the bigger dollars - may mean that you spend an extra hour or two a day in traffic - which has been shown to decrease happiness levels (and risk your marriage!).

So, there we have it. A number of idea's, practices and conditions which you have control over to help improve your happiness. You only have One Life remember - make sure that the decisions you are making today are contributing to your overall well-being and don't sacrifice your happiness today or try to save it for 'a later date'..... :-)

Hugs x