My family were cattle ranchers in Wyoming. Every bit of extra money went into cattle, veterinary supplies, and spools of barbed wire. Whenever I’d feel unhappy about not being able to buy something for myself, my grandmother would remind me that it didn’t matter how much we owned as long as we enjoyed what we did have.
Happiness is about a lot more than laughing and being silly. It is a profound feeling of satisfaction of a life well-lived. It is not pretending to others, and ourselves, that we are content and fulfilled in life.
If we are mentally tough, we are able to identify where, and how, we can change our emotions, thoughts, and behavior so we choose to live happier lives.
My grandmother was right—happiness is a choice. And here are 7 science-based ways to find happiness:
1. Help Others
To make yourself feel happier and enrich your life, help others.
According to Adam Grant, “When I looked at one end of the success spectrum and said, ‘If Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top?’ I was really surprised to discover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom, but also at the top of most success metrics.”
A recent study indicates that good deed-doers, or altruists, are more likely to be committed to their work and less likely to quit their jobs. Those who help others are also happier at work than those who don’t make helping others a priority.
Helping others may have a ripple effect that makes not only those who are performing the good acts happier, but may also boost happiness among other members of the community.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson told PBS, “By creating chains of events that carry positive meaning for others, positive emotions can trigger upward spirals that transform communities into more cohesive, moral and harmonious social organizations.”
2. Plan Experiences And Savor The Anticipation
With busy work schedules it is sometimes difficult to plan ahead for vacations or breaks. But research shows that the highest spike in happiness comes during the planning stage of a vacation as people savor the sense of anticipation.
Even if you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, put something on the calendar. It can be a month or year from now. So whenever you need a boost of happiness, you can remind yourself of it.
There’s also a logical assumption that most people make when spending their money: that because a physical object will last longer, it will make us happier for a longer time than a one-off experience like a concert or vacation. According to recent research, it turns out that assumption is completely wrong.
Studies have shown that when making purchases, the anticipation of purchasing items resulted in significantly more happiness and excitement than waiting for the purchases to arrive. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed.
Immediate rewards cause soaring levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel good. Those levels start to level off, however, while receiving the reward. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.
Whether it’s a vacation, time spent with friends, or a new purchase, you will be happier if you can savor the anticipation of the actual event.
3. Be True To Yourself
According to Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, the most common regret of the dying is that they wished they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.
When people understand that their life is almost over and look back, they see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. The regret comes from dying while knowing that they had not honored their dreams by the choices they made, or not made.
To be happy, we need the courage to express our true feelings. Too many times we suppress them to keep peace with those around us. But when this happens, we end up living a mediocre existence and never become the person we were capable of becoming.
As a result, bitterness and resent grows—both toward ourselves and others.
When we are true to ourselves, we are being authentic. Our identity comes from within, from our core. It is not dependent on what we achieve or possess or the opinion of others.
4. Nurture Relationships
One of the conclusions of the Grant Study (a 72 year study of the lives of 268 men) was this: “The only thing that really matters in life is our relationships with other people.”
This response does not surprise behavior psychologists who want to understand why simply existing—why being merely housed, fed, safe, and alive—is empty and meaningless to us. What more do we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile?
The answer that comes up again and again is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. Human beings need relationships which do not always produce happiness, and sometimes produce pain, but we all require devotion to something bigger than ourselves for our lives to have value and meaning.
Nurturing relationships improves our happiness, even for introverts. Those deep relationships can be with either family or friends. 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.”
Modern psychological research shows that being kind and nurturing relationships has benefits for everyone involved—they tend to have better psychological well-being, fewer depressive symptoms and higher life-satisfaction.
5. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude increases happiness and satisfaction with life.
Gratitude changes your outlook. It is closely linked to positive thinking and optimism.
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty—Winston Churchill
A conscious focus on blessings produces emotional benefits. Optimism has been proven to improve the immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope with adversity. Grateful people are happier, receive more social support, are less stressed, and are less depressed.
Recent research by Martin Seligman indicates that optimists and pessimists approach problems differently, and their ability to cope successfully with adversity differs as a result. Pessimistic people tend to view problems as internal, unchangeable, and pervasive, whereas optimistic people are the opposite.
6. Pursue Work That Has Meaning
Do you ever find yourself so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time? Think a minute about this. When does this loss of time and total engagement typically occur for you?
The loss of self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity— intellectual, professional, or physical—is described as “flow” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In order for a flow state to occur, the activity must:
- Be seen as voluntary
- Be enjoyable
- Require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging)
- Have clear goals towards success.
- Let you feel as though you have control
- Provide immediate feedback with room for growth
The new field of Positive Psychology shows that the happiest people are those that have discovered their unique strengths and virtues—and then use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.
Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, once said “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
7. Keep Moving
The importance of exercise in pursuing happiness is based in hard-nosed neuroscience. Most of are aware of what happens to our body when we workout, but our brain is also affected.
Once we start exercising, our brain recognizes this first as stress. Our blood pressure increases and the brain thinks we are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect ourselves, our brain releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor).
BDNF is a reparative element to our memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising—which leads to happiness.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in our brain. Endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.
According to Gretchen Reynolds, author of “The First 20 Minutes,” the first 20 minutes of moving around provide most of the health benefits.
How do you find happiness?
© 2015 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.
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