How do you define happiness?
When was the last time you felt that warm, fuzzy feeling inside of you?
Do you remember the most recent moment where you got super excited and really giddy?
So, how do we all perceive happiness?
Behavioural scientists have spent a lot of time studying what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). Happiness is often understood to be elusive; like other emotions, such as love, and is thought to be difficult to define and describe. It is also understood to be ‘natural’ and biological, originating from within one’s body (which could be imagined as a ‘container’ for happiness). In this way, it is reified, or thought to be something tangible and real.
Studies have shown that people tend to judge their level of happiness based on the picture they have chosen to represent themselves to the world.
People also often believe that happiness will be achieved once they reach a certain milestone, such as finding the perfect partner or landing a particular salary.
“I’ll be happy when I’m rich and successful.”
“I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person.”
“Landing my dream job will make me happy.”
“I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart.”
“I will never recover from this diagnosis.”
“The best years of my life are over.”
Do these phrases sound familiar?
Maybe you have said one of these things to yourself at some point. These are common misconceptions that we believe in and tell ourselves. But we can all be happy, now.
OK, let’s dive in and discuss the two key components of happiness:
The balance of emotions:
Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions, feelings and moods. People recognize that happiness is something transient, and acknowledge that the unpleasant experiences are an inevitable part of life, therefore one cannot and should not expect to be happy at all times. Periodic feelings of unhappiness or misery are okay, as this lets us appreciate happiness more, when it occurs.
This relates to how satisfied we feel with different areas of our lives, including relationships, work, achievements, and other things that we consider important. It is a uniquely subjective experience, which means that nobody is better at reporting on someone’s life satisfaction than the individuals themselves.
While perceptions of happiness may be different from one person to the next, there are some key signs that psychologists look for when measuring and assessing happiness:
· Feeling like you are living the life you wanted
· Going with the flow and willingness to take life as it comes
· Feeling that the conditions of your life are good
· Enjoying positive, healthy relationships with other people
· Feeling that you have accomplished (or will accomplish) what you want in life
· Feeling satisfied with your life
· Feeling positive more than negative emotions
· Being open to new ideas and experiences
· Practicing self-care and treating yourself with kindness and compassion
· Experiencing gratitude
· Feeling that you are living life with a sense of meaning and purpose
· Wanting to share your happiness and joy with others
While some people just tend to be naturally happier than some of us, there are things that you can do to cultivate your sense of happiness.
- Pursue Intrinsic Goals
Achieving goals that you are intrinsically motivated to pursue, particularly ones that are focused on personal growth and community, can help boost happiness. Research suggests that pursuing these types of intrinsically – motivated goals can increase happiness more than pursuing extrinsic goals like gaining money or status.
- Enjoy the Moment
Studies have found that people tend to over-earn. They become so focused on accumulating things that they lose track of actually enjoying what they are doing.
So, rather than falling into the trap of mindlessly accumulating to the detriment of your own happiness, focus on practicing gratitude for the things you have and enjoying the process as you go.
- Reframe The Negative Thoughts
When you find yourself stuck in a pessimistic outlook or experiencing negativity, look for ways that you can reframe your thoughts in a more positive way.
People have a natural negativity bias, or a tendency to pay more attention to bad things than to good things. This can have an impact on everything from how you make decisions to how you form impressions of other people. Discounting the positive (a cognitive distortion where people focus on the negative and ignore the positive) can also contribute to negative thoughts.
Reframing these negative perceptions isn’t about ignoring the bad. Instead, it means you will be trying to take a more balanced, realistic look at events.
It allows you to notice patterns in your thinking and then challenge negative thoughts.
Socratic questioning is the process of challenging and changing irrational thoughts. Studies show that this method can reduce depression symptoms.
The goal is to get you from a negative mindset (“I’m a failure.”) to a more positive one (“I’ve had a lot of success in my career. This is just one setback that doesn’t reflect on me. I can learn from it and be better.”) Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself to challenge negative thinking.
First, write down your negative thoughts, such as “I’m having problems at work and am questioning my abilities.”
Then ask yourself: “What is the evidence for this thought?”
“Am I basing this on facts? Or feelings?”
“Could I be misinterpreting the situation?”
“How might other people view the situation differently?
“How might I view this situation if it happened to someone else?”
Negative thinking happens to all of us, but if we recognise it and challenge that thinking, we are taking a big step toward a happier life.
- Rewrite Your Story
Writing about oneself and personal experiences — and then rewriting your story — can lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness. Some research suggests that writing in a personal journal for 15 minutes a day can lead to a boost in overall happiness and well-being, in part because it allows us to express our emotions, be mindful of our circumstances, and resolve inner conflicts.
We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it right. By writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of our personal well-being.
Writing a new story from the viewpoint of a neutral observer, or with the kind of encouragement you’d give a friend, will help reshape your mindset.
Numerous studies show that writing and rewriting your story can move you out of your negative mindset and into a more positive view of life. “The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go,” said James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas who has pioneered much of the research on expressive writing. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”
- Practice Optimism
They say that optimism is part genetic, part learned. Even if you were born into a family of gloomy Guses, you can still find your inner ray of sunshine. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, “I’ll never recover from this.” An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.”
Thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. So make a point to hang out with optimistic people.
How to Train Your Brain for Happiness
At birth, our genetics provide us a set point that accounts for some portion of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter, and safety account for another portion.
There’s also quite a bit of happiness that’s entirely up to us.
By training our brain through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and more resilient way, we can effectively train our brains for happiness.
What Are The Patterns We Need To “Train Out” of Our Brains?
- Perfectionism – Often confused with conscientiousness, which involves appropriate and tangible expectations, perfectionism involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. It often produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.
- Social comparison – When we compare ourselves to others, we often find ourselves lacking. Healthy social comparison is about finding what you admire in others and learning to strive for those qualities. However, the best comparisons we can make are with ourselves. How are you better than you were in the past?
- Materialism – Attaching our happiness to external things and material wealth is dangerous, as we can lose our happiness if our material circumstances change.
- Maximising – Maximisers search for better options even when they are satisfied. This leaves them little time to be present for the good moments in their lives and with very little gratitude.
Needless to say, being happy gives a positive impact to our well-being. Here are 6 points on the benefits of happiness:
· Positive emotions increase satisfaction with our life.
· Happiness helps people build stronger coping skills and emotional resources.
· Positive emotions are linked to better health and longevity.
· Positive feelings increase resilience. Resilience helps people better manage stress and bounce back better when faced with setbacks.
· People who report having a positive state of well-being are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours such as eating fruits and vegetables and engaging in regular physical exercise.
· Being happy may help you get sick less often. Happier mental states are linked to increased immunity.
Looking back at all of these tips in leading a happier life, you might think that happiness might have been with you all along—you just may not have taken the time to realise it was much less complicated than you once believed.