When asked to name their number one priority, people tend to list personal relationships, good physical health, meaningful employment, wealth, a comfortable home, sufficient leisure time… the list goes on and on.
At the same time, many of us are concerned that we just don’t have it in us to be happy, or we have misconceptions about what brings happiness. Below are some facts about happiness that may be encouraging, and that you can put into practice on a regular basis.
Happy people have a full range of emotions. Trying to be happy every waking moment is like typing in all capital letters or singing at the top of your lungs, in that it can actually be grating and eventually become meaningless. Life is challenging, so if we’re perky all the time, this might indicate that we’re a bit out of touch with reality.
After all, if you’ve experienced a tragedy and your friend advises you to cheer up without empathizing with how you’re feeling, you’d probably consider your friend to be insensitive. So, why would you want to treat yourself this way?
When we’re grounded in the present and attuned to what’s going on around and within us, our emotions are nuanced and appropriate to the situation. People who consider themselves happy in general are good at responding to matters at hand in a flexible and adaptive manner, and don’t criticize themselves for feeling sad, angry, or fearful at times.
Labeling our feelings can increase our level of happiness. Even if what we’re feeling isn’t pleasant, putting words to our emotions (with which mindfulness can help) enables us to regard our feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.
As a result, if we notice that we’re angry and focus on describing what we’re feeling, rather than getting angry about getting angry, we practice using our “inner observer”. This can help give us just a bit of distance from feelings that might otherwise overwhelm us and possibly lead to impulsive behavior we might later regret.
People express happiness in different ways. Be true to yourself, and don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides – actually, don’t compare at all. Just because you aren’t humming in the hallway at the office or laughing up a storm like your jovial coworker doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy – unless you believe you are. Some people are quietly content. Know yourself and what brings you joy.
Trying mental subtraction can boost our happiness. We all tend to take the great aspects of our life for granted. One way of countering this tendency involves imagining if something in your life that you hold dear was taken from you. This could be your spouse, your pet, or even chocolate. Consider in detail what your life would be without this factor. Chances are that you’ll then appreciate more deeply what you do have.
Spending money on other people promotes happiness. Studies have shown that after receiving their annual bonus, the happiest people were those who spent the money on other people or on charities rather than on themselves. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that people who were given a small amount of money ($5 or $20) and were told to spend the money on others reported greater levels of happiness than those who were instructed to spend the money on themselves. Sharing with others, or what’s known as pro-social behavior, pays dividends for all involved, especially when your giving is a choice, you connect with the recipients, and you see the impact your giving had made. For instance, if you choose to send money to an orphan through an agency, if you and the child communicate through letters this is likely to feel especially meaningful.
Happiness is something we do, rather than just an emotion. According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson, well-being comes about through our actions and our conscious choices about how to view a situation, rather than merely our feelings. Given our natural negativity bias, where we’re naturally inclined to focus on a perceived threat more than a pleasant experience, cultivating happiness takes work. Viewing happiness as a skill to be honed, rather than a state of being that should just come to us naturally, may be the best approach. Then we can get self-judgment out of the way and turn our attention to techniques and habits that are likely to boost our sense of well-being. Happiness is a relationship with life – and all relationships need regular attention and nurturing.
We can change our happiness set-point. Hedonic adaptation refers to the tendency to become accustomed to situations, be they positive or negative, and to return to our general happiness level. If we’re not aware of this principle, we can blame other people or circumstances for our emotions and possibly leave a marriage, job, or school, when our attention might be better spent nurturing that relationship, having a more constructive approach toward our work, or applying ourselves at a deeper level to our education.
Of course, this is assuming that our choices about the above items were well-thought and that significant new information or insights haven’t come to light to alter our fundamental feelings about our initial choices. The bottom line is that, whether or not your present emotional state isn’t what you’d like it to be, and you have the suspicion that maybe it’s by practicing some of the hints listed above, you can raise your happiness set-point.