What do you want to be when you grow up? Maybe you have days when you sometimes wonder this! Often the answer is in form of a role and all the performance activities attached to it. What is not said, but still deeply desired is that this role brings us ”happiness”.
Most of us in this room could easily define “depression” and provide ample examples of its symptoms. Depression is well studied. Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage” notes that fifty years ago the mean age for the onset of depression was 29.5 years, today is almost exactly half: 14.5 years. But what about “happiness”? People are starving to be happier – not sometime in the future, but right now.
However, our society defines happiness as something that is achieved only after certain material goals are accomplished like making money — a lot of money. This is done by striving for job promotions, salary increases, seeking bigger homes or another car, the list for attaining more and more power status and material goods remains endless. The message in our society is that in order to feel competent, successful and good about ourselves– we need to have money and lots of it. Eventually, this is supposed to make us feel happy. These are known as extrinsic goals or values. These goals focus on something “external” to you. They are focused on rewards, praise, on getting ‘stuff’. The three main examples commonly researched are: money (earning lots of money), image (looking good/having the right appearance) and status (popularity).
Yet our achievement of one of these material goals, only leads us to another goal post in our horizon. This is known as the “Hedonic Treadmill”. The Hedonic Treadmill states that what level of wealth or material goods you have – you adapt to it and always want more. This hedonic adaptation is one of the main enemies of happiness.
This is not to suggest that money is not useful. It does make a difference when it buys someone out of the burdens of hunger and homelessness – it changes a person’s state of happiness dramatically. But once basic needs are adequately met – more money does not buy happiness. For example, in their 2010 survey, the US Conference Board reported only 45% of workers surveyed were happy at their jobs – the lowest ranking in 22 years.
Yet what is known about happiness? The field of Positive Psychology has studied happiness for well over 25 years and has concluded that happiness is attainable – within our grasp right now! This relatively new field of scientific research proposes from the study of identical twins, people with almost exactly the same genetic make-up – that approximately 50 % of the differences in our happiness levels is determined by our genes. This is called our “genetic set point or our “genetic set range”. Most of us are born with a certain range of happiness that we fall into most of the time. So even when something really good or really bad happens to us, we return to our genetic set point”. 50% is genetic.
Amazingly, our circumstances like what job we have, how much money we have, our social status, where we live, our health, our age – those things that our society tells us to focus our attention on – they only account for 10% of the differences in our happiness. 10% is circumstances.
This leaves 40% unaccounted for. Positive Psychology theory suggests that there are a great deal you and I can do to become happier right now. That 40% is left for intentional behaviour- things that we can actively do on a regular basis to become happier.
In order to become happier – it is very important that we not adapt to what we are doing but consciously vary what we do. This may involve making small changes, or a lot of changes in our everyday activities. It is change that is important – so in essence, ‘variety is the spice of life’ and can help us to be happier.
It is happiness that can actually help us to then achieve our goals – like improving our relationships, making a better income, be more successful on the job – co-workers like to be around happy colleagues, to live longer, and even become healthier.
Contrary to society’s message that often encourages competition instead of cooperation – it is cooperation that makes us feel happier. Social bonding, social interaction and cooperation are programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans. These intrinsic goals or values are inherently satisfying in and of themselves because they have to do with intrinsic psychological needs all people possess. The three intrinsic goals are personal growth (trying to be who I really am), close connected relationships (friends and loved ones) and community feeling (a sense of wanting the world to be a better place – a desire to help).
Intrinsic goals when put into action, like putting our own self-interests aside in order to do something with someone else, is cooperation over the self-interest of competition.We behave this way because we are by nature social creatures.
Scientists have found that when you put people in a social exchange where they are given the opportunity to cooperate or compete – they will generally cooperate with one another. This state of cooperation elicits dopamine signals that can be measured in the brain – just like measuring the presence of cocaine. In other words, the act of cooperating with another person can, in the right circumstances, feel just as good as taking a drug! So choose Community!!!!
Positive Psychology researchers have concluded that it is success that orbits around happiness. In other words, it is happiness that comes before success. 40 % is intentional behavior.
What can we do with our 40% to become happier?
Here is a “menu” of solutions for you to try on for yourself:
1.Positive Reminiscing – helps us to re-experience positive emotions
2. Positive Anticipation – thinking and writing about an upcoming experience
By thinking and writing about a past or upcoming experience, you reap the benefit of positive emotions – it can be an instant lift to your mood.
Writings include noticing what you smell, hear, see, feel and taste as you describe the scene and the feelings. Who are you with? What are you doing? Focus on the moment.
You can make it as brief or as lengthy as you like . . .
- Name Your Experience:
- leave early on another day
- less traffic on the way home
- it will give the kids more time with my partner/ grandparent. Etc.
- other thoughts?
Writing about a positive experience for three consecutive days can boost mood for at least three months!
3. Practice Capitalization – this involves sharing these positive experiences with others
- Develop more appreciation for the event
- Forge a stronger memory for it
4. Optimistic thinking is a learned skill which can help make a situation better.
- Find positives in negative situations
- Com up with solutions to problems
- Be adaptive – roll with the punches
- Keep your eye on your goal and not the roadblocks along the way
Here is an exercise to try:
Think about a situation you are experiencing and develop 3 optimistic thoughts about that situation (including your ability to get through it).
Example: My boss wants me to work late and I am tired and here are some optimistic thoughts to get through it:
5. The Value of Savouring:
Savoring is slowing down and fully enjoying the present. You are paying close attention, taking delight, and going over life’s momentary pleasures and wonders through thinking, writing, drawing or sharing with others.
It deepens the relationship with the listener as they have recognized the significance the event holds for you.
Overall experiences becoming richer in enjoyment. For example – the simple act of eating a single strawberry – taking in its aroma, feeling its’ skins texture on your tongue and then biting into it and allowing its juiciness to circulate in your mouth before chewing it ever so slowly to get every last flavour morsel before swallowing it. This simple pleasure can make you smile and feel feel happy!
Did you know? Savouring a positive experience for just 15-20 seconds allows it to register in your emotional memory according to neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson.
Did you know our brains are hard-wired for “ingratitude” – this comes from our instinct to survive. We had a need to “fight” to stay alive as we faced the elements – now that is not the case for most of us. We have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our stomach.
Rebelling with a purpose:
The challenge is to rebel against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it (claims Arthur C. Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness)
This means “acting grateful can actually make you grateful”and demonstrates this in a 2003 study in which gratitude-focussed participants (who at baseline did not measure any more grateful or ungrateful than anyone else or change their lives during the study) exhibited increased well-beingthrough a conscious focus on blessings – turning their outlook to one of gratitude and they were happier for it.
Faking it to you make it . . .
“Acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions” (Brooks)
This stimulates two important regions in the brain: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress and the ventral tegmental area , which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feeling of pleasure.
Practicing Gratitude . . .
Harness the positive health aspects of gratitude by:
A. Interior Gratitude:
Make a daily or weekly list of the things you are grateful for
B. Exterior Gratitude:
Express your gratitude toward others on paper – write a thank you note or email.
This can take less than 5 minutes and when recipients were asked to asses how the note actually made them feel it was reported that “After receiving thank-you notes and filling out questionnaires about how it felt to get them, many said they were ‘ecstatic’, scoring the happiness rating at 4 out of 5. The senders typically guessed they’d evoke a 3.” (New York Times Science reporter Heather Murphy). So push your feelings of awkwardness as side – you’ll be happier for it!
C. Be grateful for useless things:
Express thanks for the everyday stuff that you usually take for granted or overlook – like the street lights, smooth roads, fresh food, and so forth.
Did you know? Recording things to be grateful for once a week has been shown to have more benefits than recording daily. Choose what you are most comfortable with doing.
7. The Power of Your Plate . . .
What could have the same effect on our emotional well-being as going from unemployment into a job? What foods cut from from your daily diet could cause a decline in your mental health more than someone who has just been widowed? What has been found to improve mental health statuses in proportion to the amount of consumption of these foods each day? What will eating just one extra portion of any of these particular foods will boost someone’s mental wellbeing by the same amount as walking for an additional ten minutes for eight days over four weeks?
The Results. . .
It is unclear exactly why fresh produce boosts our mental health , past studies suggest: beans, oranges and spinach are rich in vitamin E and C which lower inflammation and internal stress associated with depression. The complex carbohydrates in fruit and vegetable may also boost levels of the feel- good hormone serotonin in the brain.
An interesting note – being unable to afford fresh produce is not thought to be the cause of a diet lacking in fruit or vegetables.People of all economic backgrounds – 78 percent of participants consumed less than the 5 –a-day recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption.
There are many ways to invite happiness to be a part of your life. What will you choose to do to invite happiness in to more of your life?