As we celebrate the beginning of another year, most of us will commit to making positive changes in our daily routines with the hopes of improving the quality of our lives. Our list of positive changes often include the intention of finding more time for ourselves, living more "authentically", consuming less and experiencing more, volunteering our talents and generally being more kind to ourselves and those around us. At the end of the day, all of these intentions are probably related to our simple desire for more happiness or sustainable contentment within our lives. Is there, in fact, a recipe or a path towards experiencing increased happiness or are we limited in our "happiness potential" by predetermined factors such as genetics, personality and life circumstances ?
The positive psychology research that has exploded over the last two decades has unearthed some interesting findings with regards to the road to happiness. Author and happiness researcher Shawn Achor (The Happiness Advantage) has concluded that it is easier for most of us to be successful than it is to be happy. He speculates that the reason for this ironic reality is that we actually accept the notion that we must work towards becoming successful and we put strategies in place to guide us towards our goals. However, when it comes to our happiness, we either expect that circumstances, predisposition and genetics have total control over the "happiness" meter or we just expect that we will, one day, miraculously wake up happy. Either way, many of us do little to actively cultivate our own happiness.
Shawn Achor's position is in agreement with other happiness researchers (Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky) that it is possible to increase one's feelings of happiness with a little effort and well-directed intentionality. The science on happiness seems to suggest that the choices we make has an almost equal influence on happiness as do our genetics and predispositions. The "happiness pie" as we may refer to it, has been divided into 10% dependent upon external circumstances, 50% dependent upon genetics and 40% dependent upon choices we make.
On the Path to Happiness......
Smile and Laugh More Often
Research since the 1970's has demonstrated the effect of a facial feedback loop on our emotional state. Using a variety of test methods over the last 30 years, researchers have consistently found that our emotional state is reinforced and perhaps even driven by our facial expressions. Our brains are paying attention to the muscular activation of the facial muscles so that when we smile, we increase our feelings of happiness. Laughing will have the same effect and will also lead to an increase in the release of dopamine, a natural opiate.
The practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by 25% (Bob Emmons, Professor of Psychology and author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier). Emmons' research involved study participants writing daily in a gratitude journal for 2-3 minutes. The specific task was to outline 3 things the participants were grateful for within each 24 hour period. The participants were encouraged to acknowledge simple pleasures (clean socks, a good cup of coffee) as well as more profound blessings.
Spend Time with Happy People
Happiness is contagious. Using data that tracked 5000 people over 20 years, sociologist and researcher Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) concluded that happiness spreads through social networks quite efficiently. When people who are close to us in physical proximity and/or in social connection become happier, we also become happier. The closer the connection (physically and/or socially), the more profound the effect, up to a maximum effect of approximately 15% happier. More surprisingly, the effect can transcend direct links and reach a third degree of separation. So, if your friend's friend becomes happier, you will become happier also, even though you do not even know the person.
Engage in Simple Acts of Kindness
Research has consistently demonstrated that almost any act of kindness will boost our levels of happiness almost immediately. There is no need for the kindness to be random or anonymous or of a specific nature (Sonja Lyuobomirsky, The Myths of Happiness). Simple things like opening doors for strangers, mowing your neighbor's lawn and doing your roommates dishes can improve your level of happiness. Scientists have found that oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) is released when we practice acts of kindness. This lovely little neurotransmitter produces feelings of contentment and attachment and this may explain the immediate boost in our level of happiness when we engage in kind behaviour.
Just Do It!
Exercise, that is. Although it is a well-known fact that physical exercise increases endorphins (feel good hormones) and reduces cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones), scientists are discovering that the full mechanism by which exercise improves mood is somewhat of a mystery. Dr. Jack Raglin emphasizes that several studies have shown that even mild exercise, performed at 40% of your maximal heart rate can lift your mood for up to 12 hours. At this level of intensity, the hormonal response does not occur and cannot be the mechanism behind the magic.
Deepen Social Connections
Choose quality of connection over quantity. It seems like an obvious statement, but many of us find our time is quickly consumed on social media, with little time left over for more meaningful connections. While it may feel exciting to have many "friends" via our Facebook page and many followers on our Instagram accounts, it is not the number of friends we have that has any bearing on our level of happiness. It is the nature of the relationships, the quality of the commitment and the depth of the connection that matters. According to researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman (2002), people who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier than those who do not have strong ties to other people. These researchers studied 200 university students at the University of Illinois and they found that the students with the strongest ties to friends and family and the greatest commitment to spending time with their loved ones consistently demonstrated the greatest level of happiness.
Get a Better Night's Sleep
University of California, Berkeley Professor Matthew Walker designed an experiment to demonstrate the most obvious truth that any Mother could attest to about her children's mood and sleep patterns......inadequate sleep causes the emotional centre of the brain to run amok. Walker effectively demonstrated that lack of sleep causes the brain to inadequately regulate mood and emotions. He had subjects view a series of images that were neutral to disturbing in content. Sleep deprived subjects were 60% more reactive to negative images compared to subjects who were well rested. Furthermore, a recent Gallup poll found that people who get adequate sleep are more likely to rate their lives as happier. And if you need further convincing that sleep is critical to happiness, Jawbone, as in the fitness tracker high tech device that many of us wear, recently published its data on the sleep and happiness relationship. Their data suggests that people who get 8-9.5 hours of sleep per night wake up the happiest.
These are only a select number of known daily habits that can elevate your level of happiness. Try out a few for yourself for the next 21 days and watch the magic unfold!
May you find your way to more happiness this year...greeting each day with a smile on your face and gratitude in your heart. May you seek to be kind in your thoughts and your actions, and may you find yourself surrounded by happy people wherever you may travel. May you choose to please your body and soul with movement, and may you forgo your Smartphone for your deeper connections. And may you be blessed with a year full of restful sleeps to restore you.
Live well, Be Happier!