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Hard-wiring Happiness: Little Ways To Build a More Satisfied Life

As far back as recorded history goes, philosophers, scholars, theologians, scientists, and pretty much everyone else on the planet have been studying happiness, how it works and how we achieve it. It has gotten to the point in recent history where the United Nations has begun using happiness as the top measure of a well-functioning society.

But what is happiness, anyways? Most people would probably tell you that happiness is a feeling of delight or joy, such as how I feel when I eat chocolate ice cream or marshmallows. This is true to a point, but what we are searching for is a bit more cognitive and more permanent than that. The simplest definition states that happiness is a sense of meaning and life satisfaction that goes beyond the way you feel in the moment. It is related to how we think, feel, and act, as well as what is happening around us over time. When someone asks you, “Are you happy?” you generally think beyond whether or not you liked your lunch today. Thoughts go through your head like, Do I like my job? Am I ok in my marriage? Are my kids doing well? Do I like how I feel in my own body? And the big one: Do I make enough money? When the answer to these questions is yes, these elements all work together to create life satisfaction, which translates into happiness long-term.

Here is where I remind you not to immediately jump to the conclusion that in order to be happy, you have to be ok with everything. Acceptance of a situation is a big part of preventing misery (which we will get to in a bit), but it does not ensure happiness. Unless you plan to become a Buddist monk who lives in a monastery and practices mindfulness all day, the likelihood of anyone being able to accept every single situation in life fully as-is is about 0%. And that is OK. The notion that we are supposed to be alright with everything is absurd, because we are human and we have feelings and sometimes crappy things just happen.

You also don’t need to have everything. Let’s side step and discuss money for just a second. Take a moment and think about that one person in your life who has all the money they could ever need, but is still miserable. They might have a great family, a nice house, a good job, and all of the things that a person typically desires, but they still feel empty inside. That is because money doesn’t fill that space deep inside a person where happiness lives, and empirically it actually only accounts for a small amount of the variance in how happy a person feels.

Don’t get me wrong, having enough income is important because it buys you freedom from having to worry about basic necessities. According to famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, there is a hierarchy of needs that alter our life satisfaction, the bottom most of which includes basic needs like sleep, food, and safety, which money can help provide. Once the bottom needs are met, we are able to move on to higher order things, like finding where we fit or how we feel inside. If we never are able to meet our basic needs, then we will not have time to focus on these elements that also influence our happiness.

So, what is really related to happiness? The answer to this is twofold, involving both social (outside of you), and personal (within you) factors. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, there are quite a few social factors that influence happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance, for example. When people feel that their environment supports them, allows them opportunities to be themselves, is transparent, and helps ensure their health and welfare, it is easy to see how this translates to overall life satisfaction on a societal scale. These findings also demonstrate how social factors influence our overall well-being as individuals, and ultimately how they impact our happiness. If the environment around us is not supportive, it fosters distrust, worsens mental health outcomes, and in turn negatively impacts the whole system.

Some personal factors that impact happiness include self-esteem, sense of control, extroversion, optimism, and acceptance. How you feel about yourself and your situation in life shape how you rate your level of happiness. If you feel good about who you are and where you are at, and feel like you can impact these things in a positive way, you are more likely to report being happy overall. People with higher levels of optimism are also more likely to focus the positive aspects of a situation, and to believe that the future has good things in store. This attitude is key in fostering resiliency, so people with higher levels of optimism are also better able to face adversity when it occurs.

So, how can we use this information to increase our individual happiness? Given that changing our environment at large is a complex social issue, let’s start with smaller things that we can change and control more immediately. The basic idea is to try to align how we think and act to be positive, so we can feel good as a result.

One of the easiest and fastest ways to work towards a happier you is to start each day with positive purpose: using a small action to increase our positive thoughts and feelings. A popular way to do this is to develop a mantra and go with it. Some people put a quote on their bathroom mirror, some people use self-supportive talk (pep-talks, for example), and others start off with devotions or other spiritual or mindful practices. My personal favorite quote is “Be your own kind of beautiful,” but the possibilities are limitless. Mantras or morning rituals are also nice because they are incredibly quick, usually taking no more than 5 minutes of your time, but they still can make a big difference.

Another smaller change that can create a big impact is to eat a healthier breakfast. Try for one week starting off each day with a balanced breakfast (instead of a donut, granola bar, or nothing), and see how you feel and how your morning is impacted. You might be surprised to see how much just changing breakfast impacts your mood, your food cravings, and your entire day. PS- breakfast sandwiches can be easily made and frozen for on-the-go mornings, and there are tons of healthy recipes on Pinterest.

The one suggestion that I probably mention to everyone for almost every single problem is to get enough sleep. Sleep time is when our bodies rejuvenate, restore, and prepare for the next day. We cannot put goodness out into the world, or even show kindness to ourselves if we have none to give. Consider sleep as a part of the physiological needs from the pyramid you saw earlier, and ensure that you get enough rest so you can take care of more complex items.

The next item that is important to personal happiness for most people is to have friends. I know, I know, there isn’t always time… but friends, or some type of reliable social support is important in 2 ways. The first is that we have somewhere to go when we are in need, which increases our sense of security. The second is that we have someone we can help and support, which increases our self-efficacy, and in turn, our happiness. Humans are social creatures by nature, so surround yourself with a few others you can trust, and you will find that you will be happier for it.

The last big suggestion is to practice acceptance. Acceptance means to embrace a situation for what it is and leave it at that, which can be key to life satisfaction. There will always be something that you cannot change right now. Maybe you cannot change jobs, maybe you have stretch marks from pregnancy, or maybe you have been through something difficult recently. It is things like this that sometimes require us to search ourselves for the things that we can change, and then to accept what we cannot.

Acceptance is not giving permission for unhealthy situations to remain the way they are, but rather helps us cope with things that are out of our control. It takes away the burden and the misery of worrying, wondering, and wishing for something different when the situation cannot be changed right now. To accept something also does not mean to never try to change again, but rather to decide to live in the moment and deny your mind the ability to dwell on un-helpful things. Again, thinking positively can lead to feeling good, which translates to long-term happiness.

I am sure that you have guessed by now that happiness is a process and not an overnight venture. A positive mindset and present focus is something that requires some daily effort, but it does get easier over time. Feeling more satisfied with life on a regular basis often requires smaller goals, increased flexibility, and reminders that everything can change eventually. As always, if you find yourself struggling or would like help figuring out how to start feeling better sooner, you know who to call. :)


Dr. Nelson

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