Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
– Dalai Lama
What does it take to be wise? What does it take to be compassionate? What does it take to be creative? These are all states of being that take mental and emotional discipline, training, and experience to achieve. The state of happiness is no different. It is a state of being that can be achieved through our thoughts and actions. Happiness researchers have identified elements are common to happy people, and the good news is, we can increase our happiness by including these elements in our lives.
What can increase happiness? Many people strive for material things, such as a flash car, a huge flat-screen TV, or expensive clothes in the pursuit of happiness. Others pursue a career or positions of status and power in the search for happiness. However, research shows that only 10% of our happiness is a result of external circumstances, whereas 90% comes from our internal environment, our inner-selves. Of this 90%, 50% of our happiness levels are hard-wired into our genes, but 40% comes from our internal processes of self-reflection, mindfulness and gratitude. Which means we have the opportunity to boost our state of happiness by a whopping 40% by including various practices and elements in our lives (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
Check out 10 ways below that research has found to increase happiness:
- Meditate – meditation is the core practice of mindfulness. Research shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress and even improve immune function (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn, 2007). A daily practice of 20-60 minutes is the most effective way to boost happiness using this tool.
- Connect – we are born to connect! Happiness researchers have found that the number one element for happiness was the strength of our connections with others(Lyubomirsky, 2008). Strong relationships and having social support provides more happiness than income, possessions, IQ, age, gender, ethnicity, or any other factor. So, time spent building and maintaining relationships is always a good investment for increasing happiness.
- Gratitude – positive psychology research has found that gratitude is associated with higher levels of happiness. It helps people to have a positive attitude and get more enjoyment out of their experiences(Emmons, 2007). It also improves their health and helps them to build better relationships. Gratitude helps to appreciate what they have and to focus on the positive. One suggestion is to keep a gratitude journal and note three things each day that you’re grateful for. Another is to add gratitude to your meditation, focusing on a word or phrase to express gratitude. For example, “I’m grateful for the warmth of the sun.”
- Kindness – research has found that giving to friends and strangers decreases stress and contributes to enhanced mental health (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka, Otsui & Fredrickson, 2006). Also, being kind to others and giving to others makes us happier than if we do something or buy something for ourselves. Being kind also set up kind of feedback loop between kindness and happiness. By doing a kind act we become happier, the happier we feel, the more kind acts we do, and then become even happier. An added bonus is that we increase our social connections in this way, and other people are more inclined to be kind to us in return.
- Exercise – depression researcher, Stephen Ilardi (2009) insists that ‘exercise is medicine’ and advocates for it as a powerful anti-depressant, claiming it’s more effective than any pill. Exercise is not just a powerful mood lifter but also a long lasting one. Run, walk, ride, dance, stretch, skip or jump around on a pogo stick, it doesn’t matter so long as you get moving. As long as it gets the heart pumping, it increases energy, gets more oxygen to the brain and increases endorphins, all helping to boost your mood.
- Something to look forward to – make plans for something enjoyable in the future. Often the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. If you can’t take time out for a holiday now or a night out with friends, put something on the calendar. Anticipating future rewards can actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain (Achor, S., 2010).
- Sunshine – the brain’s production of serotonin, which effects mood, is stimulated by bright light; so by increasing the amount of bright light we get this increases serotonin activity, the result being an increased sense of well-being and improved mood (Ilardi, 2009). We can’t get this sort of light indoors, natural sunshine is a hundred times brighter than indoor lighting, so time outside in the sunshine is the best way to get this. Sunshine is also a source of vitamin D, another mood booster. In the winter, or other times when there’s less sunshine, a ‘light box’ is an excellent substitute.
- Spend money, but not on stuff – spend it on experiences like concerts or a night out with friends. This produces more long lasting positive emotion than buying things (Achor, 2010). Spending money on other people, such as family and friends, also makes us happy.
- You are what you think – be mindful of your thoughts; thoughts effect your mood (Williams, et al., 2007). If we think negative thoughts, such as, “It’s going to be a disaster!,” this will cause negative changes in the neurotransmitters and hormones in our brain and therefore, have a negative affect on our mood. However, if we think positively, “It’ll turn out fine,” for example, this will produce more positive neurotransmitters and hormones in our brain, resulting in a better mood.
- Love – Love is the foundation for every one of these happiness enhancers. After all, there’s no point in connecting with others or planning a wonderful experience if an attitude of love is absent. The conclusions researcher, Dr. George Vaillant (2009) came to in relation to a 75-year Harvard study was that there are two pillars of happiness, one being love and the other being not pushing love away. As Vaillant (2009) states, “Happiness is love. Full stop”
Happiness is the ‘goal of goals’ and we cannot leave it to chance.
– Matthieu Ricard
Achor, S (2010). The Happiness Advantage: the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. USA: Crown Publishing Group.
Emmons, R., Ph.D, (2007). Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ilardi, S., (2009). The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. USA: Da Capo Press
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K., & Schkade, D., (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 111-131
Lyubomirsky, S., (2008). The How of Happiness: a scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin
Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., & Fredrickson, B., (2006). Happy People Become Happier Through Kindness: A Counting Kindness Intervention. Journal of Happiness, September, 7 (3): 361-375
Vaillant, G., (2009). Yes, I Stand by My Words, “Happiness Equals Love – Full Stop.” Postive Psychology News.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J., (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. London: The Guiford Press
Article posted 8 September 2015
Maree is a professional counsellor in Wellington.