What makes you happy? This seems like a simple enough question, but really it’s not. Are we talking unbridled jubilance here, or merely a general satisfaction with life? Temporary happiness or long term? If you’re like many people, you have small moments throughout your day that make you happy. But when faced with the general question of whether you are happy in life, there is often room for improvement.
It seems that happiness, for many of us, is the proverbial dangling carrot. Always there, always in view, but slightly out of reach. It’s such a noticeable and universal feeling that, for many years now, there have been studies on the matter. For some, happiness is their ultimate goal in life. For others, it’s something other people have they just can’t seem to get a handle on. Luckily, there are things you can do right now to begin cultivating more happiness in your life.
The Science Of Being Happy
Also known as ‘positive psychology’, studying happiness on a scientific level is having a profound impact on our understanding of our feelings. As the conversation around happiness grows, we learn more and more about how we can easily source our own happiness with simple techniques that mean something to us. Neuroplasticity, another term for the changeability of our brains, is at the forefront of much of the work of positive psychology. (1) Our brains are immensely powerful, and adaptable. For example, our brains are incredible at changing or healing after traumatic injury. (2)
The brain’s ability to heal is fantastic, but the important business about neuroplasticity is really in the potential for adaptation. If one part of your brain suffers trauma, for instance, a lesion, and that trauma affects your brain’s ability to perform a functionally necessary task, your brain will adopt a new way of accomplishing the task. It will allocate other resources to the performance of that function, so you can still accomplish the same things, but now in a new way conducive to your current wiring. (2)
We’ve known for quite a while now that it’s important to mind your thoughts. No good can come from perpetual negative thinking. In fact, as Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D. puts it, “Many negative emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration become problematic when those emotions turn into a more permanent disposition or a habitual outlook on the world.” (3) It’s true what your mother told you, dwelling on the negative will breed more negativity.
Happiness: An Inside Job
So, just think happy thoughts and before you know it, you’ll be happy right? Well…unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
It’s a practice. Happiness, like any deliberate state of being, is something you’ve got to keep working on, in creative ways. You may go to the gym to strengthen your arm, leg, and core muscles, and in this manner, you’ve got to work out your emotional muscles too. Luckily, there are a few research-backed methods you can use to cultivate more happiness in your life.
It’s surprising how unpopular it can be to hang out alone. But it’s also surprising what alone time can do for your personal development. Allowing yourself some time to absorb and process the events of the day, take stock of your own behavior, and quietly calm the mind can have powerful effects on your happiness. (4)
Giving yourself this ‘breathing room’, so to speak, allows you to reflect without judgment on the events of your day on an intimate level. With enough quiet time and care, you can rid yourself of negative self-talk, guilt, or re-hashing of events.
Feel Your Way To Fit
They say that your thoughts become your reality and a recent study backs that up. The study notes that positive feelings have a direct correlation with overall wellness and perceived health. The mortality rates of those with the lowest ‘positive affect’ scores were almost double those with the highest scores. These would be people who gave things such as ‘I feel interested, excited, or strong’ a low, instead of high, rating. (5) Researchers controlled for physical activity level, but it didn’t seem to be as much of a factor on mortality as you might expect. Those with low activity levels but positive thoughts fared better in the long haul than their negative-thinking counterparts. By simply redirecting negative thoughts to positive ones, you might just live longer.
One last happiness hack: dream about the future. Imagine the life you want for yourself in 5 or 10 years. Take your time to go in deep and meditate on the details of what your house will look like, what trip you will take, or what job you will have. Feel yourself already there, sense what it feels like to be this person who has fulfilled their wishes and created their own future. Then, start setting achievable goals toward the life you want. When we’re making progress toward meaningful goals, our happiness increases. (6)
There are many ways to find a pocket of happiness in your day. The trick is to continually bring your thoughts back to a happy state so your brain starts to know that this is your new normal. Easier said than done, sure, but happiness is a practice, and it’s so worth it.