The pursuit of happiness is one of the most basic and universal quests. It is one of the first lines of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, reaching it is elusive.
The ancient Greeks measured happiness by examining two aspects: hedonia (short term pleasure) and eudaimonia (the condition of living well).
Throughout the years, the definition of happiness has modernized. Nowadays, there are articles, seminars, and TED talks on the subject of happiness. It seems that everyone has their recipe for happiness.
So, what is happiness? How do you reach it?
Here are some helpful habits that can help you reach happiness.
Because they sit within the umbrella of mindfulness, it can be easy to confuse self-reflection and meditation. However, self-reflection is the act of creating an inner awareness of what is happening at a subconscious level. It requires time and commitment.
Due to a hectic lifestyle, it may feel like you are going through life on auto-pilot— operating on set behavioral patterns. Unknowingly, these patterns prevent you from enjoying the moment and feed the beliefs that you may have created regarding yourself or others. Self-reflection provides a break from these thoughts. It asks you to reflect on the recurring thoughts or narratives that whirl in your mind.
Taking time for introspection allows you to step back and take stock of what is happening in your life.
To make an analogy, introspection is like Marie Kondo-ing your life where you sort your subconscious thoughts and analyze them to better understand who you are and what you want out of life.
Aside from the mental health benefits, self-reflection also has physical benefits. Practicing introspection, specifically problem-solution based introspection, can help calm anxiety, increase self-confidence, and boost creativity.
Introspection’s link to increased creativity is further explained in Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery (1996). In his book, he defines “Flow” as a state of being completely mindful and immersed in a task, so much so, that the world falls away. The state of Flow demands constant introspection and questioning of what is happening at that moment, and utter focus. All thoughts and actions flow from the previous one. In his book, he highlights that while we are in the state of Flow, we do not experience happiness, but once out of that state, we are wrapped in a feeling of fulfillment and contentment. Though there are many situations where you can feel immersed in a task, Flow must be an engaging or challenging activity that leads to personal and cultural growth.
Take time to find the aspects of your life that bring you joy, and you might find yourself feeling a bit happier.
Gratitude is the quality of being thankful or appreciative of what one receives, whether tangible or intangible.
Society conditions us to believe that our happiness is linked to wealth. Thus, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by all the tasks you feel like you need to perform. During this rush of activity, it is easy to forget to be grateful for the present moment.
But, practicing gratitude has its benefits.
Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California- Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, conducted a study to see if practicing gratitude improved a person’s well-being. As part of the study, 201 undergraduate students were given a packet of 10 weekly reports. Of those students, 65 of them were asked to write down five things they were thankful or grateful for in their lives. At the end of the study, Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough found that the group that focused on moments of gratitude was more optimistic and healthier. (page 381).
So, how can you practice gratitude?
In a 2013 TED Talk, Brother David Steindl-Rast talked about how gratitude increases happiness. He said, “There are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.”
When you learn to acknowledge the present moment and all that it brings, you can see it for what it is– an opportunity. In rising to meet this opportunity, you open the door to self-discovery and growth. Each moment offers you the chance to learn a necessary virtue, be it patience, faith, conviction, love, or strength. It is up to you to decide what becomes of this opportunity.
During my research for this article, I was reminded of what the guest speaker at my commencement said. She urged us to “be of service.”
Many successful people like her have credited altruism to their success. But is it true? Can being compassionate make us happier?
Yes. A 2017 study found that altruism triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the reward processing region associated with pleasure. Despite the debate surrounding whether humans are inherently selfish or selfless, some evolutionary scientists argue that humans are hardwired to be selfless. It is to our benefit to be empathetic because it is how we develop social instincts and ensure our survival.
Not only does compassion establish a bond between both parties, but it also makes each of them feel better.
The benefits also extend beyond the emotional level. A study done by UCLA fellow, Leonardo Christov- Moore and Marco Iacoboni identified the regions responsible for altruism and found how it affects us neurologically. When practicing compassion, the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, and anterior insula become more active. These regions are responsible for behavior and impulse control. Their studies proved that those who were more generous were also better decision-makers.
The act of being compassionate is typically proposed as giving to the needy, but there are many ways to be selfless. Doing volunteer work or donating your time to listen to a distressed friend can be acts of compassion.
You cannot be compassionate without also being kind. Kindness is the quality of being considerate or generous towards someone.
As explained by Laura Aknin from the University of British Columbia in her joint study with Harvard Business, kindness cultivates kindness. Because you felt happier after doing something nice for someone, you are more likely to do it again.
But, what happens in your brain when you practice kindness?
Similar to when you practice compassion, your body releases endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. Additionally, being kind lowers your cortisol levels; therefore making you feel calmer.
Practice a physical activity
Sometimes, finding the motivation to go to the gym is hard. But, now there are more reasons to go to the gym other than making gains.
One of those beneficial connections has to do with the way exercise affects the brain. Not only does working out increase your endorphins but also it encourages neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to re-route and form new connections.
The benefits of physical exercise on the brain range from increased blood flow to the brain, increased volume in gray matter, increased hippocampal activity (which helps fight depression), memory improvement and nerve cell growth and nerve cell connection.
Though most neuroscientists recommend aerobic exercise, regardless of what kind of movement you do, whether it is dancing, biking, or going for a stroll, the beneficial effects of physical activity are undeniable.
To quote Elle Woods: ” Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.”
Have you noticed that you’re more productive and upbeat when you get enough sleep?
Studies conducted by Ji-Eun Shin from Seoul Nation University and Jung Ki Kim from the University of Science and Technology in South Korea found that a lack of sleep leads to development in a dichotomous mindest– what they called zero-sum beliefs. Viewing the world through this lens can lead you to feel unhappy with your current situation and decrease your baseline level of happiness.
As a self-proclaimed skeptic, I tend to be wary of optimism. Perhaps because I typically associate blind optimism with delusion.
However, optimism is not a state of delusion. It is a choice.
Optimism can be divided into two categories— dispositional/ attributional optimism and explanatory optimism. Explanatory optimism, analyzing a situation, can lead to a happier life.
Explanatory optimism is to look at an event and choose to focus on the positive outcomes rather than the negative ones. It requires us to disrupt our default pattern of thinking and to be hopeful for future positive developments. Depending on the circumstance, it may be difficult to do.
Science proves that those who develop patterns of looking for positive experiences and outcomes in their daily lives tend to be more content. And, also healthier. Research in Finland found that optimism lowered the risk of cardiovascular diseases in 616 middle-aged men, specifically hypertension.
We’ve all heard the phrase “treat yourself.” Though at times it seems self-indulgent, treating yourself improves your happiness.
Rewarding yourself makes you feel energized, content, and cared for. It serves as encouragement for good behavior and prompts you to continue developing good behavioral patterns.
There are two different types of reward systems– internal and external. An example of an external reward system would be treating yourself to a nice meal or a day to the spa. Whereas internal refers to the feelings the result produced. For example, a feeling of accomplishment after finishing a difficult project. Though these two forms of treating yourself are valid, it is shown that internal rewards are long-lasting and encourage you to develop patterns that will yield that result again.
Do you practice any of the habits mentioned above? Which ones have been helpful to you? Let us know in the comments below.
Christensen, J. (2017, June 11). Want to be happy and successful? Try compassion. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/12/health/compassion-happiness-training/index.html
Christov-Moore, L., Sugiyama, T., & Grigaityle, K. (2017, March 21). Increasing generosity by disrupting Prefrontal cortex. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from Leonardo. doi:10.1080/17470919.2016.1154105
Craig, H. (2020, May 19). The Psychology, Theory, and Science of Happiness (+ 16 Best Articles). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://positivepsychology.com/psychology-of-happiness/
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004, February). Flow, the secret to happiness. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness?language=en